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ROSEMARY GODIN: We can no longer turn away

A heap of folded newspapers. Professional journalism has always been the eyes and ears of the people. CONTRIBUTED
A heap of folded newspapers. Professional journalism has always been the eyes and ears of the people. CONTRIBUTED

Journalism certainly has changed in style since I first studied it in the last century.

I get chills when I realize that there are far too many people getting their “news” from “citizen reporters” who post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

I don’t like it when I feel that a television anchor is inserting their own views and opinions and biases into their work. And yet, I can’t deny that I am entertained by the major stars of certain networks as they barely hide their glee or disgust at whatever topic is the main viewer “hook” of the day. I think especially of my favourites like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo who pepper their nighttime CNN shows with liberal amounts of sarcasm — just the way I like my news.

Rosemary Godin
Rosemary Godin

Basically, what bothers me over the last few years is the tension I see between the Fourth Estate (journalism) and the Fifth Estate (civilian journalism). But with the May 25 public murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I have a higher appreciation for the necessity of the Fifth Estate.

It was during the pre-French Revolution years that society was divided into three “estates:” the First Estate (clergy); the Second Estate (nobility); and the Third Estate (commoners). And then, with the invention of the printing press, along came the Fourth Estate: journalism.

At its best, professional journalism has always been the eyes and ears of the people. It has put the highest priority on truth. Most importantly, it has held our officials and leaders accountable to the public and at times, has even performed the role of substitute opposition party when majority governments were lacking almost any.

And then, along came phones with cameras in them and social web platforms, and voila: we have the Fifth Estate — citizen journalists.

And this can mean anything from your neighbour with a camera to Russian operatives planting fake stories on Facebook. But, as dicey as it is to have folks playing loosey-goosey with the truth these days, thank heavens people have been in the right place at the right time to capture what is happening in society.

We can no longer deny the truth that ugly racism is a fact. We can no longer deny that our systems contribute to racism. We can no longer deny that people of colour have always been and still are on the receiving end of bias and violence. We can no longer deny that emergency forces have one heck of a lot of work to do with their staff members. We can no longer look the other way — not one of us.

Last month, we all watched a murder. We heard a murder. Those who have seen the video from Minneapolis where a law enforcement officer restrained 46-year-old George Floyd with his knee on the man’s neck for almost nine minutes until he died, are still in shock.

There was no denying what we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears. And for days and nights afterwards, people took to the streets to protest his death and the deaths of too many others through the years.

We all hope the protests will lead to change and especially, to justice. But our hearts break for all those men, women and children who lived through 400 years of racism in North America and who didn’t have cameras to testify to their truths.

I get chills when I realize that there are far too many people getting their “news” from “citizen reporters” who post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Trained professional journalists are still your best source of honest, balanced information. They’re not always perfect. Sometimes, they make mistakes.

The New York Times admits it made a mistake last week by publishing an opinion piece written by a Republican senator in the United States that called for use of military force against protesters if they couldn’t be contained otherwise. After quick backlash from the public and other journalists who expressed concern about how the column served to incite even more violence, the opinion page editor resigned.

His explanation was that they were hoping to present all sides of the issue — which is reasonable in most cases. The problem was, the column contained misinformation and so of course, did not live up to the New York Times’ high journalistic standards.

It had nothing to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with presenting truth to the public.

Even before May 25, we had been presented with the truth that our society is steeped in racism. We refused to acknowledge it — and did nothing about it. And now, we are confronted with the fact that the harm that happens to a person in Minneapolis, Minn. or Brunswick, Ga. or anywhere else in the world, has a harmful effect on ourselves or our neighbours in Cape Breton, N.S. We must do better and we must be better.

Rosemary Godin is a retired clergy and print journalist. She lives with hubby and Chuck (the dog) in Westmount where she learns a new word every day – and some are repeatable.

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