Journalism and Public Relations

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Guy Versailles, APR, FCPRS
Public Relations and Society Series
College of Fellows
Canadian Public Relations Society: Advancing Public Relations and Communications Management
Journalism and Public Relations
Guy Versailles
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Guy Versailles
Canadian Public Relations Society
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Legal Deposit:  Third Quarter, 2016
Library and Archives Canada
ISBN e-pub: 978-0-9695752-0-7
The IT revolution and the expansion of social media have deeply transformed the nature of our
interpersonal relations as well as our relationship with our environment. At a time when
everyone has become a prolific user, producer and publisher of content in cyberspace, we must
reflect on the relevance of public relations and the new rules of the game. We're convinced that
the role of public relations is more important than ever, but we also know that it must adapt to
significant changes in communications brought about by new technologies.
Members of the CPRS College of Fellows are committed to advancing the profile of public
relations in Canada, to serving as a mentor to others and to writing and talking about the value
of effective public relations.
To this end, the College of Fellows is launching a new collection of thought leadership essays
under the theme “Public Relations and Society” as a contribution to the discussion surrounding
our profession.
The essays will focus on various aspects of ethics, philosophy, the history of public relations,
its integration, role and usefulness in modern society and its interaction with other professions.
Our goal is to promote a better understanding of the nature of public relations and its
contribution to society, to increase outreach, credibility and the influence of the profession with
business, government, and journalists and, finally, to give College of Fellows members an
innovative way to contribute their experience and expertise to the development of
the profession.
We intend to publish a collection of essays on various topics of interest to public relations, and
we hope that these publications or their authors will be solicited in various events such as
conferences, trainings, seminars, etc.
With this new collection, we wish to contribute to the conversation about the current state and
future of public relations. The essays will be written from the perspective of practitioners and
based on the realities of practice, and they will be made available as an electronic book and pdf
file, in French and English. Each essay will be subject to a peer review committee (CPRS Fellows),
which will evaluate their quality and relevance to the concerns of PR today.
We hope you will appreciate the first essay in the collection, “Journalism and Public Relations”,
written by CPRS Fellow Guy Versailles and reviewed by more than 12 Fellows from across
Daniel Granger, APR, FCPRS
CPRS College of Fellows Presiding Officer
Journalisme et relations publiques
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Table of Contents
1. Journalism and Society………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………08
Journalism and democracy
The Hutchins Report
Quebec and Canada
Journalism and other powers
Freedom of the press vs property right
The commercial imperative
The cost of information
2. The Public’s Right to Information………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………17
Debate on the actual scope of the public's right to information
Reframing through ethics
The historical opposition between journalists and publishers
3. Journalistic Ethics and the Journalist’ Work………………………………………………………………………………………………………23
What the codes of ethics say
The journalist as a participant in the social debate
4. Brothers Enemies or Siamese Twins? ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………27
How journalists see public relations professionals
The nature of the relationship between journalists and public relations professionals
5. Training and Professional Supervision of Journalists…………………………………………………………………………………………34
Professional supervision and journalist unions
The newsroom
6. The Future of Journalism……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………39
The debate on the status of the journalist
Social media and democracy
Reinventing the business of news
The question of ownership
Affirming the timeless values of journalism
About the author……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..……………………60
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This essay is neither a textbook nor a practical guide. It summarizes my observations and some
things I believe are true, based on almost 40 years of practice in public relations. Nevertheless,
I have always tried to confirm my observations by reading specialized works. The practice of
public relations is becoming more and more professional. My only ambition is to add a brick or
two to the wall.
I take full responsibility for the ideas expressed in this essay. However, I must thank the many
colleagues with whom I have maintained fruitful exchanges and who commented, completed
and sometimes corrected my thinking through their insightful comments.
My friend John Aylen, himself an accomplished communicator and writer, was one of the first to
encourage me to publish. His continual support often got me through difficult periods when
I was less motivated. I thank him.
The following people have agreed to read one or more of numerous preliminary drafts.
Their comments have helped me greatly enrich the text.
As for public relations: my colleagues Andrea Collins, APR, FCPRS, Dana Dean, APR, FCPRS,
Deana Drendel, APR, FCPRS, Lucie-Anne Fabien APR, Joanne H. Fortin, APR, Daniel Granger, APR,
FCPRS, MBA, Elizabeth Hirst, APR, FSCRP, LM, FCPRS, Diane Jeannotte, Sarah K. Jones, APR,
FCPRS, LM, Antoine Landry, M.Sc.A., ARP, CPRS, Guy Litalien, APR, Alexandre Sévigny, PhD, APR,
MCIPR, Sharlene Smith, APR, FCPRS, LM, François Taschereau, APR, Diep Truong, Jean Valin,
As for journalists, Pierre-Paul Noreau, Editor and President of Le Droit, Ottawa’s
French-language daily, with whom I studied journalism at Laval University too many years ago,
Florian Sauvageau, who was our teacher, and Guy Amyot, Secretary general of the
Quebec Press Council.
To all of them, and to those I might have forgotten, my deep gratitude.
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What All Good Public Relations Professionals Should Know
About Journalism and Journalists
It is difficult to calmly explore the relationship between journalists and public relations
professionals as it is fraught with conflicting emotions. Several journalists take pleasure in using
the term “public relations” in its most derogatory meaning. As well, what public relations
professional does not occasionally experience a fit of rage at the bad faith of some journalists
who insist on distorting their words, or ignoring them? Several books have been devoted to the
passionate description of those conflicting feelings.1 That is not my point in this essay. On the
contrary, I will endeavor to identify all the gateways through which it is possible to build respect
and trust between these two professional groups, which are fused at the hip.
Exploring the boundaries between journalists and public relations professionals is a delicate
undertaking, but it is unavoidable. Public relations professionals interact with journalists more
than with any other group. Working sometimes together and sometimes in confrontation mode,
for better or for worse, their practices blend daily.
I’ve been a PR professional for over 35 years. But when I entered Laval University in Quebec
City, it was to study journalism. I completed a bachelor’s degree with a major in this discipline.
Communications theory, social psychology, the history of journalism, the rights and duties
related to information occupied an important part of this program. We were about 400
students, about a third of us each year completing the program and entering a labor market
where the number of available journalism positions was much lower. We were very worried
about competition from the CEGEP de Jonquière that produced graduates in journalism
techniques. Their training focused primarily on practice; would employers prefer to hire these
graduates already familiar with the realities of the newsroom rather than candidates rich in
academic knowledge but with precious little exposure to practice?
In fact, available positions were few and, in my first job, I plodded professionally at a provincial
radio station where news existed mainly to meet the requirements related to broadcast licenses
granted by the CRTC. Isolated, without professional guidance, I saw no future in that position. So
much so that when the late journalist Jacques Guay, who had been my professor at Laval
University, called to tell me of an opening for a press officer in the service of a Government of
Quebec minister, I jumped at the chance, leaving at the same time the profession where I had
barely set foot to enter a different world, that of public relations. The image that comes to mind
after all these years is that I went through the mirror; everything was similar and yet everything
was different.
My government career lasted eight years, I then earned my living for several years as
a freelancer before joining Hydro-Québec to take responsibility for media relations, and after
1 To give a few examples, journalists John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have virulently denounced the excesses of public
relations for several decades. In 1995, they published Toxic Sludge is Good for You and have also co-edited the whistleblowing
website PRWatch, funded by the Center for Media and Democracy (, which also coordinates several other
projects to expose the failings and abuses of public relations and lobbyists. Public relations professionals have been less active in
criticizing journalism. Michel Lemay, a Quebec public relations professional, published a highly relevant book in this regard in 2014:
Vortex. He also regularly publishes about journalism on the site
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that I was named vice president for Public Affairs at the Fonds de solidarité FTQ
(a Montreal-based major investment fund), then back to consultation. I worked very closely with
journalists for more than 20 years and with varying intensity since, without ever ceasing to be
interested in their professional practice.
Throughout these years, my university education influenced my relationships with journalists.
All these theoretical concepts that we weren’t sure would ever be useful turned out to be very
helpful. They allowed me to understand from the inside the role of the journalist. I was able to
put myself in his shoes, I knew why he was always questioning everything I brought him, I also
knew that I was never to expect to see a journalist buy my story without trying to check and
compare it with that of other stakeholders. I believe this particular sensitivity enabled me to be
a better public relations professional, to build over the years constructive professional relations
with many journalists.
I am now at the stage where I want to summarize what I understand about journalism. I write
this essay mainly for my PR colleagues, hoping it will be useful to them. Perhaps some
journalists will also be interested to read the outlook on their profession of someone who
understands and respects the importance of their work.
First, it is very important to explore the role of journalism in our society. We will quickly examine
how the origins of journalism blend with those of democracy. Freedom of the press will then
lead us to explore the public's right to information and the role of this concept in the defense of
the independence of journalists from all powers external to journalism itself. From there, we will
address the question of the ethics of journalism, essential knowledge for any public relations
professional who wants to build constructive working relations with them.
We then describe the unique nature of the professional relationship between journalists and
public relations professionals. This relationship is one of interdependence, sometimes
characterized by distrust, even hostility, and at other times, ideally, by a respectful
collaboration. PR professionals and journalists who believe they can do without one another are
wrong. Both functions are necessary and complementary, but by its very nature the relationship
between the two creates tension. This tension can be constructive, under certain conditions.
We then discuss the importance of training for journalists, and the role of unions and
professional associations in supporting quality journalism—which brings me to develop the
concept of the press room as a place of power for journalism, whose very existence is in fact the
main distinguishing feature between genuine information media and business publications for
Finally, it is important to understand some of the major debates in journalism today. Because of
the impact of social media, ratings in electronic media and print readership are melting away by
the day. The economic model that has supported the media for two centuries is no longer
viable. Journalism jobs are disappearing by the thousands and, increasingly, many outlets have
had to close their doors altogether. How can we ensure the media survive, or at least the
journalism profession survive? How can journalism resist the pressures of content marketing?
Should the state intervene and, if so, under what circumstances, to ensure journalistic
independence? Are other business models possible?
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Despite the advent of social media and perhaps, indeed, because of social media and its
disruptive effect on democratic life, the role of journalism is essential today, more so than ever
to establish a common base of proven facts and provide a forum for exchanges tempered by an
ethic of discussion. The news media is being redefined and no definitive model has yet emerged.
Journalists themselves seem to firmly stay the course and set their sights on journalistic
I hope this essay will contribute to the improvement of the professional practice of public
relations in a context of media relations, by proposing to my colleagues a better understanding
of the nature, role and constraints specific to journalism.
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1. Journalism and Society
In the 1980s television series Scoop2 the multibillionaire media owner played by Claude Léveillée
says: “I manage all my businesses from A to Z, except one: the newsroom of Scoop; it's too
complicated.“ Management of a newsroom can be compared to the supervision of a herd of
cats, meaningful to anyone who knows a little bit about the temperament of the average feline:
domesticated perhaps, but nonetheless supremely independent.
Journalists resist any external intervention in their professional practice. They place a high value
on their freedom of speech and liberty of action. This value stems from a clear awareness of
their role as watchdog of democracy and an idealistic conception of journalism as free of any
influence. The reporters wants to choose the object of their reporting and to determine the
angle they will develop without any interference. The journalist accepts no supervision, other
than the one imposed by journalism itself, as expressed through the institutions proper to
journalism, such as, in Quebec, the Quebec Press Council and the Federation of Professional
Journalists. In a previous era, journalists' unions also played a key role in the defense of a free
and independent journalism. Within news organizations, the newsroom is also a locus of power
for journalists; it is where the news is collected, analyzed and prepared for publication. We will
revisit the importance of the newsroom regularly in this paper.
There are strong historical and legal arguments to support the need for the independence of
journalists. The term “fourth estate,” often used to describe the practice, summarizes the
fundamental importance of journalism for the maintenance of a democratic society. Lawyers
resist the idea that some rights or freedoms may be more important than others. However, it
can be argued that freedom of expression, that is freedom of speech, from which derives press
freedom, is the first and most important of all. Without freedom of expression, no other
freedom or rights can exist.
Democracy is based largely on a division and balance of powers between the legislature that
makes laws, the executive, which applies them and manages the business of government, and
the judiciary, which arbitrates disputes that may arise in society and sanctions those that do not
comply with the law. The fourth estate, journalism3, informs and educates citizens on how each
of the three other estates fulfills its responsibilities as well as on current affairs. At its best, it
fosters public debate and it provides citizens with the information required for informed
decision making. That, in a nutshell, is the essential role of journalism in a democratic society.
2 Scoop was the name of the newspaper where the main characters of the series worked.
3 This is the modern interpretation. Originally, the three first estates were the clergy, nobility, and the burghers or, in some
countries, the people.
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Journalism and democracy
Freedom of speech and its corollary, freedom of the press, were founding concepts of the British
parliamentary system, as well as of the Enlightenment in France. Without such protections, the
reformers behind these movements would have been subject to the arbitrary nature of royal
power and religious absolutism. These fundamental freedoms that we take for granted today
were born in adversity and journalists have been at the forefront of all great struggles for
The practice of journalism was gradually forged throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, in France and England. In the latter country, Milton and Locke in the seventeenth
century and later, John Stewart Mill, to name only these three pillars of modern thought,
strongly articulated the benefits of freedom of expression.4 Press freedom was formally
established in 1641 under Charles 1. Like the parliamentary democracy of which it is an essential
attribute, freedom of the press has long remained fragile – sometimes abolished, sometimes
tolerated. In 1662, the Licensing Act imposed penalties so severe that only the London Gazette,
tightly controlled by political power, was still published. In 1695, the English Parliament decided
not to renew the Licensing Act, so that freedom of the press would foster an increasingly
vigorous debate of ideas. Other laws will periodically mark the attempts of power to control
information, sometimes by taxing newspapers to make them unaffordable for the people,
sometimes by prohibiting them from covering parliamentary debates. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that press freedom as we know it was actually acquired.
A similar path was followed in France. Press freedom and Royal censorship clashed, from the
creation of La Gazette by Theophrastus Renaudot in 1631 until the French Revolution a century
and a half later, where press freedom was enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights and the
Citizen of 1789.5 Press freedom would survive more or less unscathed through the political
regimes that followed the revolution throughout the nineteenth century and be institutionalized
in the Act on Press Freedom of 29 July 1881 that defines a legal framework still in force today,
which provides for freedom of press.
In the British colonies of North America, despite the fierce opposition, censorship and
repression exercised by the colonial authorities, four newspapers were published in 1725. Their
number increased to 37 in 1775. The Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a tax on the transfer of
all printed materials – including newspapers – was one of the major causes of the widespread
dissatisfaction with the British government and was at the origin of the American Revolution.
