Community Values in the Law and Practice of Journalism

By Keel, Vernon A. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring-Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Community Values in the Law and Practice of Journalism


Keel, Vernon A., American Review of Canadian Studies


In the fall of 1995, at the same time that The Washington Post and New York Times were struggling with the decision to publish the Unibomber's manifesto, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local authorities were in the midst of a thirty-one-day confrontation with an armed group of natives at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia. CBC Radio interrupted its afternoon programming in British Columbia four times on 13 September with a brief message, broadcast in English and in the language of Shuswap Indians. The message was written by RCMP officials, who told CBC that it was what the renegades had demanded to hear. CBC senior management in Toronto endorsed the request by the RCMP to air the message, and defended their decision to accede to such demands "if the public interest is at stake." (1)

CBC's decision to cooperate with the RCMP during this confrontation was generally accepted in Canada as being the responsible thing to do. In fact, following the standoff, political columnist Jeffrey Simpson summarized the episode in a column in The Globe and Mail under the headline: "Thanks to RCMP, the Gustafsen Lake standoff ended quietly." The column made no mention of CBC's participation. (2) Across the border, however, the decision by the Post and Times to publish the Unibomber's manifesto drew strong criticism from leading media professionals as being a serious violation of the canons of American journalism. William Serrin, in a special to The Post, complained that the newspapers had violated those canons by giving in to the government and by turning their news columns over to a killer. (3) Others, however, like commentator Daniel Schorr, agreed with the publishers that "This centers on the role of a newspaper as part of a community" and argued that the public increasingly views the press as shielding itself behind the First Amendment to exempt itself from its responsibilities to the broader community. (4)

These contrasting illustrations and Schorr's summary observation help frame the issues discussed in this article by calling attention to: the relationship between media law and journalistic practice; the conflict between constitutional freedoms and civic responsibility; the importance of defining the role of the media in society; and the inherent conflict between the approaches of individualism and communitarianism. Building upon these issues, this article examines the ways and the extent to which the law, the courts, and the media in Canada tend toward perspectives that either favor the rights of individual journalists and media operations or emphasize the values of community and the place of the media within the broader context of communities. The first part examines the way courts in Canada compare to those in the United States in their interpretations of the respective constitutional provisions for freedom of expression by looking at themes in those judgments that appear to promote individual rights of the mass media on one hand, or community and societal interests on the other. (5) The second part begins an examination of the influence of English and French traditions on journalism and journalistic practice in Canada in ways that are similar to or different from those in the United States, particularly with respect to how these approaches encourage community or promote individualism.

Community and Individualism in the Law

While the legal systems in Canada and the United States share a similar tradition in English Common Law, their judicial and political approaches are different in important ways. For example, while their founding documents have some similarities, they reflect important differences in values and priorities. The American Declaration of Independence and its commitment to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is contrasted to the British North America Act with its emphasis on the "Peace, Order and Good Government" of Canada. The former reflects an individualistic, antigovernment theme, while the latter reflects a trust in government and ambivalence toward personal freedom. …

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