The Unknowable Country: All media requests are not equal

By Sean Holman

“All media requests are not equal.”

Journalists from small, alternative and independent media outlets have long believed that’s why they get no response or a delayed response when they contact the government for information. That can make it more difficult for them to break stories, frustrating the public’s right to know.

But it’s also an adage you’d never, ever expect to see the government write down—until spin doctors at the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration did exactly that in a document I obtained via a recent Access To Information (ATI) request.

The Media Call Process at Citizenship and Immigration

Was it a pique of honesty that led them to put those words in black and white, an error or just plain indiscretion?

Well, according to a department representative, the document—a 16-page draft guide prepared for citizenship and immigration’s spokespeople—was never approved and doesn’t reflect how media requests are actually handled.

But, even with that caveat in mind, the guide gives us a glimpse inside the mind of a government spin doctor. It states, “Inquiries received from major media outlets must receive greater attention and effort…than calls received from minor media sources or student journalists.”

Similarly, “calls from major international media outlets (i.e. Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times) as well as calls on sensitive issues,” demand even more attention.

In other words, according to the guide, the department should give more help to foreign reporters—and their audiences—than some Canadian reporters.

But, in an email, citizenship and immigrations media relations adviser Nancy Caron used capital letters to stress the “DRAFT” nature of that document.

Indeed, the first page of the document stresses the same thing, adding “procedures are constantly evolving to meet changing circumstances.”

It then goes on to state the guide is simply meant to provide “a snapshot of where we are today. It reflects how the DG of communications, the Director of Ministerial Events and Media Relations and the Minister’s Office wish us to process media calls.”

Nevertheless, according to Caron, the document was “never presented to, nor approved by CIC’s management.”

Indeed, she stated her department “provides all media outlets with the same service level and attention. Media requests are triaged and addressed based on deadlines for publication.…In fact, in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 90.7% of journalists’ deadlines were met, regardless of their outlet.”

But journalists I spoke with say the “all media requests are not equal” approach matches their own dealings with the federal government.

Jeremy Nuttall, national reporter for the online magazine The Tyee, said, “Forget about the back burner, it feels like you’re not even on the stove.”

An example: back in 2012, when Nuttall was still only freelancing for The Tyee, he was covering the government’s controversial decision to approve the use of temporary foreign workers by HD Mining International Ltd. in British Columbia.

He said the Department of Citizenship and Immigration “answered at first…then darkness” when the story “heated up.”

“I’ve worked for larger places and there is more of an effort [by government] to get your replies,” Nuttall, who has also reported for the Canadian Press, CBC News and the Globe and Mail.

Parliament Hill freelancer Justin Ling said he’s had similar experiences.

“I’ve been doing a lot of stories for Vice News recently and I can tell you the departments don’t care about Vice News,” he said. “It’s not their demographic, they just don’t give a shit.”

“The departments definitely have targeted approaches based on who you are calling from and who you are,” continued Ling, who has written for the Globe, the National Post and Maclean’s.

“The consequence is that it reinforces the consortium of news outlets that people go to for news. It’s unfortunate.”

It is—especially at a time when those outlets are on the decline, with journalists outside the “consortium” trying to investigate stories the mainstream no longer can.

By treating those journalists as second-class reporters—either in policy or in practice—the government is once again frustrating the public’s right to know.

Because if members of the fourth estate can’t get the information they need from the government, neither can Canadians—keeping voters in the dark and their elected officials unaccountable.

Sean HolmanSean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline.

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