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National Newspaper Week and the importance of vigilance

In the midst of the 80th National Newspaper Week – it’s that time of year, even if you haven’t marked your calendar – publications across the country are highlighting their role as champions of the truth.

National Newspaper Week recognizes the role that newspapers and their sites play in providing Canadians with credible, factual news and spotlight why news media continues to be a trusted source of information that is critical to our democracy.

Some 88 per cent of Canadians read newspapers each week, underscoring the essential service newspapers provide with diverse, local, original content that cannot be found anywhere else.

The role of news in our lives is today more relevant than ever given the political climate and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have generated plenty of discussion about what’s news – in particular, what is fake news.

The coronavirus crisis has made stark the contrast between credible reporting and the rampant falsehoods that abound, particularly online.

Fake news about the virus and efforts to contain it are international in scope. Even the United Nations notes that the health crisis extends to what’s been called the ‘disinfodemic’ of false, misleading information in circulation, much of it the propaganda effort of various governments. At a time when many seek reliable information, the role of professional journalists is vital in breaking the confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices.

During the pandemic, Canadians have been spending more time with a range of media to stay informed and entertained. Social media plays a prominent role, but Canadians don’t necessarily trust in the information they get there. A Mindshare survey earlier this year, for instance, found that while 35 per cent of Canadians say they are consulting social media for information on the pandemic, only five per cent say they trust that information.

Trust in traditional media is higher, with an Angus Reid poll conducted earlier this year showing 55 per cent of adults in Canada had a “fair or great deal of trust” in the news media for outbreak information.

Study after study has shown trust remains an issue even as we’re inundated with ever-increasing volumes of information.

Clearly, access to the truth is at risk. For the legitimate press, the biggest threat comes from digital sources such as aggregators, which “appropriate” news generated by actual journalists, promulgates fake stories and debate, and draws away revenues despite studies that show such advertisements to be ineffective.

We’re catching on that online sources such as social media aren’t the reliable go-to options where facts matter.

Besieged by new technologies, fragmentation in the market and what seems to be an increasingly detached citizenry, newspapers do have much to worry about, and much work to be done to regain their standing.

While more people go online to get their news, few people are aware that most of the material provided by news aggregators such as Google or endlessly rehashed by bloggers comes from newspapers, the organizations with trained journalists on the ground, attending meetings and poring through documents.

It’s that heavy lifting that separates traditional media from new forms, and why most Canadians still consider mainstream media as the most trustworthy source.

Today, such sources are threatened by technological change, demographic shifts and damaging corporate ownership. All contribute to newspapers closing down, eliminating essential witnesses to the deeds and misdeeds of governments, businesses and other organizations. With fewer checks on corruption and incompetence, corruption and incompetence will increase.

That’s why we celebrate the contribution of newspapers: someone has to remain vigilant.

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