Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Media should ban the blight of email pap 'answers'

It's time for the media to push back at the epidemic of stupid, self-serving email responses to questions from politicians and government.
Once, not long ago, journalists called government for comment from officials or ministers They either got the chance to ask questions, or reported the government had no one available to comment.
Then the communications people came up with a better ploy - for them.
Email the questions, they said, and the minister or department will email answers.
And foolishly, many reporters and media outlets said yes.
Vancouver Sun columnist Peter O'Neil gave a great example of why that has been a really bad idea in his blog.
Last week, he reported the National Review Panel assessing the gateway pipeline is worried that Enbridge's various pledges to take extra measures to increase safety are all voluntary. The company, or future managers, could simply decide not to do them.
So the panel asked Transport Canada to look at ways of making the requirements binding. The most obvious solution would be to change the pipeline regulations.
O'Neil wanted to know if Transport Canada would do that. He tried to ask Transport Minister Denis Lebel.
Instead, he got this email response from "a spokeswoman:"

"I can tell you that our government is very supportive of the Joint Review Panel as it provides an independent and comprehensive evaluation conducted by scientists. Government officials are cooperating with the Joint Review Panel to ensure it has the information it needs. To that end TERMPOL (part of the panel review) recently responded in a clear and transparent fashion to an information request from the JRP. This kind of dialogue is essential to ensuring that this comprehensive evaluation is done scientifically, on an independent basis."

That kind of non-answer is the norm. And while O'Neil just reported Transport Canada had no comment on the issue, too often reporters actually use pieces of these emails, even when they say nothing.
And since the practice works so well in avoiding questions and managing information, it is spreading to companies and other organizations.
The solution is simple. The media should just say no when offered an email response and report the government or organization would not provide the minister or anyone to answer questions. If additional email answers are needed to provide technical information or detail, that's fine.
Politicians are brilliant at not answering questions - far better than most reporters are at asking them.
But they should at least get the chance to try to get answers.


Maurice said...

I agree completely. The media accepting these non-answers is shameful, and it shows how spineless the media has become. I think reporters should write "the minister would not answer questions", and leave it at that.

Martin Dunphy said...

I agree as well, Paul. The Georgia Straight might be alone in being the only publication in B.C. that neither prints emailed comments in lieu of interviews nor employs anonymous sources (except in exceptional circumstances; I can think of only three or four in the past 10 years, and identities had to be confirmed by a senior editor in every case).