Canadian trust in journalism is wavering. Here's what CBC News is doing about it
Recent survey found 49 % of Canadians think journalists are purposely trying to mislead
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While CBC generally does quite well on lists of most-trusted companies in Canada, there's no question that faith in journalism — around the world — is fragile and wavering.
What happens to a country when it cannot agree on facts and truth or trust the institutions responsible for delivering them?
We don't have to look far to see how easily a civil society can seemingly begin to unravel. In the United States, still reeling from the deadly attack on its Capitol in January, there are millions of people who wrongly believe the presidential election was stolen by widespread fraud — though it's important to note more Americans believe it was a legitimate contest than not.
A new report by communications firm Edelman suggests Canada is not immune to the tsunami of institutional distrust at play south of the border.
The annual online survey of 1,500 Canadians found trust declined in all of our institutions after a significant but momentary uptick at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those gains have disappeared for all sectors, from business to religion to academia to government. Edelman says Canada faces "a crisis in leadership and expert credibility."
For most journalists who believe they are on the side of the angels of truth and accuracy, Page 16 of the Edelman Trust Barometer report is sobering. It offers a set of figures in big, bold font that may land as a rather jarring slap in the face to those of us who care deeply about Canadian journalism:
49 per cent of Canadians surveyed agree that journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations (emphasis mine).
52 per cent agree that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.
52 per cent of Canadians agree the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan.
(The survey has a comparable margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)
If these figures surprise you, perhaps look no further than to the bottom of this blog, where you will undoubtedly find critics assailing the CBC as a purveyor of biased "fake news" — a charge often echoed on social media and elsewhere. Sure, some of these critics are provocateurs; some will have not read this blog before they begin to critique. But others genuinely believe there are hidden motivations and political agendas behind our storytelling; that we are biased, deliberately misleading or failing our mandate to deliver accurate, fair, balanced and impartial news.
Who's to blame?
Are we looking at the gasping canary in the coal mine of Canadian democracy?
Plenty of blame has already been dished out for the growing distrust in news media. Some point to the elimination of the U.S. fairness doctrine in the late 1980s and the rise of shock talk radio, then the splintering of audiences on cable TV, then the internet, and later social media and algorithmic filter bubbles that tend to reinforce one's own world view.
Some blame the growth of punditry over reporting as the ad-supported business model of journalism began to disintegrate and newsrooms shrank or disappeared.
Some media outlets, especially in the U.S., have picked sides as the polarization of their audiences deepened. Others have seriously blurred the lines between what is a journalist, anchor, pundit and columnist.
And, of course, there's Donald Trump. The former U.S. president's persistent efforts to repeatedly delegitimize mainstream press as the "enemy of the people" and "fake news" shaped and hardened public attitudes.
As trust has eroded, journalists have found themselves increasingly targeted and harassed. The growing perils of doing journalism in the U.S. were explored in this excellent panel discussion hosted last week by the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault on behalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). It's worth a watch. And yes, we are seeing increased harassment of Canadian journalists in the field.
What CBC is doing to rebuild trust in journalism
As Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC has taken a very active role on the "trusted journalism" file. Here's what we are doing to try to earn and keep your trust in these skeptical times while also battling the growing scourge of disinformation. A few recent measures:
CBC News is a member of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), an effort to establish globally recognized standards of trustworthiness in news, led by Journalists without Borders, the European Broadcasting Union and Agence France-Presse. As part of a recent pilot, we submitted a 70-page questionnaire on our practices for an independent review and hope to share the results in the near future.
CBC/Radio-Canada has been a member of the Trusted News Initiative (TNI) since its inception in 2019. The TNI brings together global news organizations and tech platforms to combat disinformation. It created a real-time, early warning system to flag serious disinformation that may pose a threat to life or the integrity of the electoral process. It has been activated for the general elections in the U.K., Taiwan, Myanmar and the U.S., as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. The TNI will host a Trust in News conference later this month.
CBC/Radio-Canada has joined with the BBC, the New York Times and Microsoft in support of an effort to develop Project Origin, an open standard for confirming the authenticity of content from trusted sources to fight "deep fake" video news generated by artificial intelligence. This is a new application of established technology to digitally verify the authenticity of our news content when it appears on other online platforms.
CBC News is part of the Trust Project, an international partnership with tech and media companies to increase transparency and accuracy in online news. CBC policies on transparent labels, corrections, bylines and links to our JSP on our digital pages have become a model for other partners in the project.
To improve transparency, we launched a new corrections and clarifications website, a single destination that aggregates our journalistic corrections from TV, radio and digital in one spot. It mirrors a similar site maintained by our French news service at Radio-Canada.
We are accountable to an independent ombudsman for meeting our journalistic standards and practices and their core principles of accuracy, fairness, balance, impartiality and integrity. Last year, we wrote 1,504 full-length responses to members of the public who complained about some aspect of our journalism. Some sought reviews by the ombudsman, who publishes all of the findings. I know of no other media organization in Canada as responsive to audience concerns about its journalism as the CBC.
CBC journalists are allowed to provide analysis, but not opinion, which we leave to external contributors, regular panellists and expert guests who provide context to the stories we cover. (An explanation of the difference between analysis and opinion is here.) It has been our practice for many years to require regular panellists on our programs disclose on air if they have a conflict with an issue being discussed (you can read bios for the panellists on our flagship daily politics show, Power & Politics, here). We are increasing our vigilance with experts who appear in all of our stories and programs, requiring the same live on-air disclosure for any ties to or conflicts with an issue being discussed.
We are standardizing how we label opinion and first-person columns by non-staff contributors on digital, for editorial consistency and to ensure there is no confusion for our audience about what is CBC News reporting. Importantly, we will ensure these labels appear prominently when the columns are shared on social media and other third-party platforms. Opinion applies to a range of sharp, focused outside commentary while first-person columns feature compelling personal stories of Canadians in their own words.
These worthy initiatives notwithstanding, the audience's trust will ultimately be won or lost on the day-to-day work of our journalists. That begins with an approach to news coverage that is open-minded, fair and genuinely curious. It means challenging our assumptions, testing every fact, avoiding errors and admitting them quickly and transparently when they occur.
It means listening to understand. Does every Canadian we serve believe we will give them and the stories they care about a fair shake? Until the answer is yes, there's more work to be done.
As always, I trust you will let me know what else we can be doing to earn and keep your trust.