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RICK MACLEAN: Reporters are not tape recorders

The Baron is the student newspaper at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus.
(File Photo)
The Baron is the student newspaper at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus. (File Photo) - The Guardian

If editors never correct or challenge, then what are they doing in a newsroom?

There’s a sign taped to my office door.

“Repeat after me, I am a not tape recorder,” it reads.

There is, after all, far more to journalism than simply repeating what someone says. Witness Donald Trump.

Which brings me to Anna De Luca.

She became editor of The Baron, the online student newspaper at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, in January.

She promptly ran an uncritical question-and-answer, then a 2,000-word commentary by the leader of something called the National Socialist Canadian Labour Revival Party.

“I don't believe that a single Arab individual, or a single African individual, or a single native individual had anything to do with building a single building in Toronto or Montreal or Ottawa or Vancouver when our forefathers settled this land,” Michael Thurlow told a CBC reporter in one interview.

You get the idea.

De Luca was scolded for giving him a forum free of tough questions. She hit back.

“In this age of extreme polarization, I saw gaining captainship of this publication as an opportunity to provide a diverse collection of contributors the ability to speak their truth – whatever that truth may be. I promised myself that I would never censor, never correct or challenge,” she said.

Um, no.

People may be entitled to their opinions, but those opinions are not entitled to respect. That’s earned. It’s up to journalists to question what they’re told, not simply repeat it because it’s someone’s “truth.”

Welcome to Journalism 101.

Still, some good came out of this. I posted the ‘not a tape recorder’ note and a link to the story on Facebook. It set off an interesting discussion between two people who know something about journalism - the publisher of the newspaper I ran as editor for years, and the editor who came before me.

“I am more afraid of the repression of opinion than I am of opinion. I think we must teach people to be aware of the nasty ideas in the world and prepared to evaluate and make civilized judgments. I also think university is an excellent place for such open discussion to take place,” said former publisher David Cadogan.

Former editor Sharon Fraser begged to differ.

“It's a reckless and lazy editor who publishes something that is probably untrue or publishes an ‘opinion’ which is based on a premise that is probably untrue. It's not ‘repression of opinion’ to say, ‘This is not true and we're not going to publish it on our editorial page.’

“In the end, however, the writer has a perfect right to publish and distribute it himself. That's freedom of expression too.”

Cadogan wasn’t ready to concede.

“There was … a time when the great majority of New Brunswickers were furious that I would publish the annual classified ad for FLAG’s (Fredericton Lesbians and Gays) meeting in Fredericton. No papers other than mine would print it.

“I actually had a policy that, if anyone wrote three letters in year saying I was full of it, we would offer them a column.”

I’ll give the final word to one of my first-year students, Josh Lewis, who joined in, quoting De Luca, who has since been fired.

“‘I promised myself that I would never ... correct or challenge.’ Then what are you doing in a newsroom?”

- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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