Journalism in a post-truth society

 

Photo credit: Zoe Archambault

Photo credit: Zoe Archambault

Steve Tesich called it in the 90s: we live in a post-truth society and we do it willingly. With truth and reality under assault, brave journalists are stepping up to the plate to help us see what’s really there and to remind us that two-plus-two-equals-five is not okay. Every day, under astronomical threat,  journalists risk their lives and their wellbeing to bring attention to the cruelties happening under our noses. What the rest of us need to do is simple: believe them.

In August, the Ford administration launched Ontario News Now, an information outlet disguised as a news source about the goings-on of the Progressive Conservative party. It is written by the party for its followers, cutting out the middle-man that is journalism. This should be alarming. We should be alarmed.

What’s happening feels like gaslighting and it’s disconcerting. We know which media outlets are credible news sources, yet increasingly prominent figures tell us that this is false and that we are being manipulated. Who do we believe when there are two sides in such adamant opposition? It’s a tough call — sometimes the media says things we don’t want to be true, and then a boisterous authority figure swoops in, telling people what they want to hear and reminding us that he was democratically elected. Authoritarian figures prey on our most primal desire to shut out things that scare us, like accountability. When you follow their every word, you don’t need to own up to a mistake or apologize or strive to do better — you get to blame someone else for every conflict. It isn’t that you said something hurtful, but that people these days are too sensitive.

The rules of engagement have changed. Ontarians are more educated than we’ve ever been and have access to far more information. How do you restrict access to information people already have without causing a revolution? Well, one step was to cut education funds under the guise of modernizing the classroom. While this prompted protests, we didn’t overthrow the government. We didn’t change anything. We did our democratic duty  —  make our government aware of our needs — but democracy was not intended to support government officials making a mockery of our core values as a nation. Another step is to turn the people against each other, perhaps by cutting student assistance in such a way that the screwed-over middle class blames those with the lowest socioeconomic status, who still receive some funding instead of the rich, who benefit the most.

When we hear about the government modernizing the curriculum what do we think of? New technology? Information suited to the current needs of students? Do we really consider slashing Indigenous language education programs? What about making genuine education exponentially harder by saddling a few overworked teachers with many students, each with individual needs that are now near-impossible to satisfy? Is modern education trying (though failing) to revert the sex education program to what we had in the 90s? Would we even be questioning this without the additional information provided by journalists and elevated by credible platforms? Sure, some of us who are directly affected will know. But how can you know to fight against something you don’t know is happening?

Ontario News Now tweeted, “Great Ontario wines like @PeleeWinery will be coming to convenience stores near you!” This was captioning a video of Ford touring the winery, located in my hometown: Kingsville, Ontario. The President of Pelee Island Winery donated thousands of dollars to the PC party just weeks before this video was posted, prompting backlash when people discovered this apparent conflict of interest.

Conflicts of interest are not limited to one party. We’ve all heard the SNC-Lavalin scandal that has rocked the Trudeau federal government — that Justin Trudeau and other high-level officials exerted undue pressure on then-Justice Minister and Attorney General to influence her to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case to push to avoid a trial. In making a statement months after it all came out, Trudeau still framed his actions as trying to protect Canadian jobs. Shall we revisit my note about gaslighting?

These two scandals represent two different but dangerous heads of the same beast. There is the case that screams “conflict of interest” directly in your ear and one that feels more secretive; there is apparent corruption plainly visible to the public and corruption hidden at the higher levels of the government. Both are dangerous. Both harm us as a nation. Journalism helps us cut through the gaslighting and navigate confusing terminology we may not realize is suspicious until we hear it in layman’s terms. Journalists have access to sources many of us don’t and go through checks and balances none of us do before we share information.

Politicians and business people have to know that these scandals will come to light. Some are not hard to unearth, like the winery scandal. Regardless, our nation has some incredible journalists who strive to uncover the truth. So, knowing these will come to light, why keep doing things that appear corrupt? Whether or not it is, why even give the impression of corruption?

The 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News report found that 58 per cent of Canadians polled agreed they trusted most news most of the time. This had increased from the result the year before, which is promising, but 58 per cent still feels low to me. I worry about the other 42 per cent. Who do they turn to? Where do they get their news? More importantly, is the source credible, or manipulating them? Will the trend of growing trust continue, or will we be influenced by the U.S., where the level is less than 40 per cent and heavily polarized along party lines?

When I started at The Brock Press, the Capital Gazette attack was still quite recent, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit afraid. Five incredibly talented people died. I read the articles and looked at their photos and my heart sank into my gut. I was hearing rhetoric all over the news and social media about how mainstream journalism is the enemy of the people. I am not the only one who feels our culture is shifting to become more hostile towards the media. It’s far more alarming in the U.S., but we know how hate spreads. I was worried I would be the next photo on a Buzzfeed article.

Journalists, especially those more known than I and who work larger stories and in more dangerous contexts, know it can be a dangerous job. We do our work knowing the narrative in the country is edging closer and closer to openly hating and vilifying us as people. But we are part of something truly noble — the pursuit of truth. We hold accountable those who otherwise may have fewer obstacles between themselves and corruption. I implore you to ask yourself why you are being told to hate this. Who benefits from you distrusting mainstream journalism?

Politicians — and I say politicians because they tend to be central figures in spreading anti-journalism propaganda — lose power when you are informed. The greatest defence you have against corruption in Canada is knowledge. That is why journalism is considered such a big threat. That is why people want you to distrust the news — so that they get to shape it.

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