Journalists need to explain why government secrecy is bad for citizens, researcher says



Journalists are doing a lousy job explaining why the public should care about government secrecy, a media researcher told students, lawyers, scholars and reporters attending a recent Ryerson University conference on press freedom in Canada.

Reporters complain about the hurdles they face when trying to get government information, but the way they write about their struggles only alienates the public, said Wilfrid Laurier University journalism professor Bruce Gillespie.

“It sounds like journalists are whining, which makes readers think, ‘Well who cares? My job’s hard, too. I’m not a journalist. I don’t really care how tough your job is,’” he said.

“Journalists aren’t doing a good enough job of clearly articulating why the public should be concerned about the federal government’s lack of openness,” said Gillespie, who based his comments on the analysis of 500 articles in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star from 2006 to 2011.

The veil of secrecy means citizens don’t have the information they need to make important decisions about public issues or to engage in their communities, Gillespie and the other members of a five-person panel agreed.

The panel explored government attempts to limit media access to information on the second day of Press Freedom in Canada: A Status Report on the 30th Anniversary of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The two-day conference, jointly organized by Ryerson’s Law Research Centre and the Journalism Research Centre, ran March 8-9 at Ryerson University.

Linden MacIntyre of the CBC’s investigative show the fifth estate warned that government secrecy in public institutions persists because people have stopped caring – and are scared “because along with freedom comes responsibility.”

“We are in an era that is tolerant of authoritarianism,” he said.

Suzanne Craig, the City of Vaughan’s integrity commissioner, said having access to information is an essential part of democracy and cited Toronto’s debate over light rail transit versus underground subways as an example. “If you as journalists and the public don’t have the information to intelligently and in an informed way talk about the benefits of one type of transit versus another, there is no democracy.”

Panel members were united in observing that it isn’t any easier to find out what goes on behind closed government doors than it used to be even though the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made press freedom the law of the land 30 years ago.

Fred Vallance-Jones at the panel "Getting away with secrecy: What's going on here and why is it happening?

Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor at the University of King’s College said despite access to information legislation there is “an appalling lack of political will to see the system really work.”

His study of more than 30,000 access requests to Ontario’s provincial government found that journalists, interest groups and opposition politicians faced the greatest obstacles in getting information.

“We found that requests that were filed by reporters or politicians consistently took longer to process.” The study also found that 30 per cent of media freedom of information requests filed between 2008 and 2010 were abandoned due to fees and long delays.

Craig said the freedom of information system suffers because the coordinators who supervise access requests don’t have necessary decision-making authority. “When a commissioner recommends to a minister to do something, he or she has the option to not do it. There is no effectiveness there.”

She challenged journalists to use the tools they have at their disposal to let citizens know when governments are withholding information:  “What’s stopping you from writing about it?”

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