LAWTON: Journalists covering political stories must disclose union membership, for transparency

By: Andrew Lawton

November 30, 2018

With less than a year to go until the federal election, Canada’s largest labour union has declared war on the Conservatives. That a labour group would side with the Left isn’t noteworthy, except this one is also the biggest union in the country for journalists.

There are 12,000 journalists and other media workers in Unifor, which characterized itself as the “resistance” to Andrew Scheer just one week before Justin Trudeau’s government announced a $600 million media bailout to ‘save’ Canadian journalism.

Not only are these unionized reporters part of an organization devoted to a particular political outcome; their employers are also on the receiving end of a fat cheque from the Liberals.

In a press release thanking the government for the money, Unifor also credited the “campaigning” of its media members for the funding.

“Unifor media workers have been talking to Members of Parliament and it is refreshing to see that they got the message,” said Jake Moore, Unifor’s media chair.

Unifor is admitting that the same journalists supposedly investigating and reporting on MPs have also spent the last two years begging them for money.

How could any sane person not see a conflict here?

This all comes as the federal Liberals fret about the threat of ‘fake news’ swaying next year’s election. The bigger threat is the influence lawmakers have on the press that’s supposed to hold them accountable.

This isn’t an indictment of every journalist. I worked for a mainstream media company for several years and know of many stellar reporters and producers who will continue to do solid and fair work regardless of the bailout and union politics.

However, remember that every unionized newsroom has a steward with a role in writing or broadcasting stories that shape the national conservation. Which will win out—union propaganda or journalistic ethics?

These question marks harm media consumers and the industry itself, further eroding the already precarious public trust in the media. Readers have no way of knowing who is beholden to whom. While individual biases can’t be erased, there can be more transparency.

Every unionized reporter in the country should disclose their union affiliation and any role they have within the organization within any stories connected to issues the union has a position on. For Unifor, that would be any political story whatsoever.

This is a natural extension of the disclosures that would be required for any other potential conflicts, allowing readers to understand the context from which a reporter is approaching his or her coverage.

Were it a member of a gun rights group covering a matter of firearms policy or someone in a province’s law society writing about an issue on which the society has taken a stance, readers—and editors—would justifiably demand transparency. Why should union members get a pass?

In the interests of disclosure, my wife is a newspaper reporter with membership in Unifor. I gave her a heads-up that I was mentioning her, but she wasn’t involved in this piece in any other way. (I may be sleeping on the couch tonight.)

Outlets themselves must be transparent about how much they receive in support from the federal government once Trudeau tax credit programs are operational. Though it would be far more productive for media companies to say no to reject the funding outright.

Specific journalistic guidelines vary from outlet to outlet, but one universal theme in all the policies and practices I’ve seen is the importance of being not only free from conflict, but even the appearance of conflict.

If as the old adage suggests, he who pays the piper calls the tune, anyone expecting fairness from journalists in the coming year is in for a rude awakening.

Canadians will soon see that he who pays the paper calls the tune.