The clear and present danger of blanket impartiality

Editorial by Canadian journalism organizations speaks of “urgent challenge” to denounce racism, on eve of 2021 U.S. inauguration

Last week, the world witnessed a historical first: the first time an American president was impeached twice. This event came, lightning-quick, one week after another event that sent shock waves around the globe: a premeditated attack on the United States Capitol building that led to the deaths of at least five people.

As Canadians, we watch in horror and disbelief as our neighbour and closest ally suffers such turmoil. As journalists, we want to warn you that Canada is not immune to the kind of scenario that led to these moments. And we want our fellow journalists to rise up to the urgent challenge now before us.

The people who stormed the Capitol believed a lie: Donald Trump’s false claims that the results of a free and fair election were not valid. That lie has its roots in many other false claims and offensive statements by Mr. Trump, not just during his presidency but also in the lead-up to the 2016 election. And it is in hindsight that we can see, with crystal clarity, that so-called impartial coverage of such statements has helped lead the U.S. to where it is today.

From insisting the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was, to telling Americans the coronavirus would just go away, the Birther movement, referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries, to telling American lawmakers of colour to go back where they came from racism and false claims have been a constant drumbeat of Trump’s legacy.

And yet many news outlets would not call some of these statements “racist,” and many others failed to label some of his claims as false, citing the need for impartiality, neutrality. In taking such a stance, these news outlets lent legitimacy to claims and opinions that deserved none.

Trump’s policies, his decisions based in Republican values: of course, those are to be debated by the public and journalists must not support or denounce them. The test of neutrality fits there.

But falsehood, is falsehood. It is a journalist’s duty to tell the public when an elected public official’s statements do not match reality, even when he is rich and powerful. It is a settled fact that telling blatant lies is wrong. And the public should know when that is happening.

By the same token, a journalist’s integrity cannot be jeopardized by calling out racism, and denouncing it. Racism is not a matter of controversy. It is widely accepted as wrong. And so there is no need to be impartial on the topic, no matter how powerful the person who is using the racist language.

We pen this reminder and warning now, not just because of recent events in the U.S. but also because of a ruling published just days ago involving the firing of a CBC journalist, Ahmar Khan, after he published a tweet denouncing the racist comments of Don Cherry. An arbitrator ruled in Khan’s favour, and you can read that ruling here.

Neither Khan, nor Naga Munchetty (read the BBC’s statement that it is not impartial about racism here), nor any other journalist, should be reprimanded for denouncing racism. Doing so is in the public interest.

And the public interest is our job.

Sincerely,

The Canadian Journalists Anti-Racism Coalition

Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ)

Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) executive team

Media Girlfriends

Journalists for Human Rights (JHR)

The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)

Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF)

Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ)

About CJARC: The Canadian Journalists Anti-Racism Coalition is a group of concerned media professionals from different newsrooms in Canada, formed in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd. Some are BIPOC, some are white all are against racism.

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