Dawna Friesen: Journalism is a pillar of democracy
Global National anchor and executive editor Dawna Friesen MCed the Manitoba Business Awards on Oct. 26, 2018, and delivered a message about journalism before a live audience of 500 CEOs and business leaders. Here is a condensed version of her remarks.
I’m going to take advantage of you — my captive audience — if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, to talk about journalism.
You are all really smart, accomplished, successful business people. You know that journalism is a business, too. And it’s a business that is seriously under threat. The business model of the traditional newspaper, radio and TV station is broken. Advertisers are going elsewhere — mostly online. The way we consume news has changed rapidly.
I grew up on a farm just west of Winnipeg, and we got a grand total of three TV channels. Watching the news was a family affair. We all gathered in front of the TV to find out what happened in the world. And if you missed the news, you missed it. You’d have to wait until tomorrow to read it in the paper.
Contrast that with my son, who is 13. Much as I would love to say he’s my biggest fan, he doesn’t really watch the news. He’s on Instagram and Snapchat, and spends more time on YouTube or Netflix than watching broadcast television.
In one generation, how we connect to the world and how we consume news has been utterly transformed.
Now, you can say — hey, that’s business. You adapt, or you die. I know that’s a reality you face in all of your businesses. And journalism, too, is adapting.
But here’s the thing about journalism. It’s more than a business. It’s a pillar of democracy. Journalism underpins every free society. It informs, it uncovers truth, and it holds power to account. Without knowledge about what’s happening in your town, your province, your country, you can’t be an informed citizen. And if you aren’t an informed citizen, you can’t make informed decisions about the kind of community you want to live in, and the kind of political leaders you choose to represent you.
Right now, journalism is under assault not just because the business model is broken, but because there are political forces actively working to undermine it and discredit it. An army of online trolls and activists question the veracity of stories they don’t like, attack individual journalists they don’t like, and ridicule institutions that for decades have been trusted sources of news.
State-supported trolls from places like Russia and Saudi Arabia seed our news feeds with false stories and conspiracy theories, and actively work to undermine western liberal democracies.
I never imagined an American president — the leader of the free world — would call the media the “enemy of the people.” He’s said it so many times, we don’t even blink anymore. It’s having the insidious effect of eroding trust in all the news media. It has come to the point where we can’t agree on a set of facts about any given issue, because U.S. President Donald Trump has created the era of “alternative” facts. And the divide keeps growing. We have reached the point where people don’t know whom or what to trust.
I think we are living in a dangerous time. We live in Canada, not America, but we’re not immune to the rancour and the division and the political dysfunction that we’re watching unfold in the United States.
So here’s my message to you. Be an active part of the solution. Don’t be drawn into partisan ugliness that paints political opponents as traitors and the enemy. Support quality journalism. Think of it as a public service.
Journalists used to be seen as the public watchdog. Don’t fall for the line that we are the enemy of the people. That’s the talk of a dictator who wants to silence those who question him.
A well-functioning democracy requires free and diverse news media capable of keeping people informed, holding powerful people to account, and enabling informed public discussion of public affairs. It is not elitist to value the truth.
Quality journalism increases public knowledge, political participation and engagement. It helps reduce corruption, expose the nefarious. Just look at the power of the #MeToo movement, which was driven by strong women who came forward, and journalists who told their stories.
And here’s my most important point. Don’t expect to get quality journalism for free. It’s not a giveaway. You need to pay for it.
The big failing of the internet — which gave us access to the world — is that we expect to get it for free. Unless news organizations are owned by a billionaire like Jeff Bezos, that’s not sustainable.
So pay for news, subscribe online. Demand quality. Consider the source of what you are reading and watching.
Don’t get sucked in by clickbait. It just panders to sites which thrive on viral video.
Read and listen and watch a variety of sources. Keep yourself informed. Learn to recognize a bad argument, a false equivalency, and a poorly sourced story.
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It’s really up to you, the audience, to support journalism, demand quality, and to prevent misinformation from shaping public discourse.
Canada is a tolerant, respectful, diverse country. Don’t let the discord in the United States affect you.
And know this: journalists are not perfect. We make mistakes and don’t always get things right.
But the vast majority of us are driven by the desire to inform the public, to get the facts, and to bear witness to events — sometimes risking our lives to do it — so you can have a complete picture of what is happening in your world. We want to help make the world a better place.
So please, support quality journalism, because quality journalism underpins a healthy democracy.
Award-winning journalist Dawna Friesen is the anchor and executive editor of Global National, the flagship national newscast for Global News.
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