The authors of the United States Constitution, including James Madison6, saw in free expression
a fundamental value, which is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution:
4 Their writings have also greatly inspired the architects of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which will be discussed
5 Article 11 of the French Declaration of Human Rights and the Citizen of 1789: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions
is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except to respond to the abuse
of this liberty in cases determined by Law.”
6 James Madison is considered by many as the father of the US Constitution and in particular the balance between the legislative,
executive and judicial.
Journalisme et relations publiques
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« Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances. »
Freedom of expression is far from an abstract concept for the founding fathers of the US
Constitution. Rather, it is seen as the first and fundamental condition allowing any citizen to
participate in public debate and informed decision-making on the affairs of the country. This
belief has been repeatedly reaffirmed.
The Hutchins Report
In 1942, Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, asked the Chancellor of the University of
Chicago Robert Maynard Hutchins to study the current state and future prospects for the
freedom of the press. Hutchins assembled an areopagus of the best minds of the time. Released
in 1947, the Hutchins Report7 is widely recognized as the main founding document of the
contemporary North American conception of what should be the role of the news media in
society. Seventy years later, it still has a profound influence on journalism.
The report shook the pillars of the temple. Freedom of the press was threatened, according to
the Commission, for three reasons. First, the number of people with real power, as opposed to
theoretical power, to express themselves through the mass media was very low. Second, those
who hold this power do not always adequately meet the needs of society in terms of
information. Third, those who control or work in the mainstream media hold an unfair
advantage over the rest of the population in that they can influence and even decide the
content of the media. These three factors result in a paradoxical reality: never before had there
existed so many media nor had they ever been distributed as widely, however the number of
people who actually had the opportunity to be heard was very limited.
Profoundly convinced of the democratic ideal that should regulate the conduct of media owners
and journalists, the authors of the Hutchins report defined five conditions required to maintain
a free and democratic press. The media should:
• Report truthfully, completely and intelligently on the events of the day and place
them in the appropriate context for the public to understand their meaning;
• Be a forum for discussion, debate and criticism and even publish opinions contrary
to their own editorial policy to promote better mutual understanding between the
various factions of society;
• Be a place of expression for all groups constituting society, again to promote mutual
understanding through the expression of different opinions;
• Introduce and clarify the ideals, values and objectives towards which society as
a whole should strive;
7 Luce requested “…an inquiry into the present state and future prospects of the freedom of the press.” The result was the Report of
the Hutchins Commission: A Free and Responsible Press, 1947.
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• Endeavour to disseminate all the information available to as many people as
The Hutchins report had a very deep impact on American and world press, despite a hostile
reception from journalists as well as media owners at the time, who were particularly concerned
that the report could be used as a pretext for a government takeover of the media under the
guise of facilitating the democratization of information.
« Hutchins predicted that it would take nearly a decade for his
report to have an impact; it actually took longer. By the 1960's
there were critical press reviews, local press councils, academic
research, professional seminars, and self-studies by the
professional associations. Journalism students around the country
learned of the Commission's message of social responsibility
through class discussions and assigned readings. Press criticism
and analysis became popular in magazines, news weeklies, and
some newspapers. Editorial and publisher's viewpoints columns
sometimes took up criticism and response in the 1970s and 1980s.
The ideals of the Hutchins commission sparked a social
responsibility movement internationally … Through the
understanding of social responsibility, journalists worldwide are
more committed to such values as international understanding
and world peace. The efforts of the Hutchins Commission in the
1940s contributed toward the way professional press criticism is
practiced and viewed today. »8
On the basis of the Hutchins Report, in 1956, Theodore Peterson, Professor of Journalism and
Communication at the University of Illinois elaborated a theory on the social responsibility of the
media which stated that they must both educate and enlighten the population, preserve
individual freedoms, serve the political and economic system, entertain people, and at the same
time ensure their own financial health. For Peterson, free expression is a moral right and media
operators are obligated to make sure that all significant viewpoints of the citizenry are
represented, who should see that all ideas deserving of a public hearing will be shared.
This theory flourished, its influence considerably overflowing US borders and with it, Hutchins’
ideas established themselves in a very deep and sustainable way. Hutchins directly inspired the
creation of press councils; the strong tradition of journalistic criticism by journalists themselves;
and the news media tradition of openness to debate and to the confrontation of opinions. The
curricula of university studies in journalism programs, journalistic codes of ethics and
professional conduct, are to this day inspired by the Hutchins Report.
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Quebec and Canada9
These great traditions are very much present in Quebec and in Canada. It must be noted,
however, that the Francophone media have developed a much more militant tradition. English
Canadian newspapers generally followed the North American tradition to favor information and
advertising and based their prosperity on an alliance with the business community. The
newspapers of French Canada, by contrast, were much more controversial in their content and
supported a sometimes virulent debate fueled by the themes linked to the survival of a minority
people; their prosperity depended on the support of secular and clerical elites.10 A very
committed activist press existed in Quebec until the 1950s, where large dailies openly supported
one or the other major political parties, and sometimes even belonged to them.11 Beyond these
differences, however, all Canadian newspapers embraced ideas from Hutchins and Peterson
from the mid-twentieth century onward.
In Canada, press freedom and freedom of opinion are enshrined in the main legal texts that
define our country. Article 2b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives everyone
“freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of press and other
media of communication.” Freedom of opinion and expression are also recognized in Article 3 of
the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These Canadian legal instruments are inspired by
documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in
1948, in which Article 19 reads: « Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and
impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.»12
Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression allows everyone to develop their own
beliefs and to express themselves freely. For our ideas to travel beyond our immediate circle of
friends, we need to publish or disseminate them. That is why these freedoms include freedom
of the press, which allows the infinite variety of media of all kinds that solicit our attention daily.
In totalitarian countries, only media allowed by the government can publish, which necessarily
restricts the range of available content and opinions. Thus, freedom of the press complements
freedom of thought and opinion by allowing everyone to express themselves.
9 We summarize here in broad strokes a story that deserves to be known but that would take us too far from our purpose. For
Quebec, see in particular the three books published by the Petit musée de l’impression, quoted in the bibliography, as well as the
first pages of the book published in 2016 by Claude Robillard, La liberté de presse, la liberté de tous, also quoted in the bibliography
10 On this topic, see Chapter 1 of the report of the Royal Commission on Newspapers (Kent Report), 1981, 91 pages: http://epe.lacbac.
11 The tradition has continued in an ephemeral way, with the experience of Le JOUR, a Montreal newspaper managed by a resolutely
separatist society of editors which published from 1974 to 1976. For a brief overview of this subject, read pages 11-17 of Réflexions
et mises en contexte de la situation créée par l’élection de M. Pierre Karl Péladeau, published by the Centre d’étude des médias,
Laval University, 2015. (available only in French)
12 See also the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, which entered into force in 1953. Here is a relevant excerpt
from Article 10: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom of opinion and freedom to receive
and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
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Journalism and other powers
Journalism plays an essential role in maintaining democracy by disseminating information
without which it is impossible for a person to exercise responsible citizenship in an informed
manner. This does not mean that journalists can exercise this role without constraint. Indeed,
journalists continually encounter strong resistance from other authorities that wish to orient the
content of the media, in the fields of information as well as in entertainment or culture.
Journalists are constantly struggling to preserve their autonomy.
We are not talking here about the resistance that can be expected of a person or institution
opposing the publication of information which is unfavorable to them. Such constraints are
commonplace and are relatively easy to overcome, at least for the major media that have the
means to involve their lawyers as needed. Beyond this form of resistance, journalists must deal
with constraints that occur most often in a much less obvious way and that influence the
general nature of journalistic content, more than the specific items of information reported.13
Freedom of the press vs property right
The most fundamental constraint on journalistic freedom is linked to ownership of the
publishing tool. Freedom of the press belongs to each person. Two options are available to a
person who wishes to speak publicly. First, get a news medium to publish their opinion; it is up
to the owner of this media to decide. Second, choose to publish by himself, or herself, which is a
convenient option for anyone with the material means to do so. While early newspapers
revenues depended solely on newspaper sales, the appearance of advertising in the nineteenth
century helped make newspapers become commercial enterprises whose operating costs
increased continually.
One requires significant resources to purchase a press and print and distribute printed material.
For all practical purposes, as Hutchins noted 80 years ago, press freedom could only be
exercised by a small number of rich people; the situation remains the same today. In these
companies, the journalist is an employee and, ultimately, it is not them but the employer, the
owner of the newspaper, who may determine what will be published or not.
News media owners, while conceding autonomy to journalists in terms of news coverage, have
always wanted to maintain their prerogative to shape the information policy and the editorial
direction of their publication. This situation is expressed in various ways. Thus, the owner will
hire or grant a promotion to a management position to a person who shares their views. In
collective agreements, the concept of “management rights” gives the owner the right to guide
editorial policy and news coverage in a broad sense. This reality applies to radio and television
as well as to print media, and also to most new Internet-based platforms.
13 The following paragraphs are closely inspired by the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. The French translation of the book was used: Herman, Edward and Chomsky, Noam La
fabrication du consentement: de la propaganda médiatique en démocratie. édition Agone, 2009, 662 pages.
See also, for Quebec: La liberté de presse, la liberté de tous, published by FPJQ in April 2016, where Claude Robillard describes at
lenght the attacks on freedom of the press noted the FPJQ.
See also, for Canada : National Freedom of Information Audit 2015, published by Journaux canadiens / Newspapers Canada :
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Widely distributed ownership media is less problematic for democracy, since it allows the
expression of a wide range of opinions across a society. However, the situation is very different
when the concentration of media ownership reduces or threatens to reduce the diversity of
voices. Ownership concentration has continually increased over time and particularly since the
In the US, about fifty giant firms dominated nearly all media in 1980. There remained only 23 in
1990 and nine in 2002: Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Viacom (then owner of CBS), News
Corporation, Bertelsmann, General Electric (owner of NBC), Sony, AT & T-Liberty Media and
Vivendi Universal. These media empires possessed all of the major film studios, major television
networks, record companies, and a significant share of cable channels, cable networks
themselves, magazines, television stations and commercial editing houses.
The situation is no different in Canada. The Royal Commission on Newspapers (the Kent
Commission) noted in 1981 that “three chains account for nine-tenths of the circulation of
Francophone dailies, while another three share two thirds of the circulation of English-language
newspapers.»14 The trend towards consolidation has since continued. Carleton University’s
Canadian Media Concentration Research Project found that in 2014, five conglomerates (Bell,
Rogers, Shaw,Telus and QMI) account for 73% of market revenues. These “vertical integrators”
are active in content production (except for Telus) and offer internet services,
telecommunications and broadcasting. The same team also demonstrated that the
concentration of ownership in this area has grown faster in Canada than elsewhere in the world
between 2005 and 2013 and was higher in 2013 than in the 28 other countries studied.15
In 2015, in French-speaking Quebec, different measures of circulation, audience ratings, time
spent by readers or listeners, vary somewhat but all point in the same direction: behind the
apparent multiplicity of print titles and radio and television stations, a small number of large
groups form an oligopoly. Quebecor accounts for about a third of printed market and over 75%
of the television offer. The Gesca group, Quebecor, and Media Capital Group combined hold
about 90% market share of the Francophone press. Cogeco Group, Bell Media and the CBC
account for over 90% of the radio offering.16
The commercial imperative
As the media have become exclusively commercial entities and as their dependence on
advertising has increased, they have been subjected to indirect constraints that may influence
the direction of press coverage. Advertisers, including governments, more or less discreetly
exert real power. From a commercial point of view, the media owner wants to increase its
circulation to provide the widest possible audience to advertisers, hence the perpetual
temptation to offer not the information content required for the enlightened exercise of
citizenship responsibilities but the most popular content. From the editorial point of view, the
14 Kent Commission Report, page 1.
15 Canadian Media Concentration Research Project :
16 Réflexions et mises en contexte de la situation créée par l’élection de M. Pierre Karl Péladeau, Centre d’étude des médias de
l’université Laval, 2015, pages 19 to 25
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media owner wants to please - or, more accurately, not to displease - the advertiser. This can
lead to self-censorship.
The cost of information
Large institutions can also exert some control over the media by providing a stable and
continuous flow of information. The collection and analysis of information requires time and
resources. This is especially true for investigative journalism that is likely to shake up the status
quo. Even the largest media have limited means, that they must deploy where information is
abundant: in parliaments and city halls, for example. Similarly, big companies are reliable
sources of information, in quantity and regularity. Besides the information itself, major
institutions also offer spokespersons and experts that are always available. All of this means that
information from official sources in government and big business costs much less to the media
that the information they would otherwise find themselves, by conducting independent
investigations: “In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and
gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw
materials of, and producing the news.”17
Finally, the recalcitrant media can also be called to order by various pressure tactics such as
letters and petitions, lawsuits, advertising boycotts.
“The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the
operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with
complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret
the news “objectively“ and on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the
filter constraints they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into the
system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of the news are hardly imaginable.“18
These are not purely theoretical considerations. During the campaign leading up to the federal
election of October 2015, Postmedia group owners ordered the 16 dailies owned by the group
to publish an editorial favorable to the Conservative Party, despite opposition from more than
half of journalists and publishers of these newspapers. External influences on information are
rarely manifested so openly. They are difficult to observe on a daily basis, but they produce
results. As Chomsky and Herman conclude, behind the apparent barrage of criticism addressed
by the media to the powers that be, “What goes unnoticed (and which is the subject of no
criticism in the media), is the extremely limited nature of such criticism. “ In other words, while
the malfunctions of the system may be criticized, the system itself cannot be. The media that
openly challenge the established order are starving and their audience is rickety. Truly dissident
views occupy a very small place in the overall media coverage.
17 Chomsky and Herman, op. cit. original English text.
18 Chomsky and Herman, op. cit. –original English text.
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While these constraints usually escape most citizens, journalists themselves are acutely aware of
them. That is why, historically, journalists worry obsessively about the concentration of the
press, fight against the interference of advertising on information, and seek to enfranchise the
power of journalism from the power of the editor. This fight largely takes place in the field of
the public right to information.
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2. The public's right to information
The debate on the scope of freedom of the press is as old as the basic texts that ensure its
existence. While there is a right to publish one’s opinion, is there also a right of the public to
receive this information? Journalists respond affirmatively without hesitation and cite multiple
supporting sources in international law, beginning with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights of the United Nations that we quoted in the previous chapter: « Everyone has the
right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without
interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.» The scope of this text has been debated for decades as the
international community tried to formalize it with binding legal instruments. However, these
debates have been undermined by significant ideological differences between North and South,
and by the reluctance of some States to place the right to information on the same level as
freedom of the press.
