When I was still in high school, I was uncertain about my future profession. Like so many teens, I changed my mind every few days about what I wanted to be "when I grew up." But, in my grade 13 year, a profession began to hold my interest. It was journalism. It seemed a natural fit for me: my strongest subject at school was English, I loved to write, and I was pretty good at it. All my essays and stories earned high marks, and my friends encouraged me to continue writing. So, with high hopes and shining visions of the future, I sent off my applications and marks to Ryerson and Western, both schools with journalism faculties. I visited Ryerson with some of my writing, met one of the profs there, took a tour and seemed on the verge of becoming the next great reporter. Then, I went to Western, toured around and Ryerson became a thing of the past. When it came time to choose my first year subjects, Journalism 20 disappeared and I majored in English and History, headed for a career in teaching.
But my interest in journalism never wavered. I suppose I held on to it as a possible second career, should teaching ever fall by the wayside. Happily for me, teaching proved to be my only true love and I continued in it for almost 30 years. During that time, though, I managed to keep my interest in journalism going. I taught journalism in my English Writing classes, and, along with my esteemed colleague Ben Korczynski, launched a newspaper at my school.
In those classes, I tried to teach my students the importance of journalism in a democratic society. I taught that we depend on a free and objective journalist class to inform us, provide truthful coverage of the day's events, and to promote honest and unfettered exchanges of ideas. When our political or economic masters make errors, I taught, it is up to journalists to point them out and hold their "feet to the fire" in order to keep them honest and not allow them to steamroller their agendas on us, or, worse, abuse their power. I tried to make my students aware that the so-called "fourth estate" was an honourable profession with high standards of ethics and excellence: any type of media which fell short of these standards was considered tabloid trash, pandering to base and titillating sensationalism, and not true journalism.
I also taught that , in order to perform these vital tasks, a journalist had to write with honesty, intergrity and in a completely objective manner. It was a journalist's task to lay out the facts and challenge the reader to interpret and form opinions. The journalist had to leave himself completely out of the picture, and had to answer, to the best of his ability, the 5 w's and H: who, what, when, where, why and how. In so doing, the journalist served the public well.
The reality, of course, is that, today, journalism is a highly competitive business. Profits are paramount, and, in the changing and fast-paced world we live in, traditional forms of journalistic media are hard pressed to exist in the face of newer, faster, more democratic media, such as the one you're reading now. Such competition has become cut-throat, resulting in less attention paid to the ethics of journalism, and more paid to competitive success, and to attention-grabbing stories masked in the guise of journalism, but more in line with entertainment, all of which is designed to grab the public's attention, and get them to buy the product. Journalism has become more of a commodity and less an honourable profession.
When the Toronto Star launched its investigative series on teachers who have dishonoured their profession and committed unprofessional and sometimes criminal acts, one could hardly criticise the importance of the information. The public has a right to know of these unprofessional teachers and has a right to know what has been or is being done about the offending teachers. The public wants to be assured that their children are safe from harm and are being well taught by the teachers we trust with the children's care. Fair enough.
But The Star took a turn that not only brought suspicion on all teachers, but brought out the low and utterly sensationalist depravity that journalism has sunk to. "BAD TEACHERS" screamed the banner headline, followed by "Ontario's Secret List". A photo of one of the accused bad teachers, a bald, pudgy man wearing the Canada Post uniform in a slovenly fashion, graced the page. A list of eight offending incidents followed, along with the note that a principal and vice-principal did not act on complaints of misconduct. This was followed by the assertion that "scores" and "dozens" of cases exist outside of those cited. The impression created in the article was one of widespread abuse and criminality, a veritable tidal wave of predation and professional misconduct worthy of the last days of Rome.
I do not doubt the truth of the cases cited. Nor do I suggest that the public should not know of it. We need to know about bad teachers, just as we need to know about bad doctors, bad nurses, bad lawyers, bad engineers, bad dentists, bad bankers, bad accountants, etc. I am angry whenever I read about a teacher who has dishonoured my profession. But there is greater anger in this situation. My true anger is directed at the way the issue was presented to the public.
One must ask what the purpose of The Star's front page layout was. Could it have been to inform the public, offer fair and balanced reporting of the on-going process of disciplining teachers who run afoul of the code of proper conduct? Or was it attention-grabbing , fear inducing paranoia with which our society now seems to be drunk ? "Parents," a single-sentence paragraph read, "these people could be in your school." What possible good is achieved by that statement? What impressions are created in the minds of the public, a public already prejudiced against the teaching profession? And what does this type of writing do to the morale of the teaching profession itself? It is undermined to the extent that doubt and suspicion are directed to the tens of thousands of honest, well-motivated and completely professional teachers who try each day to provide a vital and necessary service to the public. What was the motive, the intent of the reporter and, more importantly, his editors when they decided to present the story to their readers?
The teaching profession is periodically savaged by politicians who need to score easy points with the public at crucial election times. Apparently, teachers are now easy targets for craven journalists who wish to make a name for themselves as crack "investigative reporters", or newspapers who find themselves in tough competition for the public's patronage and are willing to sink to the levels of tabloids, pandering to our basest fears and emotions, in order to sell copies of their "reporting".
It is dishonourable, demeaning and unethical for them to do this. The Toronto Star in general, and Keith Donovan in particular, may feel that I have written this sentence about teachers: not so. That sentence is directed at the hack reporter and his yellow rag of a newspaper who pays him. Harsh words? Perhaps, but will the Star ever do a piece on members of its own profession who sink to levels of unprofessionalism by exaggerating, spinning the truth to serve their own ends, and scaring and manipulating people? What about the legendary stereotype of the hard-bitten reporter, drinking on the job, doing all kinds of questionable things in order to "get the story", paying off people, hounding and harassing, pestering, and even lying?
I eagerly await Keith Donovan's series on BAD JOURNALISTS. I suggest he begin his piece by looking in the mirror.