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Putting it in context: MPs and the media

by Archives October 12, 2005

Marlene Jennings is a politician who is not afraid to speak her mind. It has gotten her in to trouble in the past but it also puts her in a position to speak first-hand about the importance of media putting things into context. She spoke to students Tuesday afternoon at Concordia’s Loyola campus about the importance of journalists doing research and getting background on the stories they’re reporting.

Last spring Jennings was blasted by the media for saying that “we should embarrass the hell out of the Americans.” Other members of parliament felt the comment endangered Canada-US relations, and soon Jennings found herself in a position where she needed to make a public apology. The problem was, she wasn’t sorry, but the media made it seem that way.

She didn’t actually back down and retract her statement. “I apologized for using profane language, because my parents didn’t raise me like that,” she said, but the news at the time reported it differently. “It was reported that I apologized, but they didn’t say that I apologized for using profane language, not for the statement that I made; not for the content.”

Jennings drove the point home, saying, “Most of the major newspapers and the local newspapers, including the Gazette, did not state that I was echoing and agreeing with statements made by experts in that particular industry. Secondly, when they did report the apology, they didn’t report it accurately. Because it was not an apology for saying ’embarrass the hell out of the Americans’, it was an apology for saying ‘hell’.”

Jennings speculated that there may have been an agenda in the newspapers at that time relating to other political happenings, but made it clear that it’s not in the best interest of the media to omit information like that.

Opinions also shifted in the media in the following months, and Jennings found that many of the people who had condemned what she said four months ago were now turning around and saying the opposite. “All of a sudden all of these same journalists, these same newspapers, are saying exactly what I was saying, and are they giving me credit for it? No,” she said.

As a politician in the public eye, Jennings has had a lot of experience with journalists, so when she gives advice, she speaks from experience.

“When you interview a subject, try to be as fair as you can, and if they make a correction and the correction is accurate, make sure that it gets printed, because you may want to interview that same person three months or a year down the line,” she said.

It’s the best way to ensure that reporting stays as factual and fair as possible, Jennings said, and when the media is so often criticized for having biases it becomes that much more important to get the whole story. All the information may be factual, but if information is missing, it doesn’t tell the entire story and people are left to make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true.

It’s a battle with ethics the media is constantly fighting.

“Too often, even in the media, one tends to try to portray things as black and white and they usually aren’t,” Jennings said. “For instance, ‘MPs give themselves a five cent increase on the gasoline taxes’. The MPs didn’t give themselves that. 21 years ago, Parliament decided that they would tie the reimbursement for gas mileage to whatever the public servants get. The public servants gave themselves a five cent increase, and because of that, it automatically kicked in for the MPs. The MPs woke up on Thursday morning of last week to headlines, saying ‘you just gave yourselves a five cent per kilometer increase.’ They didn’t know that.”

Jennings said that was an example of how important it is to include all the facts in reporting a story and do the full research.

Too often assumptions are made without finding out what’s really true, she said, and people get branded as being or doing something that’s not true. If it’s said that a person is one thing, it does not automatically mean they are not the other. Near the end of her talk Jennings was asked about her stance described as being pro-Israel. She clarified that as well, making a clear distinction on a sensitive subject. “To be pro-Israel does not mean anti-Palestinian,” she said, asserting that she supports both.

The talk gave insight into the relationship of politicians and the media and how easy it is for information to become skewed. It’s clear that for the journalists covering the stories, they have a responsibility, deadlines or no, to put what they write into context and get the background surrounding an issue. Not all politicians are bad, and not all media is accurate. For the public reading what’s reported, they must also keep in mind that what they’re getting might not be the whole story and to be well informed they must dig below the headlines.

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