Debate on the actual scope of the public's right to information
So much so that “the right of the public to information” is ineffective, inefficient for any
practical purposes, as pointed out a in recent study of the Center for Media Studies of Laval
University (Centre d’études sur les médias): “Integrating the public’s right to information in the
panoply of enforceable judicial rights poses difficulties. The Quebec legislature has chosen to
recognize it by including it in the section on economic and social rights of the Quebec Charter of
Rights and Freedoms. As such, the right to information, although proclaimed, is not enforceable,
contrary to press freedom. We cannot demand anything of a person simply by invoking this
notion. The courts may strike down laws in the name of press freedom. They cannot force the
government, or anyone, to act or refrain from acting by invoking the public's right to
information. They cannot force the media to publish a news item. “19
We will devote the following pages to understanding why journalists claim the right of the public
to information, usually in tandem with press freedom, to justify their role in society. Thus, we
read in the preamble of the ethics guide for journalists of the Professional Federation of Quebec
Journalists (FPJQ): “Journalists have a duty to defend freedom of the press and the public's right
to information... “Similarly in the foreword of the document entitled “Rights and Responsibilities
of the Press» published by the Press Council of Quebec it is stated that the mission of the board
“is to ensure the protection of press freedom and the public's right to quality information.“
The public's right to information appears elsewhere. It is mentioned in a 1938 judgment of the
Supreme Court of Canada: “freedom of the press to consider public affairs as well as the right of
the Dominion citizens to be informed of these issues.”20 The report of the Kent Committee,
published in 1981, noted in the first paragraph: “Press freedom is not the preserve of media
owners. It is a right of the people. It is part of the right to free speech, inseparable from the right
to information.“21 Despite these precedents, jurisprudence is still unclear. Journalists hope that
19 Réflexion et mise en contexte de la situation créée par l’élection de M. Pierre Karl Péladeau, Centre d’étude sur les médias,
Université Laval, décembre 2015, 79 pages. Page 42. Our translation.
20 Reference Re Alberta Statutes, (1938) R.C.S. pp. 145-146. Our translation.
21 Rapport de la Commission royale d’enquête sur les quotidiens (commission Kent), 1981, page 1.
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the courts will eventually go further and confer the same scope to the public’s right to
information as that of freedom of the press.
This conception of the public's right to information is compatible with the tradition created by
Hutchins and Peterson as well as the tradition of European and North American journalism.
Logically, the right to information is as essential to democracy as press freedom; freedom to
disseminate information is meaningless if there is no similar equivalent to receive it…
The problem is that with the exception of documents and statements from journalists
themselves, the public's right to information is not identified or defined anywhere in Quebec
and Canada’s charters of rights and other similar documents, at least in the very broad sense
understood by journalists.
There is only one area where Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, has
clearly recognized the existence of a right to information, it is that of legal information. "To
exercise their freedom of expression, the public must know what happens in the courts,"
summarizes Claude Robillard22, who quotes the Edmonton Journal v. Alberta (Attorney General):
"The public has a right to be informed of that which relates to public institutions and particularly
the courts. (...) It is through the press only that most people can actually know what happens in
the courts (...) they are entitled to this information. "
Everywhere else where it is mentioned independently, that is to say without being attached to
freedom of the press, the public's right to information has a much narrower scope.
The right to information has been interpreted, essentially, to provide for freedom of access to
administrative documents, to information made public by governments. Thus, the concept is
recognized by UNESCO23, which defines it as “the right to access information held by public
bodies.” The concept is present in the legislation of many countries: the Freedom of Information
Act has been on the books in the US since 1966; a law of the same title is in force in the UK since
2000; in France access to administrative documents is provided for in the Act of July 17, 1978.
Article 44 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, states that “Everyone has the
right to information, to the extent provided by law.“ Both Quebec and Canada have access to
information laws. The exact title of the Quebec Act is: An Act Respecting Access to Documents
Held by Public Bodies and the Protection of Personal Information. It applies to documents held
by public bodies, including government departments and agencies, municipal organizations,
school organizations, health facilities and social services, as well as professional bodies. It is
accompanied by numerous provisions to protect the personal nature of the information
contained in public documents. The title of the federal law is: the Access to Information Act. Its
purpose is:“to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a
government institution in accordance with the principles that government information should
be available to the public”.
22 Robillard, Claude, La liberté de presse, la liberté de tyous, éditions Québec Amérique, Montréal, 2016, page 132.
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Reframing through ethics
Journalists criticize the restrictive nature of these laws; they certainly are, when compared to
the journalistic definition of the public's right to information. Thus, one can read the following in
the preamble of the new version of the Code of Journalistic ethics24 published by the Quebec
Press Council in November 201525: “Whereas the public's right to information is the legitimate
right of the public to be informed of what is in the public interest ... “ This definition is rather
This Code of Ethics marks a new stage in the perpetual attempt of journalists to free themselves
from any external control and to tailor a “public's right to information,” which introduces the
right of journalists “to distribute, in complete independence, information of public interest”. To
understand this, it is necessary to study the content of the preamble of the Code of Ethics.
The first two paragraphs of the preamble of the Code of Ethics conform to tradition and the
great founding texts. The first affirms the fundamental importance of the free flow of
information for freedom and democracy. The second states that “press freedom stems from the
fundamental freedoms of thought, speech, expression and opinion, recognized in various legal
documents at the national and international levels, and that no one can dictate to the news
media the content of information.“
Note the slight shift which is introduced early in the third paragraph of the preamble
(emphasis added):
c) Whereas press freedom requires that the news media and journalists enjoy editorial
freedom and therefore that the choices related to the content, form, and time of
publication or dissemination of information falls within the prerogative of the news
media and journalists.
Recall that we demonstrated in the previous chapter how journalists, even if they are invested,
as anyone, of the right to express themselves conferred by freedom of the press, are subject, as
employees, to the rights of the owner of the media, which alone holds the legal right to decide
the content that will be printed or broadcast by the media that is their property. The Press
Council calls here for an “editorial freedom” and the ability to choose the content for journalists
Then comes the introduction of the concept of public right to information:
d) Whereas the public's right to information is the legitimate right of the public to be
informed of what is of public interest and that, to ensure this right, the fundamental role
of journalists and the news media is to independently search for, collect, verify, process,
review and disseminate information of public interest.
24 The French title is «Code de déontologie » To our knowledge, as of May 2016 this document is not available in English. The
Quebec Press Council itself, on its website, systematically refers to «déontologie» in French and to «ethics» in English.
25 We translate here from the French document, as an English translation was not available at the time of writing.
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Freedom of the press, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs, is explicitly linked to human
rights and legal documents; the public's right to information is introduced without any link to
such democratic or legal foundations, nor without establishing a formal link with freedom of the
press, except in the implicit connection created by the sequence of paragraphs.
After this shift, the public's right to information has become the equivalent of freedom of the
press, and the journalist is now freed from the publisher. It is no longer the institution of the
press (the editor) that is free, but the journalist who produces content for the newspaper. In
fact, this freedom is justified as necessary to ensure the quality of information available to the
From this point, the public's right to information becomes the central point of reference
throughout the document. This right “takes precedence over all other considerations.”26
What’s more, it “founds the ethics of journalism.”27
The historical opposition between journalists and publishers
Why engage in such a change of perspective, where the publisher’s freedom to publish becomes
the journalist’s freedom to write? The answer lies in the perpetual opposition that exists within
the same news organizations between their dual nature of commercial enterprise and public
service that we discussed in the preceding chapter.
“Freedom of press is a double-edged sword for the owner or publisher. The one edge serves as a
defense against the outside, but the other is turned inward. It is the difference between
enterprise and the duty to inform (…) In general, the closer one gets to the business side, the
farther one is from the profession and from purely journalistic ideals and principles.
Consequently, the owner tends to think more of profit as the criterion for evaluating
a newspaper than of conformity to ethical and intellectual principles. »28
The Kent commission highlighted a reality that remains unchanged: for the newspaper owners
of the time, and for all of today’s news media owners, the primary responsibility seems to be to
survive. “Profitability is understood as a duty since, without profit, the business could not
survive and, consequently, could no longer provide this public service known as news (…) They
(media owners) are loath to admit duties that prevail over economic responsibility.»29 On behalf
of these economic obligations, publishers naturally tend to listen to the desires of their audience
and to give them what they want, rather than trying to communicate information that would be
more in line with their needs as citizens, but that might be less highly touted.
The journalist, in contrast, “likes to see himself as a pure seeker of truth, from which nothing or
nobody can divert him. He is devoted first to facts and to the reader; loyalty to the paper takes
second place (…) At heart, every journalist believes that the press, despite its ups and downs,
constitutes the foundation of all freedoms and that he is one of the principal supports. If he is
prevented in any way from reporting an event or from commenting on it as he sees fit, in his
26 Preamble, paragraph f).
27 Preamble, paragraph h) : Attendu que le droit du public à l’information fonde la déontologie journalistique.
28 Kent report, page 27.
29 Kent report, pages 27-8.
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eyes democratic society could be threatened with shaking on its foundations.»30 The Kent report
itself acknowledges, however, that this view is idealistic and that reality is more complex. Some
journalists, mostly clustered in the media addressing the elite, are loyal to this idealized
conception, while others, working for media aimed more at the masses, are more sensitive to
popular tastes and desires, which “draws them very close to the company’s managers “31 The
fact remains that overall, journalists have always wanted to free themselves from the company
employing them so that the mission of public service would prevail over commercial interests.
The phenomenon is more pronounced in Quebec than elsewhere. Coming from a tradition of
struggle for survival, Francophone journalists have traditionally accorded more importance to
collective rights and social responsibility of the media than elsewhere in North America. During
the 1960s, the rise of trade unionism and left-leaning beliefs in newsrooms brought on the
emergence of a current of Marxist-inspired thinking according to which it is impossible to
reconcile the interests of media companies with those of the public.
Claude Robillard recalls that FPJQ pleaded in 1975 for the integration of the public's right to
information in the human rights section of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and had "felt
compelled to consign to the dustbin of History this old thing that would be press freedom. "32.
Note that this is not the position of the FPJQ nor of Mr. Robillard today.
The Kent report sums up the aspirations of journalists on the subject: « In general, journalists’
unions and associations tend to think that the press is first and foremost the concern of
journalists. They argue first that the journalist, better than anyone, is able to defend the public’s
right to information, and assure a true diversity of opinion in the press; second, they argue that
the managers and even the owners of newspapers should be journalists whenever possible;
third, that the ideal solution would be for an editorial association to take over the business or at
least manage the editorial side. »33
This explains the change in perspective desired by journalists, the FPJQ and the Quebec Press
Council. By creating – or rather by taking note of – a moral equivalence between press freedom
and the public's right to information and then building the entire edifice of journalistic ethics on
the right to information, the journalist takes the place of the newspaper company’s owner at
the center of the device; they become the watchdog of our fundamental freedoms.
Given the history of the evolution of the freedoms that we have summarized in broad strokes,
this approach is part of a historical continuum and is based on an indisputable democratic
legitimacy. The Quebec Press Council, a body bringing together media organizations, journalists
and representatives of the public, and the FPJQ, are places conducive to reflections of this
We must note, however, that the legal basis of the public's right to information remains
problematic. Perhaps modern journalism is continuing its march towards progress and we are
seeing here the beginning of a new stage. However, we must, at least, be aware of the fact that
30 Kent Report, page 30.
31 Kent Report, page 30.
32 Robillard, Claude, op. cit. page 134.
33 Kent Report, page 32.
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journalists are actively working to induce change to the structure of our rights to lend a measure
of real practical significance to the concept of the public’s right to information. A change of this
kind would increase the power of journalists at the expense of the editor.
In summary, journalists can legitimately claim a formal role in the maintenance of democracy.
The emergence of journalism as practiced today has occurred in parallel with the advent of
democracy. Democracy can exist only by allowing complete freedom of speech, subject to
certain limits imposed by democracy itself – limits which should ideally be few.
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3. Journalistic Ethics and the journalist's work
The roots of journalism are vigorous and journalists are very aware of their role in society. They
constantly debate this matter, not only before the Press Council, but also in their professional
associations. They give themselves the tools to guide their practice. In Quebec, in addition to the
Code of Ethics of the Press Council which we have already discussed, journalists can also rely on
the Federation of Professional Journalists (FPJQ), which publishes a strong Ethics Guide that
clearly defines their role and that strongly affirms their ideal.
What the codes of ethics say
Here are some excerpts from the Preamble of the Ethics Guide of the Federation of Professional
Journalists: “The essential role of journalists is to report accurately, analyze and comment, if
required, the facts that allow their fellow citizens to better know and understand the world in
which they live. Such complete, accurate and pluralistic information is one of the most important
guarantees of freedom and democracy ... journalists have the duty to defend press freedom and
the public's right to information, knowing that a free press plays the indispensable role of
watchdog of government and institutions.»34
The FPJQ Guide of Ethics therefore not only affirms the duty of journalists and their role in
society, but also the way forward to fulfilling this role: report accurately, analyze and comment,
produce information that is complete, accurate and pluralistic.
The same Guide defines the core values of journalism: “critical thinking which requires them to
methodically doubt everything, impartiality that makes them seek and expose the various
aspects of a situation, equity that leads them to consider all citizens equal before the press as
they are under the law, independence that keeps them away from the authorities and pressure
groups, respect for the public and compassion that make them observe sobriety standards,
honesty which requires them to adhere strictly to the facts, and openness which implies the
ability to be responsive to, and to report on without prejudice, realities that are alien to them.
34 Our translation.
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The same spirit is found in the “ethical guidelines” of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Here are some of the many highly detailed rules of behavior to be found in the guidelines.
They are grouped together here:

Accuracy Accuracy  is  the  moral  imperative  of  journalists  and  news organizations,  and  should  not  be  compromised,  even  by pressing deadlines of the 24-hour news cycle. We are careful to distinguish between assertion and fact.
Fairness We give people, companies or organizations that are publicly accused  or  criticized  opportunity  to  respond  before  we publish those criticisms or accusations. We do not allow our own biases to impede fair and accurate reporting.
Independence We serve democracy and the public interest by reporting the truth. Defending  the  public’s  interest  includes  promoting  the  free flow  of  information,  exposing  crime  and  wrongdoing, protecting public health and safety, and preventing the public from being misled.
Transparency We generally declare ourselves as  journalists  and  do  not conceal our identities. We independently corroborate facts if we get them from a source we do not name. We do not allow anonymous sources to take cheap shots at individuals or organizations.
