“The journalistic mission remains at its simplest: know your patch and use your knowledge to try to tell readers what’s actually going on.”– Katharine Murphy, Journalism Professor & Guardian Australia’s deputy political editor.
Is it right for a political journalist to simply quote a politician’s comments without challenging their veracity or wisdom?
The answer in Alberta, and I wager most of the civilized world, is no.
Don Braid, a political columnist for the Calgary Herald, learned this lesson the hard way.
Braid, a seasoned political journalist, got a hiding this week for a column on what Jason Kenney has heard from rural Albertans. As much as I like Braid, the criticism was justified.
Kenney said the UCP’s rural supporters are worried about (1) the escalation in rural crime and (2) Alberta’s response to BC’s objection to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Braid set out Kenney’s response to these issues; but did not ask Kenney to explain why his solutions had merit.
By allowing Kenney’s words to stand unchallenged, Braid failed to tell readers “what’s actually going on”.
Who, What, Where, When, Why and How
Here’s what Kenney told Braid:
Rural crime: Kenney said the province needs to confront rising rural crime with more RCMP officers and faster response times. He said the problem must be tackled “even if that means more spending” because public safety is a government’s top priority.
Given that “more spending” is conservative code for “increased taxes” and given Kenney’s sensitivity to the T-word, Braid should have pushed Kenney to elaborate.
The province provides rural RCMP policing under a contract with the feds. What is Kenney advocating: a province wide tax hike to cover the cost of rural policing, a local levy for additional police protection in crime prone areas, or an increase in the federal share of rural policing? The first suggestion impacts all Albertans, the second two do not.
Trans Mountain: Kenney wants Ottawa to declare Trans Mountain to be in the national interest. He’d be tougher on BC and would consider denying permits for oil already in the pipeline on its way to BC, imposing tolls on BC natural gas moving through Alberta to the US, and retaliating against BC goods coming through Alberta by stopping such goods for “safety inspections”
These are ridiculous suggestions.
Braid should have pressed Kenney to explain how he would bring them about. Specifically, Braid should have asked Kenney:
- Why is declaring Trans Mountain to be in the “national interest” helpful given the pipeline is already under federal jurisdiction?
- What statute gives Alberta the jurisdiction to retroactively “deny” permits for oil that were granted by the federal regulator (NEB) when it approved the Trans Mountain pipeline in 1953.
- How would Alberta impose tolls on BC natural gas given the authority to approve and increase tolls resides with the NEB, not Alberta, and were set by the NEB when it approved pipeline applications made by companies like Westcoast, TransCanada and Alliance after a bid process among the pipeline companies and their shippers.
- Why does Kenney think it’s okay to waste taxpayers’ money to pay safety inspectors to “inspect” BC goods coming into Alberta. What about rail cars and airplanes carrying goods from BC and overseas, would they be harassed, ahem, “inspected” as well?
No one is suggesting Braid should sign up for university courses in pipeline regulation and interprovincial trade, but a few “who, what, where, when, why, and how” questions would have exposed Kenney’s suggestions for what they are–political puffery totally devoid of substance.
When Braid failed to call Kenney on his proposals he gave them credibility and left Albertans misinformed.
Rise of the Reader
Katharine Murphy says the Age of the Great Disruption (shift to digital journalism) triggered the rise of the reader. Readers are no longer content to give feedback on the letters page, they’re busy talking to and hassling journalists in the comments section, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Braid experienced this first hand after he published his column. Economist Andrew Leach and others took Braid to task on Twitter for reporting Kenney’s suggestions without adding a countervailing perspective.
Braid responded by saying “it’s noteworthy that after writing about eight positive columns in a row about Notley, I quote Kenney extensively in one and get raked over.”
He’s missed the point. The fuss isn’t about writing positive columns about Notley and quoting Kenney once, it’s about giving Kenney’s ludicrous suggestions credibility by failing to point out they’re factually groundless.
Katharine Murphy says the days of the placid news cycle which amplified “…the messages of politicians in [an] orderly and linear fashion…” are long gone. Today’s news is a cycle of “constant cross-current, contention and disruption.” Murphy admits it’s hard “to keep … your nerve and your clarity in such conditions.”
But political journalists have an obligation to try regardless of who’s sitting across the table spinning fantastic stories about why they’re the best choice for premier.