York professor finds MPs’ attitudes closer to public than those of journalists

A study co-authored by a York University professor has found that politicians and the Canadian public agree on what constitutes fair news coverage, but journalists don’t share their opinions when it comes to the "rules of engagement".

The Fairness in News study, released yesterday, reveals that while MPs and reporters agree on many elements of fairness in journalism, they disagree over reporting on public figures’ private lives, quoting unnamed sources, reporting off-the-record conversations, and the use of hidden cameras and tape recorders.

"In these areas, we see very clearly that MPs are closer to public perceptions than are the journalists," said York’s Fred Fletcher (right), study co-author and past chair of the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC), which commissioned the research. Fletcher is a University Professor emeritus in the Political Science Department, Faculty of Arts, and director of the Communications & Culture Graduate Program in the Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts.

The study found that 86 per cent of journalists believe it is very important to protect the confidentiality of unnamed sources, but only 56 per cent of MPs share this opinion. Nearly half (49 per cent) of the public disapprove of the use of unnamed sources altogether.

MPs were similarly in line with public opinion regarding the privacy of public figures; 43 per cent of MPs and 52 per cent of the public believe that scrutiny of political leaders’ personal and ethical behaviour is excessive, compared with 11 per cent of journalists.

The findings are based on interviews with 61 MPs and 64 journalists in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, conducted by Pollara earlier this year. Data on public opinion was provided by the CMRC’s 2003 "Views of the Public" survey.

"We’re hoping this study will fuel debate among journalists and news executives, as well as suggest potential courses of action," said Fletcher.

Other significant findings include: 

  • Only half of the journalists surveyed and fewer than one-in-four MPs were aware of the existence of journalistic codes; fewer than 20 per cent of journalists reported referring to such codes.
  • MPs and journalists agree that knowledge of a subject is an important basis for fair journalism and most journalists agree they are not as knowledgeable as they should be.
  • Nearly half of the journalists and just under two-thirds of the MPs reported dissatisfaction with the variety of regional viewpoints in the news.
  • One-in-four journalists indicate that their news stories are sometimes influenced by their own ideological or political views. The vast majority of MPs believe that reporters let their own political preferences influence the way they report the news.
  • The main reason journalists say their stories are influenced by their own political views is their inability to remain completely impartial when reporting on issues on which they have opinions and views.
  • Journalists’ biggest challenge in making their coverage fair is access to information and sources, which ranked even higher than time constraints and deadlines.

The Fairness in News study arose from concerns about defining fairness and journalistic accountability expressed in recent court cases and in various journalistic forums. It is based on the findings of a Pollara research survey commissioned earlier this year by the CMRC and analyzes the perceptions of fairness in the news held by 61 Members of Parliament and 64 journalists in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery. Detailed findings and methodology are available on the CMRC Web site, at www.cmrcccrm.ca.

The study was co-authored by Fletcher and André Turcotte, professor of communication at Carleton University and research drector of the Fairness in the News Project.

The Canadian Media Research Consortium is a partnership of the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, the York Ryerson Graduate Program in Communication and Culture and the Centre d’études sur les médias at Université Laval. The consortium is committed to conducting applied research on issues of importance to Canadians with particular emphasis on important economic, social and cultural issues related to technological change in the media and sharing those findings with scholars, media and the public.