This article originally appeared in the Western Standard.
By Peter Menzies, February 9, 2024
When it comes to reporting the news, facts can be useful things.
They can also be inconvenient. As ink-stained newsroom cynics used to mutter, sarcastically: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
So, in the wake of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s announcement of a policy framework for people struggling with gender identity, has her province’s media omitted facts lest they challenge their preferred narrative?
Certainly that appears to have been the case in Saskatchewan when its premier, Scott Moe, introduced his gender identity policies.
Dave Snow, an associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph, conducted an empirical analysis of every article posted by CBC concerning Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy from August 22, 2023 (when it was announced) to October 22, 2023, a couple of days after it became law.
What he found, in his words, was that the CBC valued ‘allyship’ over journalism.
“Across 38 articles, the CBC quoted more than five times as many critics of Saskatchewan’s policy as supporters (81 critics, 15 supporters and five neutral) ,” Snow reported.
“Only 16 percent of the total articles (six of 38) quoted at least one supporter of the policy, compared to 95 percent of articles (36 of 38) that quoted at least one critic of the government’s policy.”
As for Alberta so far?
“All I can really say is that CBC does seem to be focusing strongly on this issue and its focus over the last few days has moved to Pierre Poilievre,” said Snow. “CBC has focused a lot on protests and on speaking to those who oppose the law. There are a lot of headlines of stories like “Danielle Smith ‘disingenuous’ in framing of trans youth health-care policy: Notley” and “Parents of transgender children push back on Alberta policies.”
I haven’t seen the inverse — stories containing attributed praise of the policy, or with headlines talking about how people are in favour of the policy.”
Snow mentioned that to its credit, CBC conducted an on-air interview with Julia Mallot, a transgender commentator. But he also noticed that the host took the time to place Mallot in the context of a fringe voice despite the fact she writes for the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia.
“I talked to experts about this today and I mentioned you were going to come in studio,” Travis Dhanraj told Mallot. “A lot of them frankly — I’ll tell you — said that why would you have her on?
“(They said) We don’t think that there are both sides to this here — that your opinion is a very, very small fraction of the trans community so what would you say to …..” and Dhanraj goes on to ask his next question.
I am not sure why Dhanraj felt the need to place Mallot in other people’s context. For all I know it was self defence — an effort to mitigate the reaction from those that, as he noted, think journalists should only be presenting one side of the story — theirs.
It would be troubling if journalists agreed with that, although there’s evidence suggesting some do.
After all, Alberta media’s coverage got off to a pretty uncomfortable start.
It was at Smith’s first media availability that the Edmonton Journal’s provincial affairs reporter asked Smith why she “preferred” to use her middle name — Danielle — as opposed to the first name on her birth certificate, Marlaina.
Apparently this has to do with the belief that Smith was denying children the right to do something she had herself done as a child. Some people might see this line of inquiry as a classic example of false equivalency but, regardless, the premier patiently explained that her parents simply thought Danielle had a more pleasant ring to it.
As a long-term journalist acquaintance of mine noted, “I just can’t imagine thinking a question like that would be a nifty idea — you’re embarrassing yourself ….”
Thus was the issue engaged in a fashion likely to undermine public trust that the issue was going to be pursued objectively.
Speaking of bias, here’s mine.
I believe that delivering news in as objective a fashion as possible is what best serves the public good and is the manner in which most people want to be served by journalists. These values are founded in the legend of the Chicago City News bureau, which taught:
Journalists who work on assumptions are doomed. Assumptions are the mother of all screw ups.
Everything — absolutely everything — a journalist is told should be verified whenever possible as in, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
I also favour journalism principles such as these from the Toronto Star.
“Good faith with the reader is the foundation of ethical and excellent journalism…. Every effort must be made to ensure that everything we publish is accurate, presented in context, and that all sides are presented fairly (emphasis mine.)
“Journalistic integrity demands that significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, (emphasis mine) should be corrected promptly and as prominently and transparently as warranted… Fair news reports provide relevant context, do not omit relevant facts and aim to be honest with readers about what we know and what we do not know.” (Emphasis mine.)
Let’s see how the coverage stacks up.
In this story by Canadian Press about protests, it’s understandable that the voice of protesters will dominate. Fine, but it’s hard to miss that the only balance to protestors’ views is confined to the final four paragraphs — a point beyond which most people read.