Accountability We are accountable  to  the  public  for  the  fairness  and reliability of our reporting. We  serve  the  public  interest,  and  put  the  needs  of  our audience at the forefront of our newsgathering decisions. We  clearly  identify  news  and  opinion  so  that  the  audience knows which is which. When  we  make  a  mistake,  we  correct  it  promptly  and transparently, acknowledging the nature of the error.
These quotes from guides written by journalists themselves emphasize the role of the journalist
as a reporter of the facts who must first and foremost deliver information that is complete,
accurate and pluralistic. However, essential as it is, this dimension does not by itself epitomize
the role of the journalist in society.
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The journalist as a participant in social debate
Far from being only a messenger, journalists are full participants in social debate, adding their
own vision of reality to those offered by the protagonists. Journalism is, as the saying goes,
a Fourth Estate whose main task is to describe the actions of the other three (executive,
legislative, judicial) and of all other social actors, whoever they are. It is up to the journalist to go
everywhere and talk about everything, and not only to describe, but also to interpret, decode,
analyze and contextualize the information from all sources. Journalism must also confront itself,
delivering different visions or interpretations of the same events.
It is more often than not through journalism that abuses and excesses are denounced, and that
the questions that raise larger social issues are debated Should we tolerate cultural or religious
accommodation? What impact would result of a bill or a policy? Are the economic benefits of a
project greater than its environmental impacts? The media give life to debate, flush out
corruption and incompetence, and provide a voice to the weakest. They report the facts, but
they also color them, because every journalist has their own beliefs, their own perceptions and
values that will make them pay more attention to one view of reality rather than another.
Hence, the importance of the diversity of media voices. Freedom of the press and even freedom
of speech are inconceivable without a minimum diversity of information sources. They do not
exist in single-regime countries where only the publications controlled by the government may
be published.
The diversity of voices is expressed firstly by the multiplicity of media; it is also expressed by the
multiplicity of voices within the same medium, a particularly important feature in societies
unable economically to support a large number of media. The newspapers of the nineteenth
century were mostly yellow newspapers – they belonged to a political group they defended
fiercely. This practice has gradually given way in the twentieth century to fact-based journalism.
Most major newspapers today define themselves as “generalists” and claim to reflect a wide
diversity of views.
More recently, opinion journalism has developed and quickly invaded our media to the point
that, at times, the boundary between news and opinion blurs. This development represents
progress since the enlightened perspective of a journalist covering a sector of activity for many
years can enrich the public debate by providing perspective to the “honest citizen” who does
not have the time to conduct their own in-depth analyzes. A prerequisite, however, must always
be respected to prevent demagogic excesses: the story should always distinguish clearly
between fact and opinion, and the opinion itself should be based on solid facts. This is of major
importance since a large proportion of the public does not always grasp the difference between
the two genres.
The new Code of Ethics of the Press Council recognizes this reality by identifying two types of
journalism: factual journalism that reports the facts and events and places them in context, and
journalism of opinion, where is expressed a point of view, a comment, an opinion, a position or
a criticism. However, the guide clearly states that the journalist of opinion cannot do without
the facts: “the opinion journalist exposes the most relevant facts on which they base their
opinion... The information they provide is accurate, rigorous and comprehensive in its
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reasoning, “35 that is to say that it is accurate, thorough, impartial, balanced and complete. As
the American saying goes, everyone has the right to their own opinion, but not their own facts.
Opinion must always be supported by facts.
“To be informed is to be free,” said René Lévesque, who was a widely respected journalist for 25
years before entering into politics. Free, plural and abundant information, combined with the
mechanism of compulsory elections every 5 years, is the ultimate safeguard against any abuse
of bureaucratic systems and all the abuses of the powerful of this world. Two highlights of our
recent history attest to that. In Ottawa, in the sponsorship scandal, the obstinate work of a few
journalists brought to the attention of the public the extent of illegal excesses committed by the
political power in the name of Canadian unity. In Quebec, it was also the stubbornness of some
journalists – and the support of their employers in some courageous organizations, including the
CBC – that resulted in finally lifting the veil on endemic corruption in the construction industry.
Unflinching journalism and editorial forced the creation of institutional mechanisms needed to
shed light on these acts and prevent their recurrence. Beyond these spectacular examples,
journalism is essential to inform the public by providing reporting and opinion on how our
economic system, our community, our political institutions, cultural, education and health,
are faring.
35 Guide de déontologie journaliste, Conseil de presse, article 10.2.
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4. Brothers enemies or Siamese twins?
A well-known Montreal journalist said that when she asked her desk editor what is the best
possible relationship a journalist should have with public relations, the response, concise and
unambiguous, held in two words: “No relationship.” This caricatural reaction remains
unfortunately too prevalent and is the opposite of reality. In fact, journalists and public relations
professionals are Siamese twins who need one another to live, who process the same
information, but who are regularly placed in conflict by their very different roles. It is important
to further explore the true nature of the relationship between these two groups.
How journalists see public relations professionals
A good way to begin this exploration, from the public relations perspective, is to understand the
fears the practice inspires in journalists. One of the most obvious is the feeling journalists have
that they are vastly outnumbered by public relations practitioners and end up overwhelmed by
hordes of mercenaries in the pay of all those who have an interest in controlling information.
Although debatable, this assertion is not unfounded. First, one has to note the immense
disproportion between the number of journalists and that of the communication services of
governments and large organizations. The journalist is fed daily by information flows so
abundant that they can, if they so desire, fill their columns or news bulletin entirely with this
content. The temptation to take this approach is made even greater by the fact that newsrooms
employ fewer journalists, who must feed the 24/7 news media in a highly competitive
environment based on the “scoop.” On the other hand, however, as real and important as they
are, these constraints do not negate the primary responsibility of the journalist to question,
investigate and contextualize information. Most still do, especially in the larger media; it is true
that the size of the media, the existence of a union representing journalists and the public, or
private ownership of the media, largely determine the ability of journalists to remain
independent and critical of official sources. Moreover, all persons who work in communications
and public relations do not work with the media. On the contrary, the vast majority never deal
with the media because they work in a wide range of functions, such as internal
communications, investor relations government relations or marketing support. Finally, media
relations practitioners must also deal with a large number of journalists and researchers and are
far from feeling in a position to impose their message; more often than not, it is rather
the opposite.
Multiple studies conclude that journalists present a simplistic and cartoonish face of public
relations practitioners by reducing their function only to “free publicity,” or by associating them
systematically to the manipulation of public opinion. Coombs and Holladay36 identify many of
these studies and have summarized the main criticisms of public relations by journalists:
• The very essence of public relations is unhealthy manipulation. The origins of public
relations actually coincide with those of applied social sciences, both in terms of the
surveys (the measure) and influence (propaganda). Joseph Goebbels, the great master
36 Coombs, Timothy and Holladay, Sherry J., It’s Not Just Public Relations – Public Relations in Society. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
See Chapter 1.
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of Nazi propaganda, was inspired by the book “Propaganda” of the “father of public
relations,” Edward Bernays himself.
• Public relations is responsible for the inordinate power exercised by large companies,
governments and large lobbies. Public relations maintain the population in ignorance of
what is “really” happening. The public is systematically fooled by public relations
handlers paid to protect big business and governments.
• Public relations is in the pay of the rich and powerful and undermines democracy. It is
undemocratic by nature, because it allows the perversion of real popular sentiment.
• The power of public relations can be restricted if the population is educated about its
misdeeds. People must learn to distinguish “truth” from public relations (which are
essentially anything but the truth in the eyes of these critics).
• Public relations is nothing less than disguised advertising. Its only function is to deceive
the vigilance of citizens and consumers.
This last point raises an interesting convergence between journalists wary of public relations and
marketing experts who advocate greater use of public relations: both insist on recognizing a
single function for public relations, that of “publicity,”37 that is to say the visibility – often called
earned media – which amounts to free publicity, arising from mention of a trademark or
business in the editorial content of a publication. Journalists do this by associating this
“publicity” to manipulation. The marketing experts do it by stating that the central function of
any business is marketing and every other function must answer to it.
Reality is more complex. First, public relations is performed by all kinds of organizations that
want to communicate in a completely legitimate manner. Second, it has been largely accepted
at least since the time of Abraham Lincoln38 that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
Organizations pay a price when they are found at fault. Finally, to summarize public relations to
the conceptions described by Bernays is to ignore all the theoretical and practical developments
that have occurred in the discipline for a century.
Furthermore, public relations is often attributed only to big business. In reality, it is used by
organizations of all sizes and all types, including governments, community organizations, NGOs.
It is interesting to note that some journalists who are fiercely critical of public relations often
find the practice to be legitimate when used by these groups, even as they condemn their use in
big business.39
37 “Publicity,” as defined by Grunig, equates to free visibility in the editorial content of a medium, as opposed to advertising,
which must be paid for.
38 You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of
the time. This quote is generally attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but according to it should be attributed to
Jacques Abbadie, a French protestant having lived in the 17th century.
39 See the book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You.
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The nature of the relationship between journalist and public relations professionals
In reality, the vast majority of journalists and public relations professionals who practice media
relations work with each other every day. They are linked in an interdependent relationship. For
this relationship to be constructive, mutual expectations must be realistic.
Public relations professionals sometimes rely exclusively on journalists to relay their message to
target audiences, thereby committing two errors. The first is to confuse dissemination and
communication. To establish a relationship with our audiences, we must genuinely
communicate, which is to say, create conditions allowing information to flow in both directions;
we do not do this when we simply trust the media to relay information. The public relations
professional must always seek to communicate directly with their audiences rather than to rely
on the media to relay information.
The second error lies precisely in this expectation toward the media to act as torchbearers of
our information; this is not their role. Journalism exists autonomously and responds to its own
logic, which we have described above and which is not that of public relations, even if the two
fields complement one another in the context of the free flow of information.
Linking organizations with their environment occurs in several stages. On the one hand, there is
the information provided by the organization’s public relations team directly to its publics; On
the other hand there's the journalist’s understanding of that information, which will also be
received by these same publics. Most of the time, the journalistic vision is different from the
vision of public relations – which is why it is so common and natural for these Siamese twins to
have a hard time understanding one another!
Media are places of confrontation of different visions of reality and different values underlying
these visions, but journalists are not neutral witnesses. They participate in the creation of social
consensus as much as they reflect it. When they transmit the information, the journalist gives it
a meaning that is not necessarily the one intended by the primary source of the information.
Merely emphasizing one piece of information over another is already a form of interpretation.
Organizations and public relations professionals, as we have emphasized, should communicate
directly with their audiences, however they have no choice but to also play the game of public
information through the media. The media represent the best bulwark against attempts by
organizations to conceal the facts unfavorable to their cause or take advantage of a situation to
unduly consolidate their power; in so doing they also act as a filter that can completely distort
communication between an organization and its publics. At the end of the day, the public
receives two messages, two interpretations of reality: that emitted directly by the organization,
and that relayed by journalists; sometimes they agree, but they also often diverge.
The constraints and different expectations of journalists and public relations practitioners are a
perennial problem of communication between the two. Public relations professionals tend to
believe that what they say deserves to be reproduced in full and are often disappointed to see
their thinking summarized very succinctly, or contradicted by another source a paragraph later.
Journalists are required to summarize a subject in very few words, to exercise critical judgment
about what should be retained or not, to consider all of the positions expressed, the general
context of the article, the audience it is intended for, and also some very practical details like
the number of lines or the time available.
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I have often experienced this during my career. I can think of many occasions when I gave an in
depth interview to find almost nothing in the story, and sometimes even just to find the only
sentence which the journalist needed to conclude their demonstration, sometimes using me to
support a position contrary to mine. In such a situation, one must ask: Has the journalist
recounted the facts correctly? If they express an opinion, is it based on verifiable facts? Did they
distort our declaration? Have they changed the nature of our words? Have they used them in a
context inducing the reader to understand that our position is different from what it actually is?
If the answer to these questions is “no”, the journalist’s work remains legitimate – even though
the use made by the journalist of our words does not match our expectations. Because their job
is not to serve as a mouthpiece for one or another of the parties, but to deliver their
interpretation, based on the understanding that they derive from their many contacts.
If the vision of the journalist does not suit us, but is honest, in the sense that it is based on a
valid argument construction based on verifiable facts and does not distort the meaning of our
words, then it behooves us to work towards changing the journalist’s vision through a dialogue
where we need to be convincing. If we feel that the reporter misunderstood the facts, we must
work to explain them.
The main danger in this situation lies in the potential aggressiveness it generates. Two people
who know one another little or not at all, placed in an ambiguous situation, are very likely to
misinterpret one another’s intentions. The same goes for two people coming at the same reality
from different angles. It is easy, in these situations, to yield to misunderstanding, to cast hasty
judgments, to formulate charges and so to lock a relationship in conflicting attitudes. This is
harmful for both the public relations professional and for the journalist.
The problem is further amplified by the fact that the average journalist, as we have explained,
feels they are entrusted with a mission. Robert Maltais, an experienced journalist and director
of the journalism program at the University of Montreal, notices a particular mindset among
journalism students: “I hypothesize that the profession attracts mainly rebels and idealists,
sharing values of social justice.“40 I fully share this hypothesis, having myself had many
opportunities to draw the same conclusions! Conversely, public relations professionals can also
be immodest and impatient before anyone who does not accept their argument.
Our professional responsibility as public relations professionals is to understand these
mechanisms and learn how to defuse our own negative reflexes, as well as those of journalists,
to maintain the dialogue without which no real understanding between the two sides is
possible. That is why it is so important to develop professional relationships with journalists that
include regular direct contact. Trust is built over time, and it facilitates communication.
Opposing views are always expressed with more respect by interlocutors who have learned to
know one another in the context of a sustained professional relationship. Respect is the first
step towards opening.
The establishment of such a relationship is the opposite of “communication” via social media.
No form of electronic communication is as effective as the meeting of two people in the flesh.
The physical presence of another person always induces a minimum of respect, a certain
40 Maltais, Robert, Les journalistes, Québec Amérique, 2015, page 177. Our translation.
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restraint in form if not in substance, that easily disappears in electronic communications.
Meeting in the flesh allows for much more nuanced communication, where behavioral cues give
us information in real time on the receptivity of the interlocutor to our message or, conversely,
the need to clear up a misunderstanding that might be developing. We must invest time to build
a real relationship of trust. Ultimately, both the reporter and the public relations professional
will benefit.
Journalists are reluctant to meet public relations professionals on a regular basis for several
reasons. First, they are overworked and do not have time to waste in meetings that are not
directly useful. Furthermore, they are wary, knowing that the public relations professional
promotes special interests. It behooves the public relations professional to convince the
journalist of the interest for them of creating and maintaining such a relationship. For this, the
recipe is well known and has not changed since I started in practice almost 40 years ago: know
the interests of the journalists, know which ones have an interest in our content, expand this
content so as to add value from the perspective of the journalist and ultimately convince the
journalist of the rightness of our arguments.
