John White: Criticism welcome, slander and gossip not so much

There’s been a trend I’ve noticed in covering smaller communities recently that I’ve found disturbing.

The famous scene from Network known as the Beale Rant. This may have been me last week. (IMDB)

I’ve been toiling away in journalism in some form for more than 20 years.

During my career, I’ve worked in some of the smallest newsrooms in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. I’ve also worked in the biggest in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. I’ve seen everything twice, some things three or more times.

There’s been a trend I’ve noticed recently that I’ve found disturbing and disheartening: A handful of critics decide they are the voice of the community and bully everyone else at council meetings or public hearings and on social media.

Valid criticisms of local government are welcome and encouraged. Unabashed negativity and baseless accusations are lazy, often illegal, and damaging to those trying to serve their communities with passion and energy. Seeing wild conspiracy theories with no basis in fact bouncing around the internet is incredibly deflating for municipal politicians and journalists alike.

I’ve never seen it as bad as it’s been in Castlegar since my arrival here last winter.

I was accused of colluding with council by a long-time critic on Facebook Messenger early one morning, because we didn’t cover the main event from last week’s council meeting, except that we had. We posted it the previous day complete with detailed math and quotes from both sides. It just wasn’t posted on Facebook at that point. I get the confusion — we posted the council briefs to Facebook so it looked as though that’s all we were doing for the meeting.

I was then accused of presenting an unbalanced article on the Columbia Avenue spending because we didn’t use every word from lone critic Coun. Bruno Tassone in our piece. Our job as journalists is to provide a concise and meaningful summary of the event while presenting a balance in sharing both sides of a debate or disagreement. Given that the rest of council was for the project as amended, we did just that.

The worst example of this poisonous activity was a vomit of gossip surrounding the food bank that escalated to insinuations of corruption and a lack of reporting and accountability. Five minutes with Google and a phone call quickly provided us with actual facts, as reported in this week’s edition.

I’ve been attempting to counter these dangerous myths and accusations as they pop up over the past few months, but it got to a point last week where I had to say enough. I dropped out as a member of several Facebook groups and stopped responding to the conspiracy theories.

While it has been frustrating lately, all of my colleagues and journalist friends reminded me on social media that we are providing a critical community service with our work and we are needed now more than ever. With Monday’s news of further media consolidation and closures in Canada, the role of the community newsroom became that much more important.

I pledge to continue to do my best as an editor and a journalist. By all means, keep us honest with fact-based criticisms, but please drop the toxic rhetoric and groundless gossip.


On Twitter @johnkwhite


Email me at john.white@castlegarnews.com


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