Journalists Changing Stance in Response to Pandemic
Media shift towards civic communications is worth appreciating
-- Peter Pula

Over the past two weeks, the journalistic stance of media here in Canada, and I suspect other countries, has been changing in a manner worth appreciating.

In a period as short as 10 days the shift has been significant and important.

During the first of what has become daily addresses by our Prime Minister, the watchdog and accountability stance of press gallery journalists still carried a dominant tone of hardened, critical, watchdog journalism holding the government’s feet to the fire, and even a hint of conflict seeking.

I may have imagined it, but it thought I saw Prime Minister Trudeau imperceptibly shake his head as he stepped back through the door of Rideau Cottage and into his home.

Even if he didn’t shake his head, I was shaking mine.

It was clear to me early on that our federal government was performing extraordinarily well, marshalling massive resources, and coalescing efforts on both the political and civil service sides of the equation, as well as enlivening the partnerships with provinces and territories to host appropriate collaboration. Those journalists who presented themselves as a higher moral authority seemed out of place.

As the days moved along, exemplars Rosie Barton, Vassy Kapelos, and David Cochrane, all of the CBC, set the marker for a more civic, and civil, media stance. Within days the press gallery seemed to shift in its intent as well.

  When the high pitch fever of this pandemic breaks and we move to establishing what’s next for society, there is much in the civic communications genre of journalism to honour and retain.

There was a shift from accountability or watchdog journalism to something very much like what Peggy Holman and her colleagues at Journalism That Matters (US) describe as Civic Communications.

The three news leaders mentioned above were quick to make significant contributions by way of explanatory and civic journalism. They and their teams quickly did their research, asked usefully clarifying questions, worked together to integrate and make sense of what they were learning and pass the best of their knowledge and understanding on to the viewers with an acuity that was, for me, a joy to witness. They integrated information, were directly in contact with their audience members, some of whom, for example had been stranded in other countries, and provided direct, helpful, and specific information wherever they could. It was quite something to watch a news anchor, more than once, provide information that would help a citizen directly and practically, whether it had to do with repatriation policy or wage subsidies.

In the highest of the art form, journalists make complex and complicated content accessible through universal language. This is not the same as  ‘dumbing it down’ which is a misnomer that is insulting both to the audience and disregarding of the fact that in specialized fields specialized terms are required for precision in communication and joint action within that field. Using language that makes conceptual understanding accessible across practice fields is a skill in and of itself.  

The inquiries journalists are making of public officials to elicit clarity, understanding, and information to enable people to contend with their circumstances and respond as a citizenry are an important contribution and a powerful application of their skills, use of their assets, and the place in which they find themselves in our society.

By contrast, it is also interesting to hear in the questions being posed by some journalists the outcroppings of a paradigm of command and control.

The questions we ask are critically important and often reveal of our biases. Questions that pose at being better knowing than those to whom we are asking a question, demanding them to prove themselves, arise from the same paradigm as those rhetorical questions uttered to cajole the government to centralize power and command and control our society. That paradigm is a paternalistic one. Asking questions out of that paradigm reinforces paternalistic, colonizing, and disempowering paradigms. The assumption is that  people cannot be trusted and that daddy ought to exercise a firm hand. Specious accountability journalism reinforces that paradigm too. Done without propriety, accountability journalism becomes a cheap grab at attention, the energy of which reinforces the helplessness of the journalist to make a serious contribution and disables the trust, understanding, and information flow necessary to perform the higher order of journalism we are now seeing daily and as a response to the pandemic crisis.

The shift and increasingly high-order performance we are seeing from many journalists at this time is something to watch closely and appreciate.

By appreciate I offer two meanings. First to notice it with a sense of gratitude. Second, to appreciate its value in the sense of increasing its value.

When the high pitch fever of this pandemic breaks and we move to establishing what’s next for society, there is much in the civic communications genre of journalism to honour and retain.

I find myself watching the news these days because I am learning things. I am appreciating the vast effort being made to marshal resources, the skill of our politicians and public officials. I am delighting in the peace, order, and good government evident in the respect for jurisdictional authority, subsidiarity (the practice of decisions being taken at the level at which they are most appropriately made), how the various levels of governments are performing within their intended design constraints and relations, how industry and large corporations are responding, small businesses making incredibly difficult but higher order decisions, and individuals are also responding increasingly well.

I have been able to bear witness to this in most part thanks to the contribution media are making to civic communications.

In civic communications mode, media enables and ennobles citizens to create the communities we wish to create by contributing practical information, narrative, and explanation. This is as useful an application of the journalist arts as there is.

We are seeing that the best in our media are highly competent at this. The alacrity with which some of them seem to be engaging in the effort suggests that they might be enjoying working to common community cause in a direct and material way.

Imagine what could be possible if our media as a whole made these their primary purposes as we step into the next version of society. Doing so would be a tremendous force for deepened democracy, a democracy that focuses on how we are working together well, what we are able to do to make the difference and connecting us to the people and illuminating the resources out there to help us along the way.