Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Seen from the perspective of the late twentieth century, the early days of Canadian journalism were simple and almost naive. Without any difficulty, newspapers acted as equal opportunity employers for heroes and rogues, cynical political apologists and dedicated social reformers.
As recently as 20 years ago, the City Room was still an uncomplicated place where the only responsibility that counted was to get the story. Get the photo. Then get the next story. And the next photo.
How times have changed! Now, newspapers are simply one aspect of “the media” and we have moved into a world that would startle – and possibly scare – the journalists of yesteryear.
Today, owners have to worry less about the cost of cameras or printing presses and more about the chances they will survive even into the near future. What will the profusion of personal computers mean to newspapers still being printed on sheets and delivered to people individually? Will today’s television news be road kill on the side of the information superhighway?
What about audiences? Does the proliferation of television newsmagazines – a form Canadian journalists helped pioneer – mean that people have more interest in the world around them? Or are such programs simply a cheap way to fill time and space? What exactly is the role of the newspaper in the post-technological age?
Is there a Gresham’s Law of journalism in which bad stories – a constant diet of Tonya Harding, for example – drive out good ones?
There are other questions that have to be answered, about fundamental journalistic values and ethics. They can’t be sloughed off as important only to journalism classes. And they can’t be answered by media ombudspersons because, as the result of fiscal restraints, that group is now an endangered species.
But the questions remain. For example, should the media be re-examining its responsibilities, given that the courts are more stringent in weighing defendants’ rights against journalism’s claims? Or is it enough to say that any limitation on the media is an assault on democracy?
What about the effect of the presence of the media? Would Holocaust deniers – to take one example – be as successful as they are if journalists did not report their spurious claims to respectability? What would have happened if, from the beginning, the media had given them the kind of treatment usually meted out to flat earth enthusiasts and their ilk?
Does press coverage, whatever its intent, contribute to such social problems as racism, conflict or sexism? Is the real issue that news gathering organizations do not yet fully reflect today’s society? The fact that half of Canada’s population is female. That we live in a bilingual and multi-racial culture. That our population is aging. Or does it even matter if the world inside the newsroom has little in common with the world outside?
I would not presume to give the answers, even if I were one hundred percent certain that I knew them. But they are questions worth asking, especially in the context of the Michener Foundation Journalism Awards.
The Michener prizes are unique in that they focus, not solely on the way a story or series of stories has been written, but on the role of the media in public service.
The nature of journalism is that the reporter’s published words – whether written or spoken – are frequently the end product of complex and difficult processes. Editors have to be willing to commit resources to research that may take a long time to translate into usable stories. Publishers and owners have to be willing to back up tough examinations of issues – child abuse is a current example – that must be confronted even though they offend some advertisers or audience members.
The Michener awards recognize and honour the entire process of journalism and, in doing so, encourage the media to set very high expectations for themselves, and then struggle to reach those expectations. Very often, the result is a story that truly “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted”.
Certainly, this year’s nominees can be measured according to that high standard. They include a tough examination of the very dark side of Canadian sport. Careful evaluations of health care systems, and of the national blood supply. A story that changed the future of Toronto’s major airport – although it ran in an Ottawa paper. An examination of a municipal hydro system, which resulted in cuts to local hydro rates.
Each of these stories or series gives ample evidence of journalism’s power. Together, they represent muckraking in the very best sense, when it is raised to the status of public service.
They do honour to the memory of a man who devoted the major part of his life to public service and who was enormously proud of the journalist in his own family – the late revered film critic Wendy Michener. The Michener Journalism Awards are not simply to be coveted. They should be recognized as beacons calling journalists to acknowledge their significant role in today’s society and to fulfill it thoughtfully and well. They challenge owners, publishers, producers, writers and editors to consider the tough moral choices facing journalists. Only by doing so can people in the media hope to build a profession that is worthy of the power it wields in all our lives.
His Excellency Ramon John Hnatyshyn
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
Monday, May 9, 1994