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Don’t shoot the media messenger on controversial topics

Posted on May 4, 2016 by Taber Times

There are no doubt many people who might dispute the assertion that the media doesn’t make the news, they just report it. And with good reason — for every journalist who takes the ethics and integrity of their profession seriously, there are just as many examples of journalists who do not, be it for prestige, popularity, or just plain greed.

One need only look to our vaunted Canadian Senate to find two paragons of journalistic virtue — Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin — who are still scuttling about under dark clouds of fiscal impropriety, criminal acquittal notwithstanding. To be fair, the latter examples tend to paint the profession with a broad stroke of negativity that unfortunately brands those who act with integrity as part of that same cabal. Over the past two years, high-profile disputes over a number of issues between the Town of Taber and the Municipal District of Taber have prompted a visceral war of words between both elected councils, caused a severe breakdown in relations, and — perhaps most importantly — has done virtually nothing to achieve anything positive for either municipality, or its constituents.

In more recent months, various town councillors — and even some members of the public, as was witnessed recently at the M.D. of Taber’s AGM — appear to believe much of the source of this animosity can be laid at the foot of the local media, in this case The Taber Times. As elected officials they make the decisions, they call each other names like toddlers in a sandbox, and we just report it. Of course all of the fallout has to be our fault, right?

While individuals can maintain their own opinions without fear of prejudice, this kind of conclusion is an oversimplification of the role that the media plays in a modern society. And when some individuals even begin to advocate the exclusion of the media from public discourse, it becomes downright dangerous.

More than just a check or balance to the power establishment in a given community, the media is in some cases — quite an apt example in the case of The Taber Times — the only real source of local news. The irony of individuals who rail against the hated media in this case is that in a very real sense, whatever issue they’re disputing was probably brought to light by the local media in the first place. Shooting the messenger doesn’t bring these issues any closer to a conclusion. At the same time, would you prefer the issue was quietly swept under the rug by a municipality without any public scrutiny whatsoever?

Our own town council has developed at times a fondness for blaming their public relations problems on the media. Most recently, in an attempt to deflect criticism from their own role as a council in the fire service dispute between municipalities, Coun. Randy Sparks attempted to lay the blame for a perceived “tone” in negotiations at the foot of The Taber Times, apparently based on little more than his own opinion.

And when recently chastised by Mayor Henk DeVlieger over yet more negative comments directed at M.D. of Taber projects, Coun. Rick Popadynetz also cast the blame on The Taber Times, even suggesting, “you can’t believe everything that’s written.”

Newspaper journalists, on the other hand — with the exception of an opinion piece — don’t get to make wild assertions based on conjecture. We have to base our conclusions on cold hard fact in news articles. We don’t get to inject disparaging comments based on opinion, and have them considered to be the gospel truth.

They do. We don’t.

During the international attention that was focused on the town’s Community Standards Bylaw in 2015, with the exception of Mayor Henk DeVlieger, the rest of town council gave a virtual cold shoulder of silence, leaving it up to the Taber Police Service to attempt to defend the bylaw — despite council being the elected body ultimately responsible for the decision. At the time, rumoured attempts at an organized boycott of this publication by individuals in the community were circulating. In truth, such actions are a fundamental attack on freedom of speech and expression, not just a petty campaign by bruised egos and slighted reputations.

It’s the slippery slope argument — freedom of speech, just watch what you say. Or say what you want, as long as it isn’t something we disagree with.
All of which is to say that it can often be easy to blame your problems on the media.

It doesn’t require any accountability, and it is an explanation that — rightly or wrongly — people are often eager to devour, rather than wading into the more nebulous and complicated details of an issue that might make up some semblance of the truth. And while there are always three sides to a story — yours, mine, and the truth — it is easier still to use the media, especially as politicians, as a way to deflect criticism away from taking responsibility for your own decisions and actions.

So before you begin your next tirade about the reviled local media — especially in the context of this community, and this area — ask yourself this: Would you prefer to know nothing at all? Because, faithful reader, that’s exactly what you would be asking for.

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