Opinion

The media should know better but we keep falling for Trudeau's PR: Robyn Urback

Leaks are often deliberate, calculated moves. "Spontaneous" run-ins are carefully set up. And public photobombs by politicians jogging through prom shoots are very rarely coincidences.

Few things in politics happen by accident — 'photobombs' included

It doesn't bode well for public trust in the media to be so easily fooled by government attempts at manipulation. (Adam Scotti/Cam Corrado)

There's an adage in politics that nothing happens by accident. While the current White House administration seems to be doing its damnedest to disprove that principle (Hold up — I *wasn't* supposed to tell the Russians about classified intel we got from Israel?), in normal political ecosystems it is still, by and large, true. 

Leaks are often deliberate, calculated moves. "Spontaneous" run-ins are carefully set up. And public photobombs by politicians in their Sunday sweats usually involve some sort of prior co-ordination.

Anyone who has worked in politics or covered politics or even just paid attention to politics should know that. And with that knowledge should come the impulse to resist whatever feel-good story the government has cooked up for its latest PR campaign. Instead, last week, the Canadian media all but devoured it. Tell us the one about the cool PM again, Liberal communications team…

Trudeau goes for a jog

The story goes like this: Justin Trudeau went for a jog in Vancouver, and his personal photographer, Adam Scotti, snapped some pictures as part of "a little side project to document the places we go and the runs we go on."

As might happen when one wanders out in public, the prime minister passed by some people — in this case, a group of kids taking pictures on the boardwalk before prom.  

Scotti captured the moment the prime minister jogged past the oblivious teens: a perfect picture for the "Check Out Our Hip PM" file. Indeed, it was a great photo for the Team Trudeau scrapbook — but not exactly one for national news.

Yet media across the country lapped it up.

"Jogging Justin Trudeau Photobombs Vancouver Prom Students" the Toronto Star reported.

"Yeah, but Did Justin Trudeau Photobomb Your Prom?" was the headline on the Montreal Gazette story.

And CBC, it must be said, also covered it: "Trudeau Jogged Through a Vancouver Prom on the Seawall." International media, naturally, picked up the story, too.

If this had been the first time the media got suckered into turning a staged Trudeau photo-op into a story, it would be a little more forgivable. But we've seen it plenty of times before: when Trudeau posed with a bridal party during a 2014 wedding, for example, or balanced his son Hadrien on one hand, or took the Montreal subway after his election win.

Trudeau photo-op-turned-story has happened plenty of times before. (Adam Scotti/Twitter)

Governments will always try to manufacture certain images and impressions. That was clearly the strategy behind former prime minister Stephen Harper's 24 Seven videos, which were nominally about giving Canadians a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the life of the prime minister, but veritably about softening Harper's rather stoic public image.

It was little more than a lame vanity project, and  plenty of journalists called it out as such. Team Trudeau is manufacturing another lame vanity project, just in a slightly different form.

It doesn't bode well for public trust in the media to be so easily fooled by government attempts at manipulation. To be fair, there is often incredible pressure on digital editors in newsrooms to chase "clicks," and a neat picture of Canada's photogenic PM will almost always deliver.

But the ephemeral traffic bump is hardly worth the perception that the media is doing the government's grunt work — it is demonstrably not, but plenty of Canadians nevertheless have that impression. We shouldn't feed it.

It is our responsibility to decipher between PR and news, and a picture from the prime minister's personal photographer is not a coincidence, and not news. We should know better.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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