Fairness in the media


By Fred Fletcher and André Turcotte

In playing their respective roles in Canada’s representative democracy, there is an inevitable tension between parliamentarians and the journalists who cover them.  While this tension is healthy in a democratic society, competing perceptions of what constitutes fairness in the news create problems for those who produce and assess the coverage. ‘Fairness’ has superseded ‘objectivity’ as the touchstone for good reporting, but both remain contested concepts.

This study of perceptions of fairness in the news held by Members of Parliament and journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery arose from concerns about defining fairness and journalistic accountability expressed in recent court cases and in various journalistic forums.  Although there are many codes of journalistic practice, a review of the various codes and commentaries suggests that journalism lacks a coherent and widely accepted standard of fairness that speaks to everyday journalistic practice.  While numerous studies have examined the gap between the perceptions of fairness held by journalists and those held by their audiences, few have looked closely at the perceptions of journalists and their sources / subjects. The goal of this study is to contribute to an ongoing conversation on this important subject.

The findings reported here are based on 61 interviews with MPs and 64 with members of the Gallery conducted on behalf of the Canadian Media Research Consortium earlier this year.  In an elite survey, a sample of this size, selected to ensure a representative range of opinions, is appropriate for the purposes of identifying key opinion clusters. Only statistically significant differences are reported. To learn more about the study and its findings, please see the documents below.

Key findings

  • Court decisions put standards of fairness and responsible journalism in the spotlight

  • Members of Parliament and parliamentary journalists agree on many elements of fairness in journalism

  • MPs and journalists tended to agree on the importance of  accuracy, balance and impartiality in fair reporting, but tended to disagree when it came to the rules of engagement between journalists and sources:  respecting privacy of public figures, using hidden cameras or tape recorders, reporting off-the-record conversations, quoting unnamed sources

  • This difference emerged also in opinions about how political leaders should be treated in news reports, with MPs much more likely than journalists to regard media criticism as excessive

  • Only half of the journalists and fewer than one in four MPs were aware of the existence of journalistic codes; fewer than 20% of journalist reported referring to such a code, though most news organizations have them

  • Although more than two-thirds of MPs believe that Canadian news media live up to their role in the democratic process, only 16% believe that most stories present the news in a fair way

  • In their assessment of journalistic practices, MPs tended to be more in tune with public opinion than journalists

  • MPs and journalist agreed that 1) knowledge of the subject is an important basis for fair journalism and 2) most journalists are not as expert as they might be


Supporting Documents

Fairness in the Media: Summary

By Fred Fletcher and André Turcotte

Role of Fairness in News

By Renaud Gilbert

Fairness in the Media: PowerPoint Presentation

Questionnaire: Journalists

Questionnaire: Members of Parliament

CONTACT US: Phone: 604-822-9789 | E-mail: cmrcccrm@interchange.ubc.ca
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