What happens when a newspaper is in the news itself?
That’s a situation that The Question was faced with last week when the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) selected the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) as its Code of Silence Award winner for 2013, ‘honouring’ it as the country’s “most secretive government, department or publicly funded agency.”
Though a formal nomination for this award did not come from The Question itself, one did come independently from a journalist who works in our newsroom.
Contrary to other local reports, and to what Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden implied at the last council meeting, that nomination was made long before The Question was denied an interview with Whistler’s librarian about a digital bookmobile.
Rather, it stemmed from continued frustration with a communications policy limiting which municipal employees are permitted to speak on record with media, and a recurring struggle that journalist felt they faced in making requests to Muni Hall.
At the time that nomination was made, none of the other submissions made to the CAJ were publicly available. Whistler was revealed as a candidate about 10 days before it was named the ‘winner.’
Upon seeing the other nominees — including an Ontario municipality that allegedly held in-camera sessions to discuss banning a journalist from attending council meetings — our entire editorial board was genuinely surprised Whistler received the dubious prize.
Which brings me back to newspapers being part of the news. We are taught in journalism school to remove ourselves from a story to ensure objectivity, but the CAJ’s selection essentially made us a part of that story.
Last week, The Question self-imposed its own ‘Code of Silence’ on this topic because we felt our objectivity had been compromised. This week, we feel it necessary to share our perspective.
The RMOW is hardly Canada’s most secretive government agency, and not a legitimate candidate in the true sense of the award’s criteria. Our concern has been with a communication strategy used by previous award recipients who actually deserved it.
Our complaints about the RMOW’s communication policy are nothing personal — towards the mayor, chief administrative officer or staff in the municipal communications department. We know they care about this community as much as you or I, and aren’t suggesting they have secrets to hide.
It is merely the policy that we find troubling, because ultimately it is you, the readers, who are denied the most accurate information when municipal department heads are not made available to speak with the media.
We feel that the mayor is a more-than-adequate spokesperson for the RMOW, and an excellent one for this community. She would not have occupied a column space in this very publication for the 2 ˝ years preceding her current term if we thought otherwise.
However, there are simply times when she does not have the best insight or most extensive knowledge among all RMOW officials on a given topic — nor should she be expected to.
I’ve spoken with journalists across the country about this policy and they are shocked to see that approach for a small-town government. That’s because you won’t find this kind of communications strategy in many municipalities.
The reporters at our sister paper, the Squamish Chief, are welcome to conduct on-the-record interviews with District of Squamish staff members, then name and quote them in the paper — just as we were able to do with RMOW staff as recently as 2011.
As the main reporter covering the Village of Pemberton, I have been welcome to directly contact members of village staff and publish their comments without making a request to do so. It’s the same at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. Former Questionable Christopher Poon now covers municipal government in Surrey and White Rock. He, too, has access to all department heads in those communities.
Whistler’s is a communications strategy used in the corporate world. It has been applied increasingly at the federal and provincial government levels, garnering the same protests from journalists covering those beats.
The CAJ used Whistler as an example to show that it is a slippery slope for municipalities to parachute in those strategies from Ottawa or Victoria to a town of 10,000. Even if it wasn’t very accountable itself in choosing its Code of Silence winner, the CAJ opened a coast-to-coast discussion about what is an appropriate way for a municipality to engage with its citizens.
We at The Question wish to continue being part of that ongoing discussion moving forward.