What really caught my eye though was the absence of journalistic curiosity. One of the transgender people interviewed — Cervo — refers to his brother struggling through a transition. Same goes for a CBC story regarding a NWT family with two transgender children (9 and 12.)
Given estimates generally put the transgender population at between 0.2 and 0.33% of the population, surely readers deserve to know what the odds are of one family having two transgender children?
So I Googled it. Apparently it’s around one in 250,000. But why did I have to do that? Fear?
The overwhelming percentage of the citizen comments (100% in the case of Global) are from people opposed to the policies. Extreme statements conjuring up genocidal visions such as those articulated by Rowan Morris that the government is threatening transgender people’s right to “exist,” by Glynnis Lieb that “This is life-threatening” and by Kristopher Wells that, “These policies are about erasing the very existence of LGBTQ people in Canada” go unchallenged, which is inexcusable.
If they are true, the Alberta government is engaging in genocide and readers absolutely need to know the details. If they are speculative propaganda for which there is no hard evidence, readers also need to know. But good journalism doesn’t just leave statements of that nature hanging there, unaddressed. Not unless the intent is propaganda.
Nor does good journalism fail to ask for an example when people say things such as “Public acts of violence are happening because of this policy” (a quote the Journal displayed in a headline for emphasis.) Thus did an unchallenged claim for which there may or may not be evidence become drawn to people’s attention. This implies bias.
Readers also deserve to know how a delay in the use of puberty blockers to 16 is “going to exacerbate violence against trans individuals.”
Most noteworthy from a journalism point of view is how these reports and others commit multiple errors of omission by leaving the impression there are no studies other than those opponents of the proposed legislation find agreeable.
Nor are there any references to — other than New Brunswick and Saskatchewan — recent changes made by other governments, such as Sweden where the first country to conduct gender reassignment surgery is now taking a more cautionary approach.
Here I should, out of a sense of fairness, pause and point out that I found this story by Stephanie Taylor of Canadian Press to be generally well constructed and fair. And I am sure there are other examples.
However, this one really stood out for how the author — in an effort to play the role of “fact-checker” constructed the narrative in a fashion so easily dismantled by commentators such as Jamie Saronak.
Referencing “the science” referred to in the Global report to correct Alberta’s premier, Saronak wrote:
“The review amounts to a big pile of bunk in the eyes of outside researchers, though. Sloppy errors of fact were found by a third-party multidisciplinary team, which included academics from the University of Manchester, the University of Saskatchewan and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.”
What stood out from an old editor’s point of view was how this piece could ever have been allowed to be published absent reference to the considerable public debate surrounding the differences between male and female biological strength.
It is inconsistent with good journalism practice and the principles outlined above to write that “The scientific literature disagrees (with Smith),” while pointing to a single source and failing to note that international sports organizations governing swimming, track and field and others have banned anyone who passed puberty as a male from participating as a female. Errors of omission such as these reflect poorly on journalism organizations.
The same applies to the appropriate age for the use of puberty blockers.
Many reports quoted respected officials from the Alberta Medical Association and pediatric doctors as stating unequivocally that the impacts of puberty blockers are reversible.
What they do not state — another sin of omission that some might characterize as censorship — is that the science may still be evolving.
The New York Times, hardly a hotbed of right wing extremist views, reported in November, 2022, for instance, that:
“Concerns are growing among some medical professionals about the consequences of the drugs, a New York Times examination found. The questions are fuelling government reviews in Europe, prompting a push for more research and leading some prominent specialists to reconsider at what age to prescribe them and for how long. A small number of doctors won’t recommend them at all,” said the report, which quoted a doctor from the Mayo Clinic.
The UK’s National Health Service updated its website in 2020 to remove the statement that puberty blockers are considered to be fully reversible to state instead that:
“Little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria. Although the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be.”
No doubt these, too, can be questioned.
But to pretend they don’t exist or, worse, intentionally omit “facts that get in the way of a good story” represents a significant departure — in some cases an abject and shameful betrayal — of journalism principles.
Little wonder, then, that so much of the legacy news business is on the ropes.
Peter Menzies is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former newspaper executive, past vice chair of the CRTC and a member of the Western Standard Editorial Board