A proposed regulation change by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has attracted some interest recently from prominent academics and bloggers. The proposed changes will reduce the scope of what the regulations will consider to be false or misleading news.
The public consultation on these amendments ends February 9th, 2011. Noticing this deadline today, I penned the following message to the CRTC:
I believe that changing the regulations for false or misleading news in this manner will seriously damage our public discourse.
As it currently stands, news broadcasters “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news.” The new regulations state that “A licensee shall not broadcast any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”
It seems that this was an attempt to clarify the definition of misleading news in order to make it easier for broadcasters to know the limits of what they are allowed to broadcast. However, this change will drastically narrow the scope of what is considered false or misleading news. This new definition is so narrow that it does not consider financial harm to individuals or organizations.
This is a very important point because of the great power that broadcasting media has over personal consumption and investment habits. Lacking a stipulation against false news leading to financial harm, broadcasters will be able to exercise their broad and subtle powers to manipulate markets.
Public figures such as politicians and celebrities are often the subject of news broadcasts. These looser regulations on false or misleading news do not include protections for the reputations of people or organizations. Damage to reputation can be connected to endangering of “lives, health or safety of the public”, but these connections are often not obvious. Damage to a politician’s reputation through the broadcast of false or misleading news can lead to a substantial distortion of our democratic system. One of the dangers of the specificity of the wording of this item is that it leaves out these broad categories of harm.
If broadcasters wish to provide ‘breaking news’ with reduced standards for truth and veracity, I believe that they must be required to explicitly state that there is a greater degree of uncertainty about each news item that they present in this fashion. Additionally broadcasters should be required to publicly retract statements that are shown to be false or misleading at a later time. Breaking news is certainly a valid form of broadcast service. However, we must ensure that the reduced standards for truth and veracity for breaking news are not allowed to be extended to the entirety of broadcast media.
The citizens of Canada currently rely on their news media for some measure of objectivity and fact-checking. Without strong regulations in place, this degree of trust and dependence can be used to mislead and misinform the public. It is my firm opinion that this change in regulation would cause Canadian broadcast media to become less reliable and trustworthy while still commanding a disproportionate amount of our national attention. In short, broadcast media is the primary residence of our public discourse and we should be keenly aware of the strength of its influence on our culture.
Allowing a greater degree of false and misleading news will undermine our public discourse. As a citizen of Canada, I firmly believe that we as a nation will be better served by broadcast media that has high standards of truth and veracity. As these tendencies are not naturally selected for in a media market, it is up to our regulatory agency to ensure that these standards remain high.
While broadcast media might wish for simpler or narrower rules for misleading news, it is in the best interest of the Canadian public to ensure that these rules remain broad and well-enforced. Even a single piece of false or misleading news can have dire long-term consequences for our society. In the world of today, the success or failure of commercial enterprise, personal expression, or political candidacy increasingly rely on the quality of their media coverage. This proposed change leaves room for some degree of manipulation and damage in all of these areas.
I think that the definition of false or misleading news should be clarified so that broadcasters will know the measures that they need to implement in order to abide by the law. However, this proposed formulation is far too narrow. In order to best serve the Canadian public this regulation must be expanded or generalized to include all of the major ways that false or misleading news can be harmful to Canadian citizens and organizations.
Benjamin Harack B.Sc. B.A.