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Federal Politics

Democracy Damaged When Reporters Get It Wrong

‘Wrong riding’ story about NDP byelection campaign raises questions about Canadians’ protection from fake news.

Tom Parkin 18 Dec

Tom Parkin is a political writer and frequent media commentator with a social democratic perspective.

Last Wednesday at 4 a.m., the false news was ready to be launched into media networks, to be picked up by newsroom editors and producers and spread across the country dressed up as a fact.

No, it wasn’t an early morning fake news tweet from Donald Trump. Or the latest bogus claim from some alt-right website. It was a false Canadian news story produced by one of the most established Canadian media sources, the Canadian Press.

And it set off a disturbing chain of events, raising serious questions not only about media capability and commitment to shut down fake news, but also whether some Canadian outlets are willing to knowingly propagate it.

The 4 a.m. news story was from the Canadian Press — a news service that provides completed reports to subscribing newsrooms. And the story carried the headline “Singh launched NDP byelection campaign in wrong Scarborough riding.” As they do every morning, editors and producers would have reviewed the story assuming it’d been checked before they decided whether to run it. And many did.

But it hadn’t been checked. The report described an NDP event held in Scarborough with federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh as a byelection launch event. Except it wasn’t. It was, in fact, just another of the many “JagMeet and Greet” events the party has organized across the country to allow NDP members to meet their new leader. It was in Scarborough. But it wasn’t the campaign launch.

The NDP’s Scarborough-Agincourt byelection campaign launch had taken place a week before. And definitely took place inside the boundaries of the riding. The story was totally wrong.

It seems the CP reporter was so sure she had a wonderful piece of embarrassing clickbait for newsrooms that she closed her report with an editorial tone and dismissive advice. For the next byelection, she proffered, “sending the leader into the wrong riding might be one of the things they’ll want to consider.” Take that, dumb NDP.

But the reporter never checked the facts properly. No NDP media officer was ever asked about it. She got some bad information from somewhere and, without sufficiently fact-checking or confirming facts with the people who would know them, stamped it with the credibility of the Canadian Press — and out it went.

That morning thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of Canadians read a story presenting Jagmeet Singh and the NDP as a crew of rubes who can’t read a map. But it wasn’t Singh that hadn’t done his job. It was the reporter.

Sure, it’s only the NDP, so it really doesn’t matter. Or, sure, but politics is a tough game.

Sorry, those excuses don’t work.

Look south of the border to see where that attitude ends up — a country that can’t tell the difference between opinion and facts. A president who tells so many lies so often that quality reporters can’t keep up. Opinion disguised as reporting and torqued by partisan spin. Billionaire funded think tanks. Alt-right and fake news outlets. A growing reliance on personal trusted information networks, especially Facebook or Twitter, has emerged even as those networks have become flooded with false stories so compelling they are forwarded without checking — thereby replicating the viral contamination of falseness.

The result is an electorate that doesn’t know who can be trusted and what is true. Where political debate has become unconnected to facts. Where political decisions are unmoored. And informed democratic choice is undermined.

We’re not close to that turmoil in Canada. And we never want to be. That’s why it is the duty of reporters to get the story right.

Of course it was an unacceptable mistake for the 4 a.m. story to be sent out without confirming facts. It gave Canadians fake news with the quality imprimatur of the Canadian Press on it. But it gets worse.

At 11:38 a.m. came a revised story. By this time links to the online invitation to the real campaign launch event — the one inside the riding, as of course it would be — were already circulating on social media, with some tweets even mentioning the CP reporter. But while the revised story included comments by an NDP media officer confirming the event wasn’t the campaign launch, the revised story still carried the same “wrong riding” false headline, false information and snarky wrap-up. Huh?

A little past noon, Singh held a press conference in Ottawa at which he corrected the record. And at 2:39 p.m. came a third Canadian Press write-through, dialing back the story and changing the false headline. But it now included new text suggesting there was something wrong with Singh holding an event in Scarborough but “outside the riding where it knew a byelection call was imminent.” Classic move. Some people just can’t let go. Or don’t know how big Scarborough is.

Later in the afternoon, members of the parliamentary press gallery were murmuring about how the story had unravelled so quickly.

Finally, over 36 hours after the original false and unchecked story was distributed, the Canadian Press conceded to facts and issued a correction, stating it had reported “erroneously” about the event. Probably some newsroom even printed or posted the correction somewhere. And maybe someone even read it.

Because the Canadian Press is a trusted information service to newsrooms across Canada, the false story went everywhere. Some media outlets deleted the false story and replaced it with the true but still snitty afternoon version. But the original wrong news story continued on many major news sites for days. That raises questions about whether newsrooms have adequate procedures in place to remove discredited news and stop fake news as soon as it’s identified. Unfortunately, that’s a protection that needs to be considered these days.

But is also raises more disturbing questions — specifically about the Globe and Mail. On Thursday Canada’s self-appointed national news source and paper of record ran an editorial cartoon lampooning Singh for the “wrong riding” story that had been proven false the day before. It is difficult to believe Globe editors didn’t know the “wrong riding” story was wrong. Then they fed it to their readers.

And finally, it raises questions about how easily the news media can be spun. It’s not clear where the seed of this story came from — perhaps a tip from a partisan opponent of Singh. But it’s the job of reporters to break stories down, remove the spin, check the facts and give readers reliable and non-biased information.

In the Harper days, the Conservative government’s labelling of the “Fair Elections Act” — a piece of deceptive labelling if there ever was one — was regularly carried in news reports. Similarly, under the Liberals many reporters continue to refer to the “middle class tax cut” despite the fact their tax cut gives the maximum benefit to people in the top 10 per cent of incomes. When news reports carry and repeat these deeply partisan messages, reports become partisan messengers.

And this is how, unwitting or not, reporters can load the dice against impartiality and facts. Can load the dice against readers and viewers. It’s their job to consciously work against being weaponized and used for partisan purposes. That’s the trade. That’s the skill. That’s the honour.

In my opinion, anyway.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics, Media

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