Updated: Aug 4
During another ruckus in Question Period on June 14 with the opposition calling on Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to resign, MPs on both sides of the aisle accused the other side of spreading misinformation. The opposition wants Mendicino to step down for “falsely” deploying emergency powers to clear anti-vaccine mandate protestors earlier this year. Amid this uproar, Speaker Anthony Rota reminded members that “misleading” was acceptable language in the House of Commons; “deliberately misleading,” on the other hand, was not acceptable language.
This is an extraordinary distinction to make at a time when misleading information – very rarely not deliberate – is being amplified on the Hill, in some newsrooms across the country, and of course on social media. Even worse, this trend is damaging our trust in both our leaders and the news industry.
Deliberately misleading involves manipulating the narrative. In its extreme form in journalism, it is known as fake news. Over the past few years, the idea of “fake news” has been used to call out news organizations and journalists by politicians and leaders who disagree with the facts. Former U.S. president Donald Trump did this regularly during his time in office, deliberately misleading and deliberately repeating this narrative.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said during a 2018 interview that “the real opposition (to Republicans) is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” In other words, spin lies and repeat those lies. Amplify those lies so voters see them and hear them enough that they then believe them as facts.
At the Conservative leadership debate in May hosted by True North, a right-wing media outlet, candidate Leslyn Lewis said she welcomed and supported the non-traditional media outlet. She and fellow candidates Pierre Poilievre and Roman Barber have also promised if they become the prime minister, they will defund the CBC.
Lewis has called the national broadcaster a “propaganda machine” and said that the CBC does “not even have the capacity to represent divergent views across a wide spectrum of Canadian ideology.”
This contempt for “traditional media” and distrust of journalists working for mainstream media outlets by some leaders is taking a toll nationally.
A survey released in June by Abacus Data, a polling and market research firm, found that 44 per cent of Canadians surveyed believe much of the information from news organizations is false. Those surveyed who had a greater mistrust of news (and traditional news organizations), include those with no post-secondary education, Alberta residents and those on the political right. Most of Maxine Bernier’s People’s Party supporters don’t trust news organizations, and a majority of Conservative voters (59 per cent), share those beliefs. A similar poll released by Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report on June 15 showed a new low in Canadians’ trust in the news media.
As mistrust of mainstream media increases, so too does the number of journalists who voluntarily leave the news business – or are forced to leave. About one third of journalism jobs across the country have disappeared in the last 12 years, and billions of dollars are now being paid to tech giants for advertising, money that previously would have been paid to traditional media outlets.
While numerous studies have been conducted in recent years regarding the state of the news business, University of Ottawa’s Information Integrity Lab, the first of its kind in the nation, is studying this issue to put forth recommendations to help build defences and resilience.
When leaders and politicians condemn traditional/mainstream media and praise “special interest media,” what is their motive? What are they hoping to accomplish?
Do they agree with Bannon’s theory that the media is the enemy, and they need to “flood the zone with shit?”
Perhaps American poet and author Laurence Overmire said it best: “Misinformation destroys trust. When you destroy trust, you destroy the bonds that hold society together.”
Maybe to prevent further erosion of trust, we need to stop “misleading” on the Hill, in non-mainstream news outlets, and in our communications with others.
Janet E Silver worked in journalism for over 30 years and is now the senior director, advocacy and communications at Syntax Strategic.