Canadian Media in Crisis

Reporters and citizens struggle with aftermath of G20 Summit

Though it seemed to register barely a ripple outside of the host country, the G20 Summit held three weeks ago in Toronto has likely left scars that will long exist in the minds of local citizens, journalists, politicians, and the police.

Mike Drolet, Toronto correspondent for Global National, the evening newscast of one of the Canada’s three national networks, covered the demonstrations that were held over the course of G20 weekend. He saw and reported on the sporadic violence that erupted, and he has stayed on the story. There’s been a lot to cover in the ensuing weeks.

The Canadian media, of which I’m a member, are still grappling with what happened to the city, to citizens—and to themselves. In the wake of the G20, four reporters filed complaints with the provincial police watchdog alleging “that police physically assaulted and threatened to sexually assault the female reporters during the G20 summit.”

The media are also facing criticism for the quality and accuracy of their G20 coverage. The most common complaint is that reports—from TV news, in particular—focused on images of burning police cars instead of peaceful demonstrations, on episodes of violence rather than the widespread arrests of people, some of whom did nothing more than leave their houses at an inopportune time. (Two of the more popular YouTube video making the rounds post-G20 show a line of police charging a peaceful crowd that has just finished singing “O Canada,” and a police officer telling a young woman that she will be arrested if he’s touched by one of the soap bubbles that she’s blowing. She ends up being taken away.)

The criticisms of mainstream media coverage are, for the most part, not being met with official responses. Just as some members of the public feel as though those in charge of the planning and security of the G20 are not being brought to account, there is a segment of the population who express the same sentiment when it comes to the press. That lingering resentment found a focal point this week when bloggers and Twitter users accused Drolet and Global National of inserting misleading footage into a G20 report.

On Saturday, Drolet delivered a report about a march held by several groups to demand a full public inquiry onto police actions during the G20. Part of the report included clips of the violence that erupted on the streets during the G20. There were images of a shattered Starbucks window, of burning police cars, and of clashes with police. Here’s the report:

Did you spot the three-second shot of a demonstrator attacking two newspaper boxes? As eagle-eyed blogger Norman Farrell later noted, the boxes belonged to two newspapers in Vancouver, not Toronto. Clearly, that image had nothing to do with G20.

“I guess they were lacking in sufficiently outrageous footage of Toronto G20 vandals so they cut in a video of Vancouver black-bloc crazies knocking over two newspaper street boxes during the 2010 Olympics,” Farrell wrote.

He expanded in a follow-up post:

I raised the issue about Global TV carelessly or deliberately (choose one) spicing its national news report about G20 demonstrators with video showing Vancouver Olympics vandals in action because I see it as part of a pattern. Sometimes through carelessness, other times through intention to shape the message, the news is distorted. Neither is tolerable. Democracy depends upon a free and accurate, unbiased press.

Farrell’s posts and the video soon made their way into the #G20 discussion on Twitter, among other places. Farrell also took the step of filing a complaint with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), the independent body that administers standards for the country’s private radio and television broadcasters.

When I reached Drolet earlier this week, he was apologetic about the mistake and emphasized that it was completely unintentional—an editor working on the piece had mistakenly included the Vancouver footage.

“We had a large bank of tape made with all of the footage from the G20 and intermingled within it was a three-second shot from the Vancouver Olympics [protest],” he said. “This guy [Farrell] rants and raves like I’m trying to make it look worse than it was. The Vancouver riots were nothing compared to the G20.”

I also spoke with Neill Fitzpatrick, executive producer of Global National. He said Farrell would receive a letter from him explaining the error, and that a correction would be broadcast’s in tomorrow’s newscast. The mistaken report was originally broadcast on a Saturday, so the correction will air on the same day. The network will also be sending a letter to the CBSC. Yesterday, Farrell published a copy of Fitzpatrick’s letter to him, and you can read it here.

The mistake was unintentional, but it fed into the existing perception that mainstream media coverage of the G20 painted demonstrations as violent and destructive and, in the process, delivered an inaccurate depiction. Global’s careless mistake was understandable in its nature (lord knows it has happened many times before in TV newsrooms the world over). But it took on additional significance and meaning for some people because, rightly or wrongly, it was seen as part of the larger narrative of G20 media coverage.

Tomorrow’s on-air correction from Global will attempt to fix the mistake—but what about that larger perception? How do we address that? My fear is that we in the press won’t make any attempt to do so. People will forget the Global mistake, but the perception will remain.

While this issue is not the focus of reporters and newsroom leaders in this country, the press is, however, following up on the treatment of reporters during the summit. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has launched a survey of journalists “who believe their freedom of expression was compromised by police/security personnel during the G20 security operation.” A Web site run by the Canadian Journalism Foundation has been publishing first-person accounts from reporters who were caught up in the protests and violence that erupted over the weekend.

The country’s newspaper columnists are also weighing in, with one prominent writer, The Globe And Mail’s Christie Blatchford* offering a critical assessment of some of the people who called themselves reporters during the G20, declaring that “journalism is not merely a collective of the self-anointed.” Yes, the argument of who is and isn’t a journalist is once again part of the discussion.

Blatchford added: “… in the G20 protests, journalists, real or self-appointed, traditional or otherwise, had no special rights to go where we wanted and no special badge of protection against arrest.” The lack of discussion within Canadian media about the nature of coverage leads me to wonder if perhaps we feel as though there’s a “special badge of protection” that frees us from asking tough questions about our coverage the way we’re attempting to press the leaders responsible for the summit?

I’m just as deserving of this criticism because, as part of the team at, a recently-launched collaborative local news site for Toronto, I spent G20 weekend helping direct coverage while also producing some reporting of my own. (Our G20 work is collected here.) We haven’t done a post-G20 examination of our work, or that of the Canadian press as a whole. Perhaps this column is a first step towards doing so.

Many Canadian citizens are now calling for a full public inquiry into the G20, and a civilian-led review is planning to examine police actions (though there is debate about how effective this will be). It will be months or perhaps years before any of these processes are borne out, if at all. When it comes to an accounting of the good and bad of media coverage, we should do better by the public and be fast, thorough, and open about examining the faults and mistakes, no matter how small or accidental—present company included.

Correction of the Week

Lawyer did not have a drug problem: A story published in some Thursday editions about Curtis Kyles, a suspect in the killing of Crystal St. Pierre, reported incorrectly that criminal defense attorney Paul Fleming had problems with drug abuse and prostitution. The story should have said that Fleming questioned a detective about whether St. Pierre had drug and prostitution problems. – The Times-Picayune

Correction: This article originally misspelled Christie Blatchford’s first name as “Christy.” We regret the error.

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.