Note, however, that the reluctance of journalists towards public relations does not exclude,
once a professional relationship is established, mutually fruitful exchanges. When assured that
the information communicated to them is accurate and complete, therefore useful to their
work, journalists appreciate the work of public relations.
The public relations professionals and journalists have in common an interest in defending the
free flow of information and expression of all views. They come at this common interest,
however, from different angles. Journalists develop their own point of view, forged in contact
with different opinions, while the public relations professional presents the position of an
institution, company or person.
This configuration generates opposition, and even conflict, for many reasons. To truly assume
responsibility as a spokesperson, the public relations professional must fully understand, and
even become intimate with the content of their file, and be able to always provide a response
appropriate to the context, rather than a prefabricated response. This implies a high degree of
identification with the view advocated – sometimes too high, causing them to become incapable
of critical distance. The same trap can spring on the journalist; despite the precepts of his codes
of ethics requiring them to always keep an open mind, the risk still exists that personal
convictions will lead them to close their mind, to refuse to hear valid arguments that could
undermine their certainties. There is inevitably a high risk of both the journalist and the public
relations professional «going personal», in the sense that both can take as an attack on their
personal integrity criticism of the position they have a mission to defend (in the case of the
public relations professional) or that they truly believe in (in the case of the journalist). Hence
the sometimes surly tone of exchanges.
Moreover, the public relations professional often works for an organization that does not always
understand the need for dialogue and that can “apply pressure” to “sell” (read: impose) their
position or project, rather than to engage in the sometimes lengthy work of information and
explanation which alone can really convince.
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It is necessary here to explore the concept of objectivity, observing first of all that the following
remarks apply equally to public relations professionals and journalists. Both have in common to
be forever faced with the debate on what constitutes the truth.
Perfect objectivity requires the ability to know everything about a subject, which is very difficult.
One might assume that the public relations professional is better placed than the journalist to
know everything about the organization they represent, and in this sense, the journalist should
accept the explanations given by them. On the other hand, the reporter's professional duty is to
question the validity of all claims that are proposed to them. Moreover, they are often in a
better position to understand the impact of the organization on its external publics, as these
publics open to them, hoping to convince them of their own point of view. For these reasons,
the public relations professional must demonstrate genuine listening to the journalist before
trying to convince them.
Perfect objectivity requires the ability to detach completely from any point of view, which not
only borders on the impossible, but would render the information meaningless. Indeed, the
interest of any information is its relevancy and its potential impact on us - on our immediate
situation, or on our beliefs and our values. We always interpret information through what
Grunig called our “worldviews.” The same goes for journalists. Their world view is necessarily
different from the public relations professional because it was forged from a different vantage
point – from outside the organization rather than from within - and the journalist’s own values,
which vary from person to person.
This issue of objectivity is always strongly debated by journalists, much more than in public
relations. Is it possible for a journalist to cast a totally detached look on a situation, to describe
the facts without any influence from their values? The challenge is impossible and objectivity,
like truth, is an ideal towards which to strive unceasingly, while being aware of the many pitfalls
that stand between us and perfection. Better to speak of sincerity, clarity, and honesty.
Journalists often refer to the concept of journalistic honesty.
All recognize the impossibility of achieving complete objectivity, which would imply that the
journalist is impervious to any cultural influence. We are seeing these days an interesting debate
on advocacy journalism. Some journalists have long defended the point of view that, since
objectivity is impossible, it is better to openly affirm one’s subjectivity, allowing the reader to
interpret the article knowing the author's preconceptions. This debate has recently taken a new
direction, spurred by two observations: first, hiring is steadily declining in traditional media and
second, there are a large number of international non-governmental organizations (NGO) which
do an excellent job of highlighting the major issues of our time, be they economic, social or
environmental. Why, then, not put the techniques of journalism at the service of these
organizations to enable them to better communicate? Journalists at the service of these
organizations may well promote stories that will be taken up by the mass media.
The question is valid, but this trend, should it materialize, would singularly close the gap
between journalism and public relations. Imagine a journalist employed by an environmental
NGO trying to convince a “traditional” journalist whose perspective would be more tinged by
economic considerations; the dynamic would strongly resemble that between public relations
professionals and journalists.
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In summary, the tension between journalists and public relations is inevitable, it is in the very
nature of the relationship embodied by these two actors in social dialogue. The constant
challenge is to express it constructively rather than destructively. Even when they conclude in
disagreement, exchanges of perspectives characterized by sincere listening and a respectful and
well-informed expression of legitimate opinions are constructive. They help to build mutual
respect, to maintain open lines of communication and opportunities for dialogue; thus they
serve the public interest.
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5. Training and professional supervision of journalists
The journalist is the holder of a formidable responsibility: to define what constitutes the truth
according to them, or from the perspective of the citizen in whose service they purport to work.
But the truth, as we have seen, is multiple and no one can dictate their worldview to any
journalist. Because they command the means of massive diffusion, journalists are powerful and
potentially dangerous persons, when ill-informed, or when choosing to place themselves at the
service of a cause. Certainly, a journalist can have convictions but they should never allow their
convictions to blind them to the facts.
Freedom is antithetical to control. It is impossible to control from the outside the journalist’s
thought or their work without limiting their freedom by the same token. The internal structure
of the media – notably the press room – exercises some control by peers and may limit
individual abuses. Ultimately, nothing can substitute for the judgment of the journalist.
Hence the importance for society of highly trained journalists, fully aware of their role and
responsibility, and endowed with a solid general culture. That is why university training is so
important for journalists, emphasizing the importance of ethics, of history, of the ability to
exercise sound judgment, rather than simply inculcating candidate journalists with the basic
techniques of the trade.
It is amazing how little importance the FPJQ seems to grant a university degree in journalism for
journalists in exercise. The supreme values it upholds are the greatest possible freedom in
access to, and in the exercise of journalism. Quebec journalism resists any form of supervision:
no competency exam, no diploma or compulsory internship, no legal recognition, the thinnest
possible legislative framework, and a Code of ethics without coercive value. “The vast majority
of journalists have always wanted to maintain this freedom, to avoid that journalists form a
homogeneous milieu, to ensure that freedom of expression is not restricted to a small group of
people, but also so that the press can live in the climate of freedom which is indispensable to it.
Yet the history of journalism and its interweaving in the advent of democracy, knowledge of its
rights and duties, basic concepts in social psychology, knowledge of the essential elements of
communication theory, all this knowledge may be less useful for the immediate production of a
news bulletin, but it is indispensable for effective and ethical journalistic production. University
education also has the great advantage of promoting better general knowledge of the world in
which the journalist is called to practice. History, geography, philosophy, economics, political
science and even literature and culture, all these so-called “soft” disciplines contribute to
forming well-made minds, better equipped to judge the accuracy and the relative importance of
the facts in the light of a solid general culture. The same goes for science and more scientific
disciplines such as engineering, medicine, law, the sciences in general. Freedom must be
combined with minimal training requirements.
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Professional supervision and journalist unions
Journalism has an advantage over public relations – the benefit of a minimal professional and
institutional framework. FPJQ, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Press Councils are
fragile and imperfect institutions. Journalists themselves criticize their lack of power and can
choose to ignore them with little or no immediate impact on employment. Nevertheless, they
have the great merit of existing and they exercise power that is real, even if limited and not
based on the proper legal basis of professional corporations. They allow for expertise to be
pooled, for the profession to be defended, and for journalists to self-criticize, three functions
that are sorely underdeveloped in public relations. They speak openly, clearly and forcefully, on
issues specific to information, such as the adverse consequences of the concentration of media
ownership, the failures of access to information laws, the attempts to manipulate information
by governments, businesses or organizations of any kind, or the deleterious effects of social
media on the practice of journalism.
FPJQ is not a union. Created in 1968, it defines itself as “a non-profit democratic association that
voluntarily brings together about 2000 journalists that work in more than 250 print and
electronic media.”42 FPJQ “intervenes whenever press freedom is threatened.” In addition to its
daily interventions in support of journalists, it is involved in major public debates. To give these
recent examples, it filed a brief dealing with the overhaul of the Quebec Act of access to
information, another before the Commission of Inquiry on the Awarding and Management of
Public Contracts in the construction Industry (Charbonneau commission), and another about the
changes to the Canadian access to Information Act.
There is a similar grouping for journalists from across Canada. The Canadian Association of
Journalists43 self-defines as “the national voice of Canadian journalists” and, in similar fashion to
FPJQ, deals with the issues facing journalism and champions the protection of the public's right
to information and excellence in journalism. The CAJ started in 1978 and it is remarkable to note
the major role played by several Quebec journalists of within it44, even if they were already
gathered in the FPJQ. It now brings together journalists from all regions of the country45.
The Quebec Press Council is of another nature than organizations that bring together only
journalists. It is a non-profit, private organization created in 1973 as a joint initiative of
journalists and news media leaders, which are associated with representatives of the public
appointed following a call for applications. It is a voluntary organization that acts as a court of
honor of the Quebec press and advises on various issues related to journalism. Of course
nothing is perfect. Some major newspapers choose not to participate in the Press Council but
despite this, its longevity and influence over the Quebec press are remarkable, given the purely
moral nature of its influence: “In no way the Council can be likened to a civil court, it has no
judicial, regulatory, legislative or coercive power; it does not impose any sanction other than
moral.“46 The Council is independent of government authorities. Government does not interfere
42 FPJQ website at
44 This is explained on the CAJ website.
45 We have found no indication of the number of journalists that are currently members of CAJ.
46 Conseil de presse
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in its business, but a large part of its funding comes from the government, which is important,
as we shall see a little further on.
The Quebec Press Council has equivalents elsewhere in Canada. Up to the summer of 2015,
there still existed five press councils in Canada. However, in September 2015 press councils in
Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada merged to create the National Newsmedia
Council (NNC), leaving two independent press councils, those of Quebec and Alberta. This
merger is the result of a long discussion because it was not necessarily obvious to merge these
three organizations each rooted in its own regional tradition. But the three councils shared a
steady decline in resources that threatened their very existence; newspapers are fewer and
when some decide to boycott, as did Sun Media in 2011, the impact is major. There was until
2012 a press council in Manitoba whose budget was down to $ 17,000 at the time of closing. In
comparison, the Quebec Press Council in 2014 received more than $ 305,000 in grants from the
Quebec government, including an unconditional grant of $ 250,000. Elsewhere in the country,
press councils have always chosen to refuse public funding to preserve their independence. This
desire for independence is as strong in Quebec, but, obviously, the impact of public funding is
evaluated otherwise.
Journalists are also grouped into unions of their own that played a very useful role in the
defense of professional claims in the 1950s and 1960s, before the appearance of the FPJQ and
of the Press Council. At that time, journalists negotiated their working conditions and their
professional independence in the same collective agreement.
Finally, journalism largely being a freelance profession, the Independent Journalists Association
of Quebec (AJIQ) was born in 1988. Its claims are mostly economic. It argues for “social and legal
recognition” of the statutes of independent journalist and researcher that would allow them
access to better social protections and collective negotiation of their working conditions. It calls
for the recognition of independent journalists’ copyrights. It denounces the effects of media
concentration on the quality of information.
The contrast between this situation and that of public relations is striking. CPRS and its member
societies, including SQPRP, are useful places for assembling and professional development, they
offer training and access to Accreditation in Public relations (APR), a professional designation
recognized by professional associations of public relations in 14 countries. But we must
unfortunately note that they fail to promote accreditation beyond their members and are
absent from the public debate.
This may help to explain why CPRS and its affiliates have great difficulty recruiting new members
and very little power and influence. The profession is engaged in a vicious circle where public
relations practitioners do not see the point of joining a group that seems ineffective in
promoting the profession, and where low membership deprives CPRS and its affiliates of ways to
ensure effective this representation.
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The newsroom
In news organizations, journalists are organized around the newsroom, a center of power that is
their own; which structures their activity in a way conducive to enhancing their professionalism;
which provides a safeguard against individual professional errors; and which partially immunizes
them against the pressures that other powers may wish to exert – economic and political power
in particular – from within the news organization or outside of it.
Several journalists of my acquaintance react with astonishment to this notion; for them, the
newsroom is simply a workplace. Journalists sometimes reprove the leaders of the newsroom
for being more concerned about management and profitability than about the quality of the
information. Moreover, the strength of the newsroom is very uneven across media companies.
It is real and it exerts a tangible influence in the mainstream media, especially those where
there is also a trade union; its influence is very small, if it exists at all, in the small media where
journalists are few and isolated and simply do not have the means to resist pressure by
management or by the advertising department.
Nonetheless, the newsroom is a place run by journalists, for journalists. It is true that journalists,
when appointed to managerial functions, must necessarily also take into account other
requirements than information itself, including available budgets and the need to “sell the
product.” The fact remains that the newsroom is where the journalistic vocation of the media
comes alive, the place where this media is not a business like any other, subject only to the law
of the market. The most important and prestigious news organizations distinguish themselves
precisely by the high caliber of journalism practiced there. The quality of the information
depends not only on the competence of the journalist himself, but also on the institutional rigor
that prevails there. Again, the power of the news room is not always dominant, far from it. But it
is clear that overall the journalists do better than public relations to maintain control over their
professional practice.
Here we must explain how, for a majority of journalists, the very existence of journalism is
inseparable from the organization in which it is carried out. This organization must be
independent from outside influence, or include an autonomous structure that guarantees
editorial independence. Here are some excerpts of the General Regulations of the FPJQ:
FPJQ, general regulations:
2.01 a) FPJQ recognizes as a journalist a person who, without exercising
parallel trade or functions incompatible with journalism and who is not
otherwise in conflict of interest with the practice of journalism, has for
principal occupation the regular and remunerated exercise of a journalistic
function on behalf of one or several Quebec news media.
b) A person exercises a JOURNALISTIC FUNCTION47 when working on the
dissemination of information or opinions on topical issues, with a view of
public interest, serving the citizens and not special interests.
47 The capitals are in the original text.
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To summarize: a journalist is the person carrying out a journalistic act on behalf of or under the
responsibility of one or more news media.48 The precision is important to the point where FPJQ
feels the need to distinguish between the journalist and the person who exercises a journalistic
function, the only difference between the two is being attached or not to a news media. The
importance of this precision becomes clearer when considering the definition of a news media.
