Our journalists face more harassment, threats to do their job

We use this editor’s blog to explain our journalism and what’s happening at CBC News. You can find more blogs here.

As the vaccine mandate protests unfolded in Ottawa (and later in other cities this past weekend), CBC took extra steps to ensure the safety of our reporters covering these events.

We have reduced our visibility and engaged additional security. We have identified fallback positions for our journalists and field teams. We conducted risk assessments for each deployment.

These precautions were justified. Over the past few weeks, we have seen many examples where our teams and other Canadian media have been verbally harassed, threatened and intimidated simply for doing their job of journalism:

  • At a protest in Vaughan, Ontario, one of our reporters overheard a group planning to “sacermine” another reporter and did not feel safe enough to report live for CBC News Network. The window of one of the CBC vehicles was smashed.
  • In Winnipeg, a reporter was surrounded and insulted by an angry mob. The security guard hired to accompany him was pinned against a car.
  • In Ottawa, a Radio-Canada journalist had to be pulled from the field a few minutes before going on air because demonstrators approached her screaming.
  • Our colleagues from other media outlets have faced similar abuse and intimidation as protesters attempted to interfere with their work.

It is not a question of painting all the demonstrators with the same brush. Many protested peacefully, although some tested the patience of residents and business owners whose lives were severely disrupted, in part by the blaring of car horns, leading to a temporary injunction for the shut up Ottawa.

A number of protesters spoke to our reporters and cameramen, offering important insight into their motivations. We have tried to capture all of this with precision and balance. Indeed, the protests are just one expression of the frustration and concerns more widely shared by some across Canada about the disruptive impact of COVID containment policies on people’s lives and businesses. It is incumbent upon us to reflect, report and challenge all aspects of this issue.

But it is also true that many protesters harbor a deep and growing distrust of news outlets like ours, reflecting their distrust of consensus opinion on public health, government policy and other institutions.

And there is a growing segment of Canadians who are actively hostile and threatening when they encounter journalists.

Trucks attempting to head south on University Avenue toward the Ontario Legislative Assembly are blocked by a police cruiser during a rally in support of a protest against COVID-19 restrictions 19 in Toronto on February 5, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

This hostility extends online. Some disturbing abuses have appeared in our inboxes and social media feeds, threatening our staff with arrest, graphic violence and extrajudicial trials. References to Nuremberg and betrayal are common. The dialogue is riddled with conspiracy allegations and “fake news”.

We tend not to share these experiences with the public because we never want to put ourselves in the center of the story. We work hard to carefully protect our journalism from self-interest.

Growing intolerance

It is important to understand how the growing intolerance of journalism is playing out in this country and making it harder for us to report the news, and to see that Canada is not immune to the same forces that propelled the mistrust and misinformation at record levels in other parts of the world.

We have our own work to do, of course. Every day, we reflect on what we do that can contribute to mistrust of our journalism: careless mistakes or lack of precision that result in public clarifications, corrections and ombudsman opinion; the missing voices and perspectives that leave some people feeling left out of our coverage; and the unconscious biases we need to understand and work to overcome.

But many external factors are also at play.

scratch at confidence in journalism in Canada are opinion makers and personalities who feed conspiracy theories with phrases such as “what the media doesn’t want you to know” or who make sweeping generalizations about “legacy media” or ” mainstream media” (MSM). Some alternative media websites exploit the “MSM/fake news” narrative to direct their own commercial and political interests. Disinformation designed to sow anger and distrust in the news media is common, such as this recently faked CBC News story. Social media platforms are slow to eliminate harassment and misinformation targeting journalists.

None of this is benign. Gradually, the erosion of trust in journalism is having a real impact on the people who do it and, by extension, on you, the people we serve.

There is no democracy without powerful news media.

While the safety of our teams in the field and online remains a top priority, our commitment to journalism and truth has not wavered.

As a public broadcaster, we will not be intimidated or back down from our commitment to independent, factual journalism and the public service mandate that underpins all of our work. But it is important that you know what we encounter on the ground.

At stake is the freedom of the press and media guaranteed by Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the same section that guarantees protesters the right to assemble and demonstrate peacefully.

Clifton L. Boyd