by Victor Lachance
Readers’ reactions to my recent Fundamentals of Journalism opinion editorial, and Times Editor David Shanahan’s rebuttal, included the argument that, if someone doesn’t like something in the newspaper, they simply don’t have to read it.
On the surface of it, “don’t like–don’t read” seems to be an acceptable argument. Nobody is forcing you to read something you don’t like. It’s also a reasonable statement if and when it’s meant to support our broader freedom of expression. “Don’t like-don’t read” is a simple shorthand way of saying that people should be able to say or write what they want, wherever they want. But things are not always that simple.
To begin with, we all know that there is no such thing as completely unfettered freedom of expression. For example, if you defame someone by saying or writing something that harms another person, there are several justifiable consequences, including criminal prosecution. You also can’t falsely scream “fire” in a crowded theatre. And, of course, you can’t spout or disseminate hate speech, or traffic in pornography. These are examples of well established and desirable limits on the freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But the issue in my Fundamentals of Journalism editorial was not freedom of expression. The issue is whether a newspaper is a place where you can, or should, publish whatever you want, in any way you want. Are there limits on the freedom of the press, just as there are limits on the freedom of expression? I think there are, and many of them have been established by the media themselves. That’s why I think that saying “don’t like–don’t read” doesn’t really work for a newspaper.
To begin with, you obviously have to read it to know if you don’t like it. Once you’ve read something, you may have something to say about what you’ve read, or about the way it was presented in the newspaper. A reader can express what they think is wrong about something in the paper and how they think it could be remedied. This, in my view, is a good thing, which can’t happen if you don’t read it.
It’s also possible that, even if you think there’s something wrong with what appeared in the paper, or even if you just didn’t like what you read, you might still have something positive to say about it. For example, you might welcome the fact that a particular subject has been raised in the news or in an opinion article. You might want to comment on the clarity of the argument, or even the author’s writing skills or style. None of this can happen, if you simply don’t read it.
Consider also that saying “don’t like- don’t read” is basically saying that the problem is the reader, and not the content or the blurring of news and opinion. I don’t think that’s what we want to say to readers of the Times.
But I think there’s an even more important point to make. The concept of “don’t like-don’t read” works a whole lot better if readers know up front what they are about to read: is it a news article, or an opinion piece? The separation of news content and opinion content is one of the fundamental principles of journalism. The blurring and mixing of news and opinion undermines that fundamental principle, and can undermine the integrity of any newspaper, television station, or social media. That’s why it helps to know whether you are about to read a news article or an opinion. This was the main point of my editorial: that there should be a very clear differentiation between news and opinion in all media.
There is a related and, I think, dangerous argument. It goes like this: this stuff is not written for you, so you shouldn’t engage in the debate, or criticize the article. In other words, you are an outsider to those who share some particular view. Furthermore, since you’re not one of us, you don’t understand what we’re saying, so how can you comment or criticize. This would go against one of the key roles of the Times: a place to exchange views and to become better informed about important questions and issues that affect our lives. In my view, “don’t like-don’t read” is a slippery slope to the increasingly uninformed politics and culture wars that are dangerously divisive.
When it comes to the content of newspapers, I think we should absolutely read things we don’t like so that we can be better informed, and, if given the opportunity, contribute to making things better.