The definition of the press council is fairly standard, “a company whose core business is the
publication of newspapers and periodicals.”49 The definition of FPJQ is much more illuminating:
c) NEWS MEDIA means a business that, with a view of the public interest,
serves the citizens and not special interests:
1) publishes one or more newspapers or periodicals on current events;
2) manages a radio station, or a network of radio stations, one or more
television channels with an information service or broadcasting programs
produced in a journalistic perspective;
3) manages a private news agency service or public information agency with
an autonomous status;
4) produces one or more news programs or websites covering current
events in a journalistic perspective; Corporate publications, and
publications published by private or public organizations and associations
are not considered news media unless the corporation, organization or
association establishes an autonomous structure and undertakes in writing
to respect the editorial independence of the publication in regards to the
specific interests of the corporation, organization or association.
For FPJQ, a news media is necessarily serving the citizens and not special interests, which
excludes corporate publications and those of private and public organizations and associations,
unless they are equipped with an independent autonomous structure that guarantees its
independence regarding the specific interests of the organization that supports it. In other
words, there can be no real news media without a free and independent news room. And for
FPJQ, there are no journalists if there are no news media.
This model has worked very well for two centuries because newspaper companies – newspapers
first, and then radio and television – were the unavoidable vectors of information. To learn
about the news, it was necessary to read newspapers and listen to the radio and television
information, there was no alternative. Thus, newsrooms were the source of revenue of the
news media in a symbiotic relationship where the public interest was served in a commercial
setting. The powers of information and money coexisted in a mutually beneficial balance,
guaranteed by a watertight bulkhead enabling the management of information within the press
room by the journalists themselves, free from the interference of economic and political powers
that media owners might be tempted to exert.
Of course nothing is perfect and tensions have always existed between the public service
vocation of the press room and the economic goals of the organizations that finance them,
especially in the private sector. But in essence, it can be said that journalists have managed to
maintain a relative freedom of maneuver. However, the future looks turbulent.
48 All the emphasis in the following paragraph is added.
49 The definition put forward by the Press Council is longer as it also covers electronic media, press agencies and virtual media. The
basic definition remains the same.
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6. The Future of Journalism
In journalism, as in so many other areas, the Internet and the endless possibilities offered by the
new telecommunications facilities have put the existing order in peril. The changes are
happening so fast in the media world that it is risky to try to predict their future; All of this
chapter may have to be rewritten in a few months! Facebook has been in existence for a little
over ten years, has revolutionized our ways of communicating and is already becoming an old
media, forsaken by people under 30. Young people quite simply no longer care for traditional
media. Advertising revenues are melting like snow in the sun, the media, especially newspapers,
are closing one after the other.
Consider this great paradox: by enabling greater freedom of expression than ever before in the
history of mankind, digital media threaten the existence of the press room by removing its
exclusive nature as the source of information on which was based the economic benefits of
traditional media. It's not just the information that has become free. The newspaper was once
the primary source for classified advertisements, movie and entertainment schedules and all
public service information provided by governments and municipalities. Today, all this
information is freely available to anyone with access to an internet connection. The traditional
business model of media is no longer viable.
Journalism is going through very difficult times. Journalists today are under assault on several
fronts. In the United States, in 1940, approximately 35% of the population received a printed
newspaper. The proportion dropped to less than 15% in 2010. There were, in this country, about
1,200 daily newspapers per 100 million population in 1945, against 400 in 201050. In the last 40
years, the number of journalists per capita has been halved and the audience of major TV news
and radio broadcasts have been constantly decreasing. The only ratings to increase are those of
social media, but then are we still talking about journalism? Journalism and journalists are
overwhelmed by hordes of bloggers and “citizen journalists” ever more numerous, with major
consequences for the quality of information and the health of democracy, a concern to which
we will return later.
The rout, which once concerned mainly print media, now also affects electronic media, and even
the all-news channels, whose golden age will have lasted less than a quarter century. The 1991
Gulf war allowed CNN to establish itself permanently in the global television landscape by
offering a quick response and a sustained attention span significantly higher than that of
traditional channels, and other channels followed. But these networks are themselves
outgunned today by social media. The new live streaming applications of Facebook and Twitter
are proving increasingly the "killer apps" that displace the traditional sources of media images.
When a crisis occurs, the news channel anchor journalists can do nothing but endlessly repeat
the scarce information available to them and broadcast the images taken from afar by their
cameramen who inevitably arrived after the start of the crisis or, more and more, footage shot
«within» the crisis and relayed in real time through their smartphones by people who were
there when the crisis occurred. In a few days in July 2016, we saw a woman broadcasting live
50 The News Today : 7 Trends in Old and New Media. By Elaine C. Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele. Brookings Center for Effective Public
Management, November 2015
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the agony of her companion, who had been shot a few seconds earlier by a police officer; a
Black Lives Matter movement activist film his own arrest; the truck driven by a terrorist mow
dozens of lives on the Promenade des anglais in Nice filmed by someone who was there—all in
real time. This unprecedented capacity for immediacy brings journalists themselves, as well as a
growing number of their audience, to turn to social media to follow events.
Everywhere, the number of publications and circulation numbers are decreasing and closures,
downsizing and layoffs are increasing, especially in newspapers. The crisis is real. Eager to
maintain profitability, media owners seek the winning formula and it seems to imply among
other things the redirection of the newsroom in directions that are not desired by journalists,
such as “people-isation” of information, search of sensationalism, a lesser place granted to
information that sells less – even if it is essential – and, in parallel, more and more space for the
multiple variants of content marketing. This invasion of the press room by thinly disguised
advertising is experienced by journalists as a frontal attack on the conditions of the exercise of
professional journalism. Whether asking journalists to write sponsored content alongside
genuine journalistic articles or inserting such content through the information in ever more
creative formats, or seeing newsroom directors choose news items on the basis of the sponsors’
preferences, the boundaries between genres are blurring.51
Repeated attempts to maintain the profitability of the media and the upheavals that accompany
their transformation have led to enormous pressure on the working conditions of journalists:
increased workload, use of a higher number of freelancers (whose rates have stagnated for
twenty years, if they have not declined), pressures to change the content so as to promote sales.
Since the beginning of the century, all major media have experienced these disturbances.
Lockouts succeed one another rather than strikes, which clearly indicates that it is the media
owners who are applying pressure to accelerate change. The situation is radically different from
that prevailing in the 1960s and 1970s when unions of journalists multiplied work stoppages to
achieve better working conditions and better professional conditions for the exercise of
journalism. Today these unions are completely overwhelmed.
The media are reacting by trying to reinvent a viable business model, with more or less success.
More precisely, owners and media managers react; they, more than journalists, are trying to
reinvent their business model, with mixed success so far, and also sometimes with catastrophic
results for journalists.
Let’s ask the question differently. Rather than question the future of media, let’s question the
future of journalism and journalists. The question is no longer whether the media as we know
them will disappear, or mutate into a new reality – we know the answer. Let us ask ourselves
rather whether the newsroom, this independent autonomous structure dedicated to producing
public interest information described by the Press Council’s ethics guide – without which there
is no news media – is doomed to disappear, if professional journalism is condemned?
The classic economic model of the media is no longer viable. However, it is far from clear that
professional journalism will disappear. By analogy, new technologies and social media trashed
the music industry as it existed, bypassing the existing distribution networks, but the music itself
51 On this topic, TRENTE, the magazine published by FPJQ, published a dossier in its Summer 2015 issue, Volume 39, #2.
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still exists. Uber threatens the taxi industry, but the “taxi” function still exists. In the world of
retail, countless retailers have closed, but the part of retail that migrated to the Web is doing
well. All these functions survive because they are needed; they are carried out otherwise, they
borrow new channels altogether.
Obsessed with the economic impact, we do not pay enough attention to the reaction of the
journalists themselves, who are beginning to organize not the response to social media, but the
evolution of journalism and its adaptation to the new context.
The debate on the status of the journalist
Given the importance for the well-being of democracy of maintaining a free press worthy of the
name, the Quebec government mandated a few years ago journalist Dominique Payette to
explore the future of information in Quebec in the context of technological change.
The Payette report, tabled in 2010, notes that the traditional media business model is bankrupt
and that to support quality information, we need to explore new avenues. It recommends the
creation of a status of professional journalist and the establishment of a government support for
the practice of journalism, where the government would support news media that engage a
sufficient number of journalists holding this title. The report also recommends strengthening
and better funding for the Press Council, to raise the general level of journalistic ethics in
Dominique Payette recommends the establishment of a designation of “professional journalist,”
and provides several arguments in support52. The current response to the question “who is a
journalist” is so vague that it is impossible for the government to design a support program for
them. The same argument is invoked by courts to refuse to recognize the protection of
journalistic sources, the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights cannot be applied to “a group
of writers as heterogeneous and ill-defined.” A status of professional journalist would clearly
identify professionals dedicated to the information of public interest and who respect the rules
and ethics specific to journalism. The creation of such a status is not unprecedented. In Europe,
laws on the status of the journalist and the issuing of press card to those who qualify according
to the criteria set by a journalist organization are the norm. The Scandinavian countries, all rated
better than Canada in the World Press Freedom Index, have been actively supporting their news
media for some time, specifically linking such support to the need to maintain their invaluable
contribution to democracy53. As recently as 2015, Sweden was still exploring ways to strengthen
the public support afforded to the media54. In France, public support for the media cost some €
900 million in 2013. .55
52 See the chapter she writes in Les Journalistes, Québec Amérique, 2015
53 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2016 According to this index, the top 10
countries out of 180 countries for freedom of the press are, in decreasing order, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, New-
Zealand, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Ireland and Jamaica. Canada ranks 18th, GreatBritain 38, the United States 41 and France 45.
54 et!/
55 COUR DES COMPTES, Les aides de l’État à la presse écrite
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The Payette report is careful to point out that the professional status would be attached to the
individual who would receive it, depending on the nature of their professional work, rather than
being linked to membership to a corporation or a professional order.
This caution is motivated by historical reasons. The very idea that a third party – especially if it is
mandated by the State – can define who is or is not a journalist inspires a deeply rooted
resistance56. North American journalists – there is here no distinct reality for Quebec – are so
resistant to any form of supervision imposed from outside their profession that they have
always largely resisted the idea that anyone who is not a journalist could decide who or may not
be a journalist. In fact, they argue for total open and unrestricted access to the practice of
journalism, on the sole basis of the relevance of the proposed content for any media wishing to
publish or broadcast it. However, as the work of the Payette Commission has shown, historically,
when journalists see the possibilities of negotiations on the union side are shrinking, they look
more favorably to the possibility of implementing a professional status.
The Payette report was received quite favorably, both by FPJQ and by the Press Council. At the
FPJQ Congress of 2011, a unanimous resolution was passed in favor of a professional status, but
the tide quickly turned. The minister responsible undertook a tour and may have shown a little
too much enthusiasm, awakening the specter of state control. FPJQ and Press Council could not
agree on which body would be responsible for issuing press cards. Discordant voices were heard
in the journalistic corps. Some newspaper companies disagreed. In the end, the journalistic
community ultimately rejected the idea of a professional status. Five years down the road, one
wonders if the profession would not wish to renew the debate in a more serene state of mind.57
The Payette report fizzled. The debate continues and the very identity of what is a journalist is at
the heart of the discussions. In a dossier published in its edition of autumn 2014, the magazine
“30” published by the FPJQ bluntly asks: Does the news media define the journalist?
Employment is declining in traditional media and journalists in growing numbers have no other
choice but to turn to business publications and organizations to survive. Journalist Benoite
Labrosse demonstrated how, under the classical definitions we have discussed in Chapter 4, two
people can cover the same subject with the same professionalism, but only one of them would
qualify for the status of journalist; the status depends more on the publication that pays the
person than on their professionalism. Thus, En Route (Air Canada), Le Journal du Barreau on (the
Québec Bar Journal), La Gazette des Femmes (Journal of the Quebec Council on the Status of
Women), to name just a few examples of credible publications, are not recognized by the FPJQ
as news media, because they promote special interests rather than serve “the interests of the
citizen.” This debate is stirring the profession and will not be solved easily.
56 The same debate raged at the time of the Hutchins Commission. Some of its members felt that the press should be regulated
by the government if it does not assume its responsibilities to the public.
57 As this essay is being finalized (September 2016), the debate seems to be rekindled in Quebec in the context of the consultations
conducted by the Quebec government on the renewal of its cultural policy. We are aware of three submissions, those submitted by
the Independent Journalists Association of Quebec, the National Federation of communications of the CNTU and Le Devoir. Some
proposals appear to be consensual, such as the adoption of various forms of media support such as tax credits, subsidies, advertising
budgets of governments and public agencies, and a law allowing independent journalists to come together for the purpose of
negotiating working conditions. All also insist that these support measures should in no way limit the autonomy and independence
of news organizations editorially.
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Given the stubbornness with which journalists defend their independence, it remains to be seen
whether it will be possible to find arrangements that would allow the survival of newspapers. Of
course, independence is an essential feature of journalism. However, if a new model to
effectively support the press room is not developed, journalists whose numbers are constantly
decreasing will eventually preside over a field of ruins.
This question is of interest for all public relations professionals. We are traversing a phase
where, behind the erosion of the traditional news media, lies an empty internet space
populated by an illusion created by millions of individual voices which together often evoke
chaos and confusion more than a solid, well-documented reflection of reality similar to that
which can produce a group of well supervised journalists in a real newsroom. One can find the
worst alongside the best on the Internet, where new media are gradually being developed,
newsroom included, but if the mainstream media were all to disappear immediately, nothing
could fill the vital role that they provide for the benefit of society.
Hopefully, the media will manage to reinvent themselves because the press room is essential to
both public relations professionals and journalists. While the damage from journalistic slips can
be very harmful, such events remain few in numbers and can be remedied by an intervention
with the news medium concerned. In contrast, a blogger who slips can cause as much damage
as a traditional journalist. How do we intervene to correct the damage that is spreading at the
speed of the movement of electrons on the Web? Monitoring and rapid response systems can
be brought into play, but these do not address the problem of lack of professional journalistic
standards for the vast majority of bloggers; the real problem is not technical, it is professional
and ethical in nature. We quickly understand the interest for a public relations professional to
deal with well trained and mentored journalists rather than with bloggers beholden to no one
and with no professional obligations.
Social Media and Democracy
The survival of journalism should also interest us as citizens concerned about the health of the
democratic system that governs our collective lives. Arguing that millions of formerly voiceless
people have indeed found a voice, some say that social media and the Internet have brought a
golden age of freedom of expression. Others argue instead that the apparently infinite
multiplicity of voices on the Internet obfuscates reality; in fact, social media ownership was
consolidated at incredible speeds, recreating the same dangers posed by the concentration of
ownership of traditional media, which we discussed in Chapter 158. In fact, social media is
transforming our society and exerting an influence on our democracy that the majority of the
population is not yet fully aware of in 2016.
