The largest newsroom in Prince Edward Island is not located within any newspaper office, radio station or television studio. No, more than 30 information specialists, hired by Communications P.E.I., work inside every provincial government department.
Details on this increasingly powerful and influential element of government were presented in this newspaper last week. Their numbers and their budget requirements are significant.
Back in the early days of Island Information Services, one communications person did it all – typing up releases and dropping them off to media newsrooms, while trying to accommodate requests for information and interviews.
As newsrooms shrank, numbers inside Communications P.E.I. increased where they take photos, video press conferences and interviews, write releases and provide backgrounders. More and more often, they package their communications as a legitimate news site.
But it doesn’t stop there. As Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean warns, there is the inevitable tendency to go past those basic duties – to try to influence how a story is presented; to put the minister and government in the best possible light. It’s called spin.
It’s a natural tendency for an employee to support an employer, to run interference or try to protect a minister. They move past being communications contacts to become handlers and spin doctors. There is an almost irresistible temptation to complete the axiom that the medium is the message. And the medium in this case is communications personnel and the message is that government can do no wrong.
Communications P.E.I. does provide an essential role. There are programs and projects that are vital to Islanders which must be publicized and circulated. Then there is the potential dark side of becoming public relations staff for Liberal cabinet ministers. Some enjoy the role and try too hard.
In today’s age of rapid-fire communications, it’s more essential than ever for a strong and independent media whose guiding principle is presenting the truth, supported by fair comment and basic facts. Social media is dominated by opinion and spin. Islanders must wonder if what they see there can be trusted. Is it fake news? Some politicians think that ‘fake news’ is anything they don’t agree with or which makes them look bad.
Journalists know that as soon as any story is published or aired, it’s available world-wide through clipping services, social media, internet and many other avenues. Citizens are ready to dissect, critique and challenge. Which is fine - it keeps reporters and editors sharp and accurate - and to always demand the truth.
Mr. MacLean says government is always trying to win the spin game. And the game is stacked with taxpayers’ money, resources and people who can create polished news packages and turn them into a sales pitch. In addition to the government website - overflowing with ‘good news’ stories - the province has an official YouTube channel and Facebook sites. They bombard Islanders with their message in many ways, every day.
But remember this: The truth always trumps fake news. And Islanders are very hard to fool.