How can Canada and its media learn from the United States’s mistakes and avoid the hyper-partisanship that has plagued the country?
That’s what three distinguished journalists covered at “Journalism in the Age of Hyper-Polarization,” a panel hosted by McGill University on Oct. 30. The main topics covered included fringe groups, trust, and remaining objective and unbiased as a journalist.
The panelists agreed there can be no overarching solutions to these problems. However, they stressed throughout the event that Canada is relatively free of this partisanship for now.
The first topic discussed was the proper way to cover fringe groups. Philippe Gohier was the authority since he is the editor-in-chief of Vice Quebec, a publication that has covered the province’s political fringes since 2016. He argued that fringe groups should be covered, but with context. The panel also asked the question: how can journalists contextualize fringe groups that have been legitimized? They cited U.S. President Donald Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville incident, in which he condemned violence “on both sides” as an example of this phenomenon. The panel had no overarching solutions, saying it’s variable case by case.
Jennifer Ditchburn, award winning journalist and editor-in-chief of Policy Options, led the conversation on trust. She said journalists ultimately have the final say in writing and publishing a story, but choosing not to cover something may harm their credibility. Mark Lloyd, a panelist and professor of professional practice at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, added that “Journalism is imperfect; it’s called the first draft of history for a reason.” All the panelists agreed that readers have a responsibility as well: never get your news from one source, and popularity is not equal to trust.
Regarding objectivity, the panelists challenged the traditional strategy of giving equal coverage to both sides of the political spectrum. They referenced the 2016 U.S. election, arguing that Hillary Clinton’s email scandal shouldn’t have been given equal coverage to the other camp’s numerous scandals. Ditchburn said that equal coverage may not be a fair way of reporting on such issues.
Overall, the message was of hope and cautious optimism. Panelists agreed that media consumers must do their part by consuming a diverse diet of sources. They also stressed that reporters need to continue to inform the public in a diverse and objective way. To the panelists, most of these problems have no overarching fix, or any fix at all. But for the sake of Canada, they stressed that everyone must do their part.