There’s a fancy new newsroom in town and the newness has nothing to do with a coat of paint on the walls of The Guardian or CBC. Rather, it’s a publicly-owned newsroom.
You can check it out by going to the provincial government’s website at gov.pe.ca and clicking on “newsroom”. You will be taken to a page featuring a large number of stories about government initiatives.
Although much of the news is important and valuable to Islanders — information on teacher PD days, literacy initiatives, the JA entrepreneur program, etc. — it’s all happy face stuff. Everything is positive and non-critical, and there are plenty of government political faces to be seen in both photographs and in high-quality video.
The articles are well written and don’t look at all like the dry old government news releases of the past. In fact, they look very similar to regular news articles that appear in newspapers and on television.
In some cases, they have a human-interest angle. Weaving a real person into a story about a program or new policy is a tried-and-true way of helping explain and connect with the public.
The “newsroom” is part of a growing desire by governments to get their messages out the way they want — unfiltered by the regular news media.
Another way is using social media, in particular, twitter. Tweeting allows politicians to send out brief comments about whatever crosses their minds, be that a constituent’s birthday or some dire deed a political opponent is up to. It can also be used to break news by making announcements on a new policy, program or appointment.
Journalists themselves use twitter in the same way, to break news stories and comment on issues of the day. So twitter is a valuable new communication tool for everyone.
But twitter can also be a tool to avoid having to deal with the unruly news media. That occurred this week in Ottawa and it created even more ill will, if that is possible, between the Harper government and the Parliament Hill press gallery.
On Wednesday, Jim Flaherty announced his resignation as finance minister. It’s the second most important portfolio in a government, so members of the media were obviously looking forward to the swearing in of the nation’s new top bean counter.
But rather then some pomp and ceremony and a news briefing, Joe Oliver was announced as Canada’s new finance minister by way of a tweet from the prime minister: “I just named Joe Oliver Canada's new Finance Minister. He will continue to strengthen the economy & balance the budget by 2015.”
Ottawa reporters and photographers weren’t allowed inside Rideau Hall for the ceremony. Later, the Prime Minister's Office posted a video interview with Oliver, billed as exclusive, on its website as part of a taxpayer-funded news service that promotes the government.
There would be no questions from the media. And surely any fair-minded and curious person must agree the news media, and the Canadian public, deserved the right to talk to the new guy who’s now in control of our financial future.
It’s all about controlling the message, and unfortunately the politicians are becoming very adept at using the social media and other tools as a way to keep the media at a safe distance.
We’re not at that level on Prince Edward Island, but controlling the message is rapidly becoming a priority. The “newsroom” is an example of that. Another new trick is responding to reporters’ questions with a “statement” rather than a live interview. That, of course, makes sure they don’t go off track or make a slip up by saying something wrong in an interview.
I appreciate that in many cases reporters are about as popular as people who butt in at Tim’s drive-thrus, but don’t think for a moment government’s misgivings with the news media have anything to do with our hairstyles or the clothes we wear, it’s because we stand between them and the public.
Here’s some advice to news consumers who get their information from government sources: buyer beware.
Gary MacDougall is managing editor of The Guardian. He can be reached by telephone at (902) 629-6039; by email at email@example.com; or on Twitter @GaryGuardian.