Fundamentals of Journalism

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by Victor Lachance

Should newspaper owners or editors be free to write articles about God or their religious beliefs in their newspaper? I say no. Here’s why: I believe freedom of the press and journalism are founded on key principles that when adhered to make the press a very valuable component of our society. Full disclosure: the North Grenville Times owner/editor David Shanahan and I have exchanged interesting emails on this topic. I personally think the Times is an asset to our community, and David and Maggie should be commended for it. They have created a newspaper that provides a voice for the people of North Grenville, and a place where readers can freely exchange their knowledge, views and opinions. And that is a good thing.

So what are these key journalistic principles, the ones that underpin our freedom of the press? It’s things like independence, impartiality, objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and balance. In my view the Times adheres to all these principles. However, if and when an owner or editor of any newspaper uses their paper to promote their personal spiritual beliefs, I think we compromise the principles of objectivity, impartiality and even fairness in light of other beliefs.

Now some might look at the Times and say it’s not a national newspaper, so what’s the big deal? Well, it’s about applying the same standards throughout the media. Newspapers are in the business of journalism, and journalistic integrity applies whether the paper is a small or big one, or whether an article in the paper is a small or big one. Take for example firefighting. We expect firefighters to respond to burning buildings whether they are big or small. Or air travel. We require planes to be mechanically safe whether big or small. Because it’s not about the size of the house, or the type of plane or the size of a newspaper’s circulation. It’s about applying the standards consistently.

Let’s go back to the plane example: from an airlines’ point of view it would be highly inappropriate for a pilot to do a mid-flight speech about his or her spiritual beliefs, or to start reading from the Bible or the Quran or the Buddhist Sutras. The airline would restrict the pilot from doing so. This is not a breach of our freedom of expression. Pilots have many other places to communicate their beliefs, but once they step into the cockpit, the plane is not one of them. I believe that once someone takes on the role of a newspaper owner or editor, they have many other places to communicate their religious beliefs, but the newspaper is not one of them.

Well then, can an Editor not express an opinion in his or her own paper? They absolutely can if it is presented as an opinion and it is stated as such. Editors do this all the time, and it does not breach journalistic principles. But an ongoing series of articles by the Editor is not the same thing.

So the question was: should newspaper owners or editors be free to write articles about their God or their religious beliefs in their newspaper? I say no. In my view all newspaper owners/editors occupy a unique and privileged position that means not advancing their personal beliefs, other than through opinion editorials. They have a responsibility to promote and protect the principles that underpin journalistic integrity.

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