Mainstream media, through industry associations, promise to be accurate, unbiased and accountable to readers, viewers or listeners. However, in words of Hamlet,
“. . . it is a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance.”
This is not a hugely egregious example but it is illustrative. A publication slants news by headlining a personal opinion that is given more than deserved weight by exaggeration of the source’s credentials. The quoted authority, it turns out, rather than being a professor of TRU as stated by the newspaper, is a retired instructor, teaching part time to cover temporarily for illness. In the ordinary use of the word, professor is a teacher of high rank at a college or university. These are the usual ranks of university teachers:
- Associate Professor
- Assistant Professor
- Lecturer or Instructor
Probably, Mr. Pillar should have been referred to as a Sessional Instructor or Sessional Lecturer. The news writer does not balance, examine or evaluate Pillar’s opinion, he simply repeats it because it serves the purpose, in this case, of giving readers a negative vision of the New Democratic Party. Then, as the correspondence below reveals, the respondent editor seems deliberately obtuse and in effect thumbs his nose at disapproval.
This my correspondence with Kamloops Daily News regarding their story headlined: “Infighting, lack of platform crippled public interest in NDP, says political scientist“:
Me to Kamloops News, March 22, 7:20 AM:
I believe you may have misidentified Ray Pillar in this article. It needs correction and a notice to readers of the error.
Me to Editor Mel Rothenburger, March 22, 1:16 PM:
I submitted a question about your source for a particular story headlined: ” Infighting, lack of platform crippled public interest in NDP, says political scientist”
Are you not prepared to answer questions about your source? That calls into question your headline. That would seem to contravene the Canadian Newspaper Association statement of principles, which include:
” to be accessible and accountable to the readers it serves.”
If I hear nothing, I will deal with the BC Press Council instead.
From Rothenburger to me, March 22, 4:21 PM
What was your question?
From me to Rothenburger, March 22, 4:26 PM:
Above message forwarded.
From Rothenburger to me, March 23, 12:32 PM:
Could you clarify in what way we have misidentified Ray Pillar?
From me to Rothenburger, March 23, 12:39 PM:
The headline is drawn from comments by one Ray Pillar, who is identified as a Political Science Professor of Thompson Rivers University, perhaps known to some as Cariboo College. I looked for information about Professor Pillar but found almost none. There is no one by that name listed on the college’s website, even on the faculty list for Philosophy, History and Politics.
The term “Thompson Rivers University professor” causes a reader to infer that Pillar is an active faculty member, with professor ordinarily defined as:
” a teacher of the highest academic rank in a college or university, who has been awarded the title Professor in a particular branch of learning;”
From Rothenburger to me, March 23, 12:54 PM:
Good afternoon, Mr. Farrell. I’ve just had a phone conversation with Ray Pillar and you may wish to contact him with your questions, since you claim you haven’t been able to locate him. His email address is as above, or you can call him at TRU through the switchboard . . . It would probably be appropriate for you to post an apology on your blog.
Are you in fact saying that Pillar is a Thompson Rivers University professor?
As opposed, say, to a part-time instructor?
Well I suppose you could track this down by checking with the union on whether Prof. Pillar is a designated professor under the contract, as opposed to a designation by this newspaper and the general public based on the fact he has instructed political science classes for years (one definition of professor being an expert who teaches in his area of expertise, commonly applied to those in universities), has been a resource person for local media on political matters for several years as well, and while he has officially retired currently instructs a number of political science courses due to an illness within the political science faculty at TRU. When he returns to full retirement at the end of this semester, we will likely continue to rely on his expertise and insights into matters political, and will refer to him as a retired university professor.
Me to Rothenburger, March 23 1:36 PM:
Thank you. I think you know that Mr. Pillar, no matter how valuable a resource you find him, is not a professor of TRU in the usual meaning of the term and that identifying him as such misleads and was done to lend meaning to his disputable opinion. I think that is a failure of journalistic ethics by your newspaper.
I don’t know for what you think I should apologize to Mr. Pillar since my words have been precise, accurate and not defamatory.
By the way, in checking, we determined that Mr. Pillar himself did not exaggerate his qualifications. While retired from his job of a TRU administrator, he is teaching two sections for an instructor who is on medical leave. I do not imply here that Pillar has been anything but honorable nor does he represent himself inappropriately. The ethical failing here is with the newspaper, particularly editor Mel Rothenburger.