The small number of players who control the most influential social media are fighting to attract
the maximum number of visitors and, to this end, they have devised algorithms that are closely
guarded secrets, but that ALL work along the same principle: give the customer ever more of
what he wants. These algorithms analyze the online behaviour of each user and provide content
58 To explore these very interesting questions would lead us too far from our subject. See in particular:
Canada’s Digital Divides, published by Communications Management inc., August 20, 2015
And the website of the Canada Media Concentration Project :
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that match the user’s tastes, his political inclinations, what he already knows and what he wants
to see. By learning to recognize our preferences, the algorithm every day gives us contents that
reflect only the news we are interested in, what we already know, delivered by commentators
with whom we agree. Ultimately, it cuts us off from the rest. In other words, a person informed
only through social media – this is the case of most under 30 - if they are not aware of this and
do not consciously strive to diversify their sources of information and views, will see their
worldview shrink, even as they believe they are accessing \universal content. The quality of
democratic debate can only suffer.
One might think that this situation is not very different from that which we have always known;
we all tend to read certain parts of the newspaper and to ignore what does not interest us. But
there are important differences. In a real newspaper, even one identified to an ideological or
political current, the content is governed by professional rules enforced by the editor: fact
checking, multiple sources, clear distinctions between opinion and facts, balanced perspectives.
So much so that even if we read only one daily newspaper, there is a good chance that most of
the information will be the same as in other newspapers, that it will have been subjected to at
least minimal fact checking and that we will be able to distinguish between fact and opinion.
Even media that are openly aligned with a political tendency base their reputation on the
accuracy of facts and rigorous analysis. Thus, although opinions may diverge to infinity, at least
there is a common fact base on which all can converge, anchoring the political and social debate
in a common reality. Moreover, because they pose as defenders of freedom of expression, the
vast majority of traditional media have always maintained a tone of civility respectful of
diversity. Racist or hate speech and calls for intolerance are generally banned.
The situation is different in social media. They have almost total freedom in democratic
countries and too often indulge in serious abuses. The wildest assertions, racism, prejudice,
misinformation and outright lies can be aired without verification or counterweight. It
sometimes becomes very difficult to distinguish what is true and what is false. More worryingly,
what is false often has the same weight as what is true for millions of people who do not have
the means or the time or the desire to check. Traditional media may well say that a falsehood
promoted by social media is a falsehood, but tens of millions of people are no longer listening to
them. Furthermore, on social media the tone of the debate often degenerates, insults are
traded and intolerance increases. Finally, while traditional media generally give greater
importance to recognized experts and proven knowledge, on social media all voices have the
same weight and the flamboyant or demagogue style often outweighs accurate facts and depth
of analysis.
The phenomenon itself is not new. Trash radio and tabloids have always existed. But these
media, harmful as they may be, do not cancel the effectiveness of true news media. Social
media, on the other hand, do precisely this, in two stages. First, as we have seen in the
preceding paragraph, they generate confusion in the public debate. Second, by undermining
both the circulation and the advertising budgets of traditional media, social media generate as
we have seen a significant overall decrease in the number of media and journalists, reducing
their ability to perform their duties, undermining the very heart of democratic debate and
opening the door to the worst excesses, as summarized by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas:
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« When reorganization and cost-cutting (in the media) jeopardize
accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the
political public sphere. Because, without the flow of information
gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of
arguments based on an expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public
communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would
then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the
function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional
In other words, the rise of populist discourse and the continual weakening of traditional media
threaten the very existence of a rational public debate. The threat is all the more pernicious
because traditional media have no choice but to report the populist discourse and their fact
checking does not seem to have any impact on a large part of their audience. Moreover, some
politicians openly bank on the confusion between truth and falsehood maintained by social
Again, politicians inventing a reality that suits them and exploiting the resentment of part of the
population to build political capital is nothing new. But discourse based on emotions and
prejudices, often unverified and false, is now broadcast by means as powerful as the traditional
media from which they have always been excluded, or presented critically. With major
consequences on society.
The phenomenon is not theoretical. The Brexit vote was no sooner finished than its most ardent
promoters admitted they had knowingly used false arguments and that their strategy, faced
with the insistence on the truth of the other side (and journalists) had been to bet on emotion.
"Facts do not work," said Arron Banks, the main financial contributor to the Brexit camp.
"People in this country have had enough of experts," 60 said for his part Michael Gove, a leading
British politician. And what about Donald Trump, whose erroneous declarations that are too
numerous not be suspicious are reported on daily by all of the serious press? But his supporters
no longer listen to the serious press, they communicate between themselves.
"You're Entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts". Incredible as it may seem, this
bit of wisdom is no longer true, the politicians we are talking about do not hesitate to change
the facts, or to invent some, for political expediency.
Important social disruption occurs as a result of this loss of landmarks about what is socially
acceptable speech in both content and form. Groups hitherto silenced and politically marginal, if
not nonexistent, and whose concerns never dominated the political agenda, suddenly found a
voice, an audience and political power.
59 Quoted in: How technology disrupted the truth, article de Katherine Viner dans The Guardian du 12 juillet 2016.
60 Two quotes from the following article: How technology disrupted the truth, by Katherine Viner in The Guardian, July 12, 2016
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Under the influence of social media, political equilibrium that was stable for decades has been
suddenly and rapidly upset. The "Arab Spring" of 2011 would never have occurred without the
mobilizing power of social media and its ability to bypass traditional media under the control of
the dictatorship. Brexit would have been unthinkable a few years ago, as well as the rise to
power of Donald Trump in the United States. The far right, held in check in many European
democracies since World War II, is in resurgence. In all these cases, populism has been
encouraged by the emergence on social media of content that is outrageous from the
standpoint of the usual standards of what can be written or said in the traditional media.
I'm not saying that social media are the source of the phenomenon; dissident or extremist
opinions have always existed. But without social media, they could not assert themselves so
forcefully, nor impose themselves into traditional media and the dominant political discourse.
It is interesting to recall Chomsky's theory that the media constitute a system whose purpose is
"to teach individuals values, beliefs and behavioral codes that integrate social structures at large
... power and money select what information is to be published, marginalize dissent and allow
messages from the government and dominant private interests to reach the public.»61 If the
media can no longer play their role of filter that only publish ideas that are acceptable "to power
and money," it logically follows from Chomsky's theory that ideas unacceptable to the ruling
elite will emerge in the public debate.
This is exactly what is happening! Donald Trump is the personification of political incorrectness;
Brexit was seen as heresy for 20 years; the logic of free trade supported by ever more
encompassing international treaties, at the heart of economic orthodoxy, is being strongly
opposed, as well as the inequalities generated by capitalism, which are not new (although their
magnitude is unprecedented in recent history). A large number of dominant ideas that for
decades were supported by a fundamental consensus of the major political and economic
powers across the political spectrum are now being questioned. The disarray of the elite who
can no longer contain the debate is palpable.
Certainly, there is as much good as there is bad in social media. Who would claim that it is
unhealthy for all groups and all people to access a tool that allows them literally to speak to the
entire planet? All political tendencies can be found online. Eight years before Donald Trump, it
was Barack Obama who used social media to channel financial and political support from
millions of voters. Millions of refugees migrating from African countries to Europe have used
social media to find help, talk to relatives, regroup and organize. In the US, the excesses of the
police forces are now denounced, with visual evidence in support. Social media is inseparable
from the Internet that has allowed whole areas of the world lacking traditional infrastructure to
break out of isolation. They are an incredibly rich source of content of all kinds – the world at
your fingertips. Anyway, we will never return the genie to the bottle. Whatever one thinks of
social media, we must learn to live with it.
The role of journalism in this world under reconstruction is to help establish a new coherence,
based on rigorous analysis that distinguishes between proven facts and opinions, and to create
forums tempered by an ethic of discussion. As expressed by Katherine Viner of the Guardian,
“The challenge for journalism today is not simply technological innovation or the creation of
61 Chomsky, pages 25 and 26
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new business models. It is to establish what role journalistic organizations still play in a public
discourse that has become impossibly fragmented and radically destabilized.” 62
And yes, the signals are multiplying: answers are gradually being formulated, coming from
journalism and journalists themselves. They are in the process of reinventing what should be,
that is to say, the organizational and administrative framework that supports journalistic
activity, and to reaffirm what should be – the timeless values of professional journalism
practiced ethically and competently.
Reinventing the organization
As for the organizational framework, what we call “business model”, the situation is now so
uncertain and shifting so quickly it seems impossible to clearly read the future. One thing is
certain: there is no going back. To survive, existing media, especially the print media, and more
specifically the daily newspapers, must adapt to the reality of information available in real time
at no cost. It is not at all certain that they are capable of doing so because their very nature is
challenged. The added value of a daily newspaper or a television newscast that is, precisely, to
inform us about daily news, has disappeared for younger generations who learn nothing in the
newspaper as they have read, seen, heard all the information on a screen they consult a
hundred times a day. The statistics confirm this: this type of media are falling everywhere.
Adjustment attempts are multiplying; in fact, they are so numerous it would take a whole book
just to sum them up adequately, we can do no more here than to sketch a very partial
description. An important common feature of all these attempts requires attention: the nature
of new platforms make them universally accessible media, allowing everyone to learn in real
time about the news of their district and their country as well as from the rest of the world, by
reading either the corresponding reports published in the newspaper of their city, or live reports
from journalists of all countries, published in the media of these countries. The multiplicity of
viewpoints available is staggering and again here pose the problem of choice: how can we
navigate in this electronic jungle?
Many traditional print media offer rich Internet versions where one finds the content of the
printed version but also additional reports, access to research materials, links to additional
content updates, blogs, and a direct access to a news feed. In Montreal, La Presse + is one of the
best examples of this trend63. It is too early to conclude on the success of these adaptations.
Many believe that the younger generations will not follow what they still see as an “old media.”
Other new media choose to break with established patterns. The French news website
Mediapart64, for example, made the bold choice to sell the information to its customers by
focusing on exclusives and high quality information, while refusing any advertising or grants.
Modern computer tools allow the Mediapart team to reinvent the news organization, much
62 How technology disrupted the truth, article de Katherine Viner dans The Guardian du 12 juillet 2016.
63 At the very end of 2015, La Presse stopped publishing its print editions, except
for that of Saturday. The impressions rate of the Internet-based La Presse + was roughly equivalent to the paper edition of the best
years of La Presse. The electronic platform was sold to the Toronto Star in 2015 but as of March 2016, the number of people
accessing the new electronic Star platform was well below forecasts.
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as Uber has done for the taxi industry; no more heavy hierarchy, no more advertising or
subscription management department, only a big newsroom where journalists govern
In the United States, Quartz65 has been publishing since 2012. Defining itself as a “digitally native
news outlet,” Quartz is aimed primarily at the business community and provides free reports
from all continents. Quartz claims to be “a newsroom that is wholly focused on digital
storytelling.” Application developers work in teams with journalists to define new modes of
integration and presentation of information.
Netherlands-based Blendle66 publicly affirms its intention to transform journalism as iTunes
transformed the music industry. Its team of journalists sort through the reports of the most
credible media in Europe and America and offer them to subscribers for pennies, with the added
bonus of a one-click refund if the article is not up to our expectations! (The refund rate is 10% in
Europe). As of March 2016, the North American beta version is being tested by 10,000 users,
and will be open to all thereafter.
The opinion website Ricochet67 offers a virtual offer on a platform in French and one in English.
The magazine Nouveau Projet68 offers both printed and digital content. Montreal-born VICE69
has established itself not only here in Canada but elsewhere, with an increasingly abundant
digital offer combining text and video. There are a variety of other experiments in progress,
often centered on specific interests or local communities. In the Montreal area alone, for
example, Planète F70 deals with family matters, Rue Masson71 is focused on news from
Rosemont (a district of Montreal), Trahir72 and À l’essai73 offer social and cultural essays and
analyses, Mauvaise herbe74 deals with culture, La semaine rose75 and Françoise Stereo76 are
inspired by a feminist agenda. After this quick exploration, we can be certain of one thing; we
have barely scratched the surface of this sea of new electronic publications. To explore them all
would draw us away from our main topic: the evolution of journalism itself.
Note that the ownership of the means of production can be seen as a return to the distant time
when small groups of people founded publications who survived primarily on the revenues from
the sale of the magazine rather than advertising, guaranteeing their authors a maximum of
freedom of speech. However, the impact of these publications remains very limited, as is their
distribution. It must be noted that the virtual domain quickly borrowed the paths of
concentration that were followed by traditional media in earlier days. The new media who reach
by far the largest audiences are now very few. While the electronic press avatars are
innumerable, as soon as they show even modest success, each new vehicle is quickly purchased
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for a handsome price by the Googles, Microsofts and Apples of this world, and integrated in
their package of services. So much so that behind this apparent multiplicity of voices on the
Internet, the bulk of all content still belongs to a very small number of very rich and powerful
The media, as we have seen, are also turning more and more towards content marketing as a
source of revenues. There are numerous variants: dedicated pages or articles, commissioned
reporting, native advertising, etc. It is interesting to note here that it is the value of a news
medium as a brand that makes it interesting for content marketing; the more the media is
credible, the more the marketing content inserted in it will be well received. To maintain that
credibility, the news media must strike a careful balance in the mix of journalistic content and
the disguised advertising content that is content marketing. They take precautions. Some media
call the employees assigned to content marketing “writers”77, rather than journalists, and locate
their offices in separate premises. The journalists themselves, often through their unions,
require that sections of the publication or website that carry promotion rather than journalism
be clearly identified. This is not always the case, and confusion is common, especially for
electronic publications. Attractive and sometimes unavoidable from a revenue perspective,
content marketing is therefore a tool to be handled with great care because inconsiderate use
could distort the very nature of the news media, with a great risk of killing the goose that lays
golden eggs.
Finally, some news media create their own events and thus generate exclusive content for their
own use. Some media organize seminars, conferences and similar events that give them extra
income but are also used to generate unique and original content. To give just one example, a
Montreal-based business-oriented weekly periodically organizes conferences on various topics
of interest to its readers, ranging from social responsibility to the Ten Commandments of the
modern business executive, while not forgetting the management of human resources,
information security, energy, governance, and even the administrative assistant function.
All these experiences have advantages and disadvantages and none can guarantee long-term
survival. It is likely that several others will arise in the months and years ahead. The
transformation of the business model of news media that will ensure its survival is not
Reinventing ownership78
The ownership of the medium, as we have seen, is of prime importance in the control of
information. While each journalist is both a human being with the universally recognized right of
free expression and a professional committed to properly informing the public, ultimately it is
always the owner of the medium who decides the extent of resources devoted to journalism
and what content will be published or not. French economist Julia Cagé suggests that, to
77 In French, rédacteurs, but this translates into «editor», a title that cannot be used for writers of subsidized content, for obvious
reasons. Hence our choice of the word writer.
