Why should Duchesne’s professional integrity be questioned?

Toula Foscolos
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When rumours recently started circulating that former Radio-Canada journalist Pierre Duchesne would be running as a candidate for the PQ in the riding of Borduas, it quickly whipped up an ethics debate.

Toula Foscolos

Almost immediately, and quite predictably, Premier Charest raised doubts about Duchesne’s professional integrity, as he questioned whether it was appropriate for someone contemplating a move into politics to be covering (and analyzing) Quebec politics at the National Assembly.

There is no doubt in my cynical mind that if Duchesne had been running for the Liberals, Charest would be singing a different tune. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” one of my friends and colleagues told me, tongue in cheek. But, how about we refuse to play the game altogether?

The fact remains that Duchesne left his post as a parliamentary reporter at the end of the spring session, and after a 25-year journalistic career bereft of any scandal and suspicion. He is well within his rights to enter politics if he so chooses. And while he has confirmed nothing as of yet, if he were to make the move, it certainly wouldn’t be anything that newsworthy. From René Levesque to Christine St. Pierre, a fair amount of journalists have chosen to enter politics.

What has been raising eyebrows seems to be the timing in this case. According to La Presse, the riding had been reserved for a “star candidate from Radio-Canada” three months ago. The Conseil de Presse du Québec believes this could imply a conflict of interest and would have somehow compromised his reporting.

This is where I disagree with the CPQ. While I do agree that the timing could have been better, and that it could create the perception of skewed reporting, which in itself could be a hurdle to effectively doing your job as a journalist, I don’t believe that it necessarily confirms a conflict of interest; unless there’s evidence proving otherwise.

To immediately infer that somehow a 25-year veteran of parliamentary reporting instantly lost the simple ability to do his job from the minute that he started contemplating (or already decided) to run for a political party, would have to necessitate the belief that the only journalists who can provide balanced and fair coverage of events would be the ones with absolutely no political allegiances; vocalized or otherwise. We all know that’s not the case.

Reporting (and more specifically, political analysis) requires critical thinking, solid quantitative and qualitative data analysis, top-notch research, logical sequential thinking, and being able to see the big picture. Am I supposed to believe that all this goes out the window the minute someone starts forming a political preference?

If we can trust sports writers to be fair and balanced when reporting, even though they’re rooting for the home team, why can’t we trust that Duchesne did what he’s always done for that brief period of time he may (remember… it’s still all speculation) have been contemplating becoming a participant in the political machine?

Perhaps it’s time we started to recognize the improbability of journalistic objectivity and focused instead on fairness and accuracy as barometers of a job well done.

Journalists build their credibility byline by byline, practicing the media ethic of impartiality, where personal interest is absent. I believe that it’s possible for someone to be an effective, conscientious and accurate journalist and still have strong political leanings.

British journalist John Burns, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the London bureau chief for The New York Times once said: “I have to be accurate; I don't have to be impartial.”

Media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in consultation with the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, sponsored an academic study in which journalists were asked a range of questions about how they did their work and about how they viewed the quality of media coverage in the broad area of politics and economic policy. They were also asked for their opinions and views about a range of recent policy issues and debates, including their political orientation.

Interestingly enough, the study concluded that much more was learned about the political orientation of news content by looking at sourcing patterns rather than journalists' personal views. The survey results indicated that the way bias can creep in is in a reporter’s choice of sources to check, failing to hear and report dissenting voices, or always turning to the same “experts” or government officials to interview, while leaving labour representatives and consumer advocates at the bottom of the list of people to call.

Sure, your political leanings may influence the above actions (or lack thereof), but these shortcomings are more indicative of shoddy reporting than anything else. 

Since it’s not robots, but human beings bringing you the news, perhaps it’s time we started to recognize the improbability of journalistic objectivity and focused instead on fairness and accuracy as barometers of a job well done.

Of course that would also place the onus on information consumers to do their own due diligence to determine the fairness of the source, rather than the objectivity, and employ some much-needed critical thinking. Critical thinking that would include questioning the news that a former journalist potentially running for politics is somehow “newsworthy” or highly contentious.

Update: Pierre Duchesne has since confirmed that he will be a PQ candidate in the riding of Borduas.

Organizations: National Assembly, La Presse, Radio-Canada CPQ London bureau New York Times Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory

Geographic location: Quebec

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