If one believes Jan Wong, one would believe that the media is the great defender of all that is holy and right on the campus of the University of New Brunswick.
Wong, a professor in STU’s journalism program, recently penned an article about the “turmoil” at UNB’s faculty of law. I don’t want to rehash the issues at UNB law; they have been discussed ad nauseum. But, Wong’s article illustrates a broader problem with the role of the media, particular to the UNB law issue as well as in the wider society.
Wong’s piece centred around the fact that the CBC was doing the real nitty-gritty work in terms of finding out information for students (and the wider public), and posited that UNB failed in its search process for Dean of the law school. Further, she chastised law students for being quiet throughout this whole process, and also for lashing out against the media and journalism students who were attempting, in their wisdom, to get to the bottom of this debacle.
Wong’s piece echoes sentiments printed in these pages before about the role of the media, in the broader community as well as in the context of the law school. There is a two-part argument implicit in all of these statements: first, that the media has a fact-finding role (and that they are good at it), and secondly, that the media (and the broader public), is always entitled to as much information as possible.
The first argument is unobjectionable. The media, historically, has been tasked with the responsibility in a free and democratic society of uncovering the information that people should know. One need only look at Watergate and the 2003 Iraq War to see the important role the media plays in any society worth its salt.
But how far does this role go, and do any responsibilities accompany it? This is the second part. The media is not a sacred entity always entitled to all information. For example, in the context of the law school issue, a private meeting was held between upper UNB administration and students. The purpose of the meeting was for students to raise important questions about their own education at the law school. Various media outlets attempted to enter the place, discretely. It was portrayed as a “closed-door” meeting, as if this were a bad thing. The fact that information was shared between two groups of people and not with the larger community was inherently wrong, in the minds of the media outlets.
This is where the media has a certain responsibility. Why should it be news that students are attempting to ask pressing questions about their own individual educations? This is a line-drawing exercise for the media — they must be able to discern when a meeting is private and not for public consumption, and when the information is clearly in the public interest. They have a responsibility to draw that line.
It’s unclear if the media is unwilling or unable to complete this exercise. It seems as if a philosophy of complete public disclosure governs the media’s conduct. Freedom of expression is their lifeblood. But this right (under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and I would argue in any reasonable conception of the right) are subject to certain limits. The media has a responsibility not to go beyond that line, where private information somehow becomes in the public interest. A good example is the controversies surrounding the personal lives of politicians. The media has often been at the forefront of trying their utmost to get the salacious details of extra marital affairs on the part of senators, presidents, and other high-ranked politicians. The line between where this information is in the public interest and where it isn’t is a blurry one. But the media has a responsibility to draw the line, much as they do in the context of a private meeting.
This is an inconvenient fact, and it doesn’t sound good to say it: we don’t have a right to know everything. The media doesn’t have the right to know everything. Nor do we have a right to say whatever we want without repercussion and without some limitation. What we do have a right to know is what is in our interest — in this case, this is what we, as law students, were trying to do in the context of the closed door meeting.
Sometimes, rather than being the knight on the white horse, the media can simply be the annoying little brother pulling on your sleeve.