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Cutting Through BC Government Boilerplate

Journalists are fed up with canned talking points in response to questions, but are they better than nothing?

David P Ball 9 Sep

David P. Ball is a freelance writer and photojournalist on Coast Salish territories.

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Premier Christy Clark with reporters at her first post-election press conference. Some journalists think it's getting harder to get politicians to answer tough questions. Photo by David P. Ball.

It's a frequent dilemma for many reporters: we request a government interview for its side of a news story, and instead we're offered an emailed statement -- often a series of pre-prepared talking points, sometimes ignoring our actual questions.

So I wasn't surprised this week when I requested a five-minute phone interview with the minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, for a Tyee story about grizzly bear hunting. Granted, as with much daily reporting, few hours remained until my deadline, and an apologetic spokesperson warned me the minister was in meetings all afternoon, but he'd try his best.

After the day ended, I received a courteous email full of very helpful statistics about bear populations, hunting regulations, and protected area sizes. I could attribute them as quotes directly from the minister.

But to suggest a human being would actually speak in sentences such as "1.16 million hectares" or "sustainable human-caused mortality rates" stretches credibility.

'I'll refuse to publish what they send us'

The practice of emailed government statements has some reporters and editors questioning whether we should be quoting what are obviously politicians' cautious, canned talking points. Others say it's merely a matter of convenience, given the dozens of interview requests a day. Fairly representing both sides of a story is more important than refusing canned quotes on principle.

The debate surfaced on Twitter and an online journalist forum on Sept. 4 after reporters circulated a blog post complaining about media's acceptance of government statements, which blogger (and former Times Colonist editorial writer) Paul Willcocks decried as "self-serving" and "uninformative."

The strategy succeeds, he wrote, only because journalists reprint such statements. "The solution is simple," Willcocks wrote. "The media should just say no when offered an emailed response and report the government or organization would not provide the minister or anyone to answer questions."

The Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith defended his paper's reluctance to print emailed government responses.

"If they send a canned statement in a news release, that's fine," Smith told me in a phone interview. "But if their fallback position to answering questions is to send out emailed statements, they're not serving the public.

"We don't even know who writes these statements. They'll quote the minister, but did the premier's office write it? Who the hell knows what goes on here? When I have questions unanswered -- and instead, attributable statements from people I don't even know made those statements -- I'm going to push back."

Smith believes the problem has worsened over the past decade, since Gordon Campbell's 2001 election.

"You want to engage somebody in a discussion and ask questions," he added. "Questions are very powerful tools.

"Communications people understand that, sometimes to a greater extent than reporters. A question demands an answer... the public affairs bureau has hordes of people to deal with media relations, at an astronomical cost to taxpayers, yet they feel they should be emailing statements. To me, that's not good enough. We'll take the information, but there are times where I'll refuse to publish what they send us."

A fear of being held accountable?

As a freelance reporter, I have been granted one sole interview with a B.C. minister in the past year -- Mary Polak -- despite dozens of such requests. But it hasn't always been this way.

Long gone are my volunteer student newspaper days, a decade ago, when former attorney general Geoff Plant would always return calls from his cellphone -- as he boarded an airplane, walked between meetings or concluded his workday. He'd candidly answer my questions and respond directly to criticisms of his policies. (Smith agreed that Plant's openness to the press was an exception to the rule.)

"The big fear is that media doesn't perform its job of holding government accountable, and instead parrots an official narrative," said Candis Callison, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia. "A reporter's job is to make every effort to hold public officials accountable, to act as a surrogate for the public.

"It behooves public officials to make themselves available. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a fear of being held accountable to the press. Gaps are emerging between the well-crafted statement and the off-the-cuff remark. Yet our democracy rests on the press being able to perform this function."

When she reported in the U.S., Callison recalls being amazed at how extensively a public relations approach had affected business reporting.

"Now I've come back to Canada, I see the long hand of public relations in Canadian politics," she says. "It's changed a lot.

"If you look back at old film reels of Pierre Trudeau, he waded right out into the scrums! It's a completely different mentality about the role of press in society -- about seeing reporters as in dialogue with them, in a conversation, as opposed to issuing statements."

'It's obviously been vetted at some point'

Is the phenomenon of emailed statements as endemic as some journalists decry? And if there is a trend, is it actually a problem, given that we're at least getting something of the government's perspective?

I decided to email Premier Christy Clark's communications director, Ben Chin. He phoned back only three minutes after I hit send.

"I was going to send you an emailed response," he chuckled, "but figured I should probably phone you."

Chin, a former CBC and CTV reporter himself, took issue with my premise -- that government ministries are relying more and more on emailed statements -- and insisted it's more about convenience and scheduling.

"I know that different people have different views on this," he said, "but I'm not aware of any plan underfoot saying, 'The plan is to respond with emailed statements.'"

