a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The return of gotcha journalism

Just as the political landscape goes through changes, so does journalism. Right now we seem to be witnessing a return to the journalism of the Mulroney years.

So-called gotcha journalism is a particularly aggressive type of reporting that plagues a government when the media collectively decide to join the opposition. Every decision of a government is scrutinized for any appearance of malfeasance, favourtism or conflict of interest.

Gotcha journalism is based on true information. But it also implies a lot and invites its audiences to draw a lot of inferences.

A case in point is a story in Monday’s Hill Times by veteran reporter Tim Naumetz. The HT reported that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s new chief of staff, was until last week a director of aviation company Hawker Beechcraft. Hawker Beechcraft partners with Lockheed Martin in supplying the U.S. military with a precision war and reconnaissance plane, the AT-6.

The parent company of Hawker Beechcraft is Onex Corp., Wright’s former employer.

According to the article, Hawker Beechcraft also makes a .50-caliber cannon used in Lockheed’s F-35 stealth fighter. Canada is buying 65 of these Lockheed fighters.

Several media outlets have reported that Wright will be returning to Onex in a couple of years. In addition, he still owned about $2 million in company stock as of last week.

The HT quotes New Democrat MP Pat Martin as saying Wright’s connection with Onex ``doesn’t pass the smell test.’’ Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc said the connection feeds people’s cynicism about Ottawa’s decision to buy the F-35s without a formal tendering system.

He is probably right even though no one has established any direct connection between Wright and Lockheed.

The story does not directly state that Wright’s directorship had any influence in the selection of the F-35 by Ottawa. What it does do is imply that there is a connection.

The media and the public are suspicious about the current federal government. We can expect many more stories that imply almost as much as they report.

Before you get all huffy about the media, just remember that a government that practises gotcha politics on its opponents brings this type of reporting on itself. Why wouldn’t nasty politics spawn nasty journalism?

In addition, the current government has not exactly been forthcoming with the media.

Gotcha-style journalism is validated in many people’s minds when the government gets caught fudging the truth. Remember the census issue when Industry Minister Tony Clement implied Statistics Canada supported the decision to get rid of the long-form census?

This style of journalism is something that comes and goes as it did when the Mulroney government left office. But expect more of it as long as the current government remains in office.

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