"Having been a former journalist, I understand where you're coming from. It's the journalist's choice how comfortable they feel with written statements or not. That is the challenge, right? You're up against legitimate deadlines, and any minister, on any given day, is up against their own deadlines and appointments. The two aren't always going to work out."

He said he gets roughly a dozen interview requests on a busy news day, but the premier simply can't be available for every one of them.

"With the premier, quite often, if she's stuck in a cabinet meeting and someone wants an answer -- and I can't get her today -- I'll say, 'She has said this in the past, can I send you that?'" he explained. "Written statements, to me, are just second best to having the person there, and only because we can't get the person.

"More often, it's the reporters who say, 'Can you at least provide a statement then if the premier is not available?'"

The Georgia Straight's Smith traces such scheduling difficulties to what he said was an early Gordon Campbell policy to only allow ministers and other politicians to speak to media, not bureaucrats, scientists or staffers -- a policy Chin said simply doesn't exist.

What about Smith's concern that reporters cannot verify if a canned quote actually contains the words of the minister being questioned -- or to hold them accountable for the words issued in their names?

"If anybody gives you a statement attributable to a minister, you can safely take it as such," he assured me. "It's obviously been vetted at some point, and signed off on.

"It's been like this everywhere I've worked -- when I worked in the Ontario government, in a Crown agency, in the private sector, and when I was a reporter myself."

Vancouver Sun investigative reporter Chad Skelton agreed there's a problem if officials are avoiding questions by relying on canned notes. But he questioned whether reporters should refuse to print them outright.

"I understand and share the frustrations with emailed statements," he said. "But I don't see how you can unilaterally say we won't report them if they contain valuable info.

"Journalists, in an ideal world, are a stand-in for the public. We're supposed to be asking questions the public wants answered from those in power. That's why people should be concerned. If all governments are doing is sending out boilerplate statements instead of answering questions and concerns the public has, that's not being very accountable... But I don't find it the case that we never get to interview a minister provincially."

Skelton's approach, he said, is to include all information important to a story, but to alert readers to canned notes. He also tries to avoid using attributed statements as direct quotes.

"The biggest problem is that you can't ask follow-up questions," he explained. "We should push for interviews by phone.

"But it's a more fundamental question: to what extent can journalists pick the terms of how we get information? I don't see how, ethically, you can say, 'I'm going to pretend I didn't get that,' or 'I'm not going to report that.' It's still information."

'Total control of the message'

Another criticism of emailed responses is the way they can avoid embarrassing gaffes or challenges to the official government line. Well-crafted and sparse, government statements "give them total control over the message," argues Donald Gutstein, adjunct professor of communications at Simon Fraser University.

"There are no misstatements," he told me in a phone interview. "Misspeaking in media scrums just doesn't happen. Every word is figured out in advance and vetted by the powers that be."

However, the author of Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy cautioned that politicians can still sidestep and avoid difficult questions even in live interviews, and even when they're repeated in different forms. But beyond being persistent and alerting readers that a statement was pre-prepared, there isn't much journalists can do when sent an email in lieu of an interview.

"The media themselves are supposed to not be players in the news cycle, but just reporting or commenting," he said. "So if they try and push it, it looks suspicious.

"I think governments have just found these points of vulnerability in the media and successfully exploited them... I see emails as a way of making sure only the government message gets out -- just repeating statistics and the government angle on it."

Smith said his reporters will continue demanding direct contact with politicians -- what Callison called a "very high level of ethical standards" when it comes to canned quotes.

That refusal may not appeal to all, but as long as journalists are honest about how they reached their sources and don't misrepresent boilerplate as direct words, emailed statements aren't necessarily ethically off-limits.

While avoiding follow-up questions might appeal to politicians in the short-run, Smith said, in the long-term "it cuts them off from the public." That could hurt them when election season rolls around.

"If they want to reach our readers, they have to talk to us," Smith said. "If they don't want to talk to our readers that's fine; there are lots of others out there that would -- the Opposition, NGOs, unions.

"If they want to forfeit their opportunity to reach our readers, they're doing a pretty good job of it."

Like reporters, communications staffers are expected to not become the news story themselves.

Gutstein cited a widely-shared video of Chin's predecessor in Clark's office, Sara McIntyre, who got snarky with the press when they attempted to question the premier at a March 2012 public appearance.

"I did not issue an advisory saying she was taking media questions," the former Harper staffer retorted, attempting to physically block reporters. "She's not taking questions today."

Needless to say, her efforts did not go over well with the press, and McIntyre herself inadvertently become a top news story.

Chin said he tries to stay out of the media as much as possible, and added, "I guess I broke my own rule here."

"In a parliamentary system, you want elected people doing most of the talking. That's not my role."  [Tyee]

Read more: Media

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