78 This section is directly inspired by the book published by French economist Julia Cagé. All quotes are taken from this book and
translated by us:
Cagé, Julia, Sauver les medias, éditions du Seuil, 2015
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preserve the essential function of a strong press in a democratic society, it is time to invent a
new form of ownership.
Julia Cagé first establishes the essential importance of mega news media. The world is vast and
complex, and to account properly for it requires a critical mass of journalistic resources in one
place. Two newsrooms of a hundred journalists are not equivalent to a newsroom of two
hundred journalists; for each must cover the whole of society: politics, education, business, arts
and culture, sports, breaking news, the judiciary, etc. Once these essentials are covered, there
are scarce resources left to conduct additional journalistic research and investigation. Size
matters. Very large media must not only survive but also enjoy a minimum of prosperity in a
context where the autonomy of the journalistic function will be preserved. However, none of
the forms of ownership that currently exist can lead to this outcome.
Historically, the media were held by one or a small group of owners, often families. Even today,
a newspaper in financial difficulty is often bought by what Julia Cagé calls "a billionaire longing
for influence." The exclusive property of a large and influential daily, or other medium of
information, inevitably raises doubts about its editorial independence. Moreover, the billionaire
may also decide to sell, perpetuating the financing problem.
Media that belong to foundations can also be found in several countries. One of the most
important is the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation, one of the largest media groups in the
world. This avenue gives the media some stability, but also places it under the absolute control
of the foundation, which often amounts to the absolute control by a single family, as has been
the case for the Bertelsmann Foundation for generations. Moreover, notes Julia Cagé, most notfor-
profit media today remain very small, with a reduced number of journalists and modest
budgets. She cites examples such ProPublica, established in 2008 and supported by Herbert and
Marion Sandler, the Tampa Bay Times, owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism school, the
Texas Tribune, launched in 2009 by several foundations; these are all niche media, unable to
replace the mainstream media because of insufficient capital.
A small number of media were owned by societies of journalists, a dead-end according to Julia
Cagé: "Experience teaches us that media exclusively held by their employees are doomed to
failure...the idea of self-management is a journalism utopia, at least if we stick to the rigid ’one
employee, one vote' canon."
Finally, throughout the twentieth century, many media have constituted themselves as
corporations to meet capital requirements, which brings us back to the current cul-de-sac: "[The
context of increasing competition] has driven these media to cut costs, especially by significantly
reducing the size of their has led the media to shift more and more from
information to infotainment, or outright entertainment, much less expensive to produce and
often much richer in advertising revenue, leaving a growing number individuals with no access
to the real information." Even when journalists and other employees become shareholders, the
model plays against them because with each new capital call the proportion of votes they
control is diluted to the point of irrelevance.
"We have to realize that the political and general news media provide a public good, as well as
universities [and] all industries that feed the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century.
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They should, as such, benefit from special treatment from the state," argues Julia Cagé. She
notes that worldwide, the media benefit from some form or another of public support,
either through preferential postal rates or a tailored taxation regime. These resources could be
harnessed more effectively in a new legal framework that would allow large media to continue
to exist.
Julia Cagé proposes creating a new form of property, the "not-for-profit media company."79 This
entity would be legally constituted according to the model of the major US university
foundations and attract donations in exchange for tax breaks granted by the state. The real
novelty of the model proposed by Cagé is its governance structure. The media company would
not be managed by a small group of trustees, as in a conventional foundation, but by the
contributors of the funds, such as in a publicly-traded company, but with a fundamental
difference. In the classic model, voting rights are distributed in proportion to the percentage of
capital held by each shareholder or shareholder group. In the not-for-profit media company,
voting rights would be distributed asymmetrically, so as to allow all shareholders to exert real
Beyond a certain ownership threshold, say 10% for the purposes of our example, any additional
capital contribution from a single shareholder or group of shareholders would entitle them to a
decreased percentage of voting rights. The unallocated portion of voting rights would be
distributed to minority shareholders. In this model, a group of journalist, writers or readers
might hold part of the media company and exercise real power, without fear of that power
being diluted to the point of insignificance by external shareholders.
"For Joseph Schumpeter, it is not the owners of the stagecoaches who build railroads; which
means that we should not expect a traditional economic player to undertake the revolutions of
tomorrow," concludes Julia Cagé. I have given considerable space to her ideas because they
bring us to one inescapable conclusion: the answer to the technological changes that completely
transform the modern world will require a profound transformation of the media industry of the
same nature and scope as those that are shaking up the taxi, retail, entertainment, cultural
industries and the rest of society. Exactly as the corporation emerged and established itself in
response to the need to gather the necessary capital to launch the industrial era, new forms of
organization and ownership, adapted to the new conditions, must now be created.
Back to the future for Journalism?
As for the evolution of journalism, the signals are clearly encouraging! Journalists seem to be
converging towards the need for more professionalism, more rigor, and greater ethics. It is
journalism itself, in its most traditional and purest state, which will affirm its value and find its
place in the twenty-first century. It is the journalists themselves who say so.80
Thus, François Bonnet, of Mediapart, says: “We must insist and insist again on this point: digital
modernity demands the best of our professional tradition, that which basically defines our job,
79 La société de media à but non lucrative.
80 For the entire section that follows, we are indebted to the remarkable work of journalists Robert Maltais and Pierre Cayouette
who published a collection of texts from 19 journalists on the current state and the future of journalism: Les journalistes, published
by Québec Amérique in 2015.
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which is our ability to produce information.» Bonnet stresses the importance of what he
describes as “the social mission of journalists: establish the facts rather than comment on
them.“ He continues by quoting Robert Park, of the Chicago school of sociology: “It is
information rather than comments that forms opinion (...) a journalist in command of the facts
is a more effective reformer than a columnist who simply bellows from his pulpit, eloquent as he
may be.»81
Journalist and teacher Robert Maltais adds: “To ensure its sustainability, journalism in the
twenty-first century must be able to renew itself by building on solid values: in-depth
information processing and analysis, the search for the truth, disseminating thoroughly accurate
facts and novel human testimony. In short, a highly credible and ethical content – added
These journalists bring us back to the essence of what journalism should be and they dissipate
some stubborn illusions. “The magic of technology has been able to convince many that mastery
of the tool ensures that of the content. But nothing is more false. Journalistic practice is much
more than just the ability to communicate or to arrange higgledy-piggledy sound, images and
text, much more than the ability to write a blogpost or “tweet” without spelling or syntax
mistakes ... (journalism) is basically to collect, prioritize and make information available in order
to enhance the democratic potential of citizens by increasing the understanding of the society in
which they live and hence, helping them to better exercise their rights, “ writes Jean-Claude
Similarly, François Bonnet brings citizen journalism in its proper perspective. “All journalists!
some have proclaimed, yielding too quickly to the mirages of the technology revolution induced
by the Internet. Yes, publishing tools are now within reach of all. Yes, a blog can be read
instantly worldwide. Yes, everyone can speak at any time. It is an immense conquest, an
unprecedented expansion of our freedoms. But this in no way negates the trade of the
journalist, patiently built on expertise, culture and strict professional rules. Testimony by itself is
not information. A rumor relayed remains a rumor. An unsourced photo without a caption to
contextualize it is only an unusable image. A “tweet” can be a lead, but nothing more. “84
Bonnet says the citizen's role is that of whistleblower, but that it is the journalists who will then
do the real work by collecting the facts, checking them, seeing if they match, subjecting them to
analysis. He cites Julian Assange who has made public hundreds of thousands of pages of
confidential documents via Wikileaks and Edward Snowden who did the same by revealing the
extent of the spying practices by the NSA. In both cases, teams of journalists relayed the whistle
blowers; it was them “who have worked this raw material, intersected thousands of pieces of
information contained in them and given them meaning. “85
81 Les journalistes, page 114.
82 Les journalistes, page 177.
83 Les journalistes, page 184.
84 Les journalistes, page 115.
85 Les journalistes, page 116.
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Maltais, Picard and Bonnet, and many other journalists of great experience therefore argue for
journalistic rigor and ethics that must be stronger than ever, as differentiation factors and as
added value.
Several journalists also specifically emphasize the importance of ethics. “Fully assumed ethical
practice is what will distinguish journalism from other communicative practices and allow it to
survive in spite of contrary winds and multiple pressures – primarily commercial – which are at
work today,” writes Dominique Payette, for whom democratic societies have concluded a tacit
agreement with private media companies that their primary function is to contribute to social
debate and to interest the population in these debates by the practice of a responsible
professional journalism.
Thomas Kent adds: “It is increasingly ethics that will determine who truly will be part of our
profession,”86 The importance of ethics is based on a simple fact: for a journalist - as, for a public
relations professional - credibility is everything. Each journalist builds their own credibility day
by day and people seeking information quickly learn to spot the familiar signatures, those on
which we can count for an accurate worldview and description of events.87
Journalists also identify the main challenges they face to maintain the professionalism and
integrity of their practice. The main one is probably the ever-increasing pace of the publication
of information. The possibility offered by social media to instantly disseminate information
seems to have become an obligation. The race for the “scoop” between journalists has always
existed, but it has reached an unhealthy level of intensity, made possible and encouraged by the
“indomitable beast” of social media, in the words of journalist Maryse Tessier: “This beast must
be nurtured ... it has an insatiable appetite. After eating the viral, videos, photos, animations,
shocking text, it requires more. We must satisfy to the demands and changes on Facebook. It's a
bit surreal, but, on the other hand, we would be fools, as a medium, to ignore the power of the
media ... I therefore follow the masses. I go where the reader is. “88 Not only must we give more
and more, but still, while seeking to maintain a journalistic standard, we must also satisfy the
urges of the reader for the unusual, the trivia, the morbid.
The media would therefore have no choice but to follow the dictatorship of speed and to always
give people more of what they expect? Journalist Thomas Gerbet tackles this problem and
suggests another approach: “Who imposes this speed? Are newsrooms flooded with emails
from citizens who demand more? Rather, I believe we impose on ourselves these unwritten
rules and they take root as competition (or sense of competition) intensifies. What if, to the
contrary the way to the future would be cooperation between news media? “89
Gerbet highlights several recent examples of cooperation that benefit both news organizations
and journalists, and the population, such as the agreement recently signed by seven major
European newspapers to share information and resources to jointly conduct large
investigations. He could also cite examples much closer to us, such as the continued cooperation
86 Les journalistes, page 217.
87 Of course different journalists will develop their own worldview, which will lead to differences in interpretation; a single event or
object can result in different «truths», as we have discussed previously.
88 Les journalistes, page 267.
89 Les journalistes, page 245.
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of journalists from several Quebec media that led, after two years of research and revelations,
to the creation of the Commission on the Awarding of Public Contracts in the Construction
Industry (Charbonneau commission).
Journalist Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours goes in the same direction, citing her own pooling
experience of means and projects under the collective Ublo Media. Gerbet and Brassard-
Lecours, it must be emphasized, belong to the younger generation of journalists. Are we
perhaps witnessing the emergence of a new, more collaborative philosophy in the world of
On a much larger scale, on the initiative of the prestigious The Guardian and El Pais, and the
Global Network of editors, forty media of the world have created a platform for exchanging
content on environmental issues six months before the Global Summit on the environment held
in Paris in November 2015. This life-size experiment indicates the ability of the media and
journalists to work together to cover wide-ranging issues with all the participating publications
emerge stronger.
Ultimately, according to the journalists themselves, journalism will not only survive but prosper
again by remaining true to what it should be, that is to say a tool of true information. Yves
Boisvert summarized it well: “We must stay focused on the fundamentals of the trade. “90
However, the nature of the institutional framework in which this revived practice can flourish is
still far from clear; we are still at the experimental stage.
90 Les journalistes, page 72.
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Journalists reflect current events, while public relations works to shape them. Our conceptions
of truth and the common good often differ, which is inevitable. We must take note and learn to
manage these tensions constructively.
Journalists and public relations practitioners do not have to be friends or accomplices. No more
than they should see themselves as adversaries or enemies. They occupy different functions in
the « information ecology » whose balance is essential to the health of democracy. These
functions sometimes play out in complementarity and sometimes in opposition; in all cases, one
and the other must maintain a professional attitude. By definition and by profession a journalist
doubts everything, wants to know everything and is forever wary of ready-made explanations.
This is normal, for the contrary would be disturbing. The independence of journalists that
sometimes enrages us is excellent, more from the point of view of general democracy than from
that of the client or the company that employs us because our message, when they accept it,
gains credibility. It is our responsibility to exercise due rigour in the development and delivery of
our content to convince them.
On their part, the journalist must always consider the facts and make an honest effort to
understand and articulate the different views that are available to them, even if they personally
disagree with some of them. Even more, for the sake of truth-seeking, an honest journalist must
at all times be ready to question their certainties, if certain proven facts contradict them. In this
sense, the journalist must maintain a perpetual openness. On this point, the professional
obligations of journalists are the same as those of public relations professionals, creating a
common ground where it should be possible to talk. It is incumbent on the public relations
professional to “produce their evidence” convincingly, to never lose patience, to never stop
explaining, to maintain an open attitude while seeking to understand the reasons behind the
journalist’ doubt, and to explain tirelessly the correctness of their views.
The future of journalism is uncertain. An essential function in maintaining a strong democracy,
this profession is undermined by a technological evolution that has pulverized the business
model that supported it financially. The economic consequences of this development on the
media and journalists are clear, but its long-term effects on both journalism and democracy
remain unpredictable. No new business model has yet proven itself. Journalists themselves
mainly rely on their professionalism to distinguish themselves from “citizen-communicators”
that feed the Web with news, opinions and comments which are sometimes well and
sometimes poorly documented, without the user knowing how to distinguish wheat from the
Public relations professionals have an interest in maintaining a free, strong, plural and abundant
press. It may seem more challenging to deal with a professional journalist than with a blogger.
This is sometimes true in the short term but not in the long term because the information
published under the signature of a recognized journalist will have a much greater credibility.
Journalists also have benefit from dealing with professional public relations practitioners aware
of their respective roles and responsibilities, which will supply them with accurate and complete
information, inform them of the necessary elements of context and give access to sources that
may enable them to deepen their understanding. The benefits of effective relationships
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between public relations professionals and journalists become evident in the long term. There
are no shortcuts: the one and the other must take the time to build a relationship of respect and
Beyond the professional aspects which were the subject of this text, as citizens, we have a huge
interest to follow the evolution of journalism. The atrophy of journalism created by the media
crisis is bad news for us all. The growing weakness and declining quality of major public debates
weakens our society. The impoverishment of the public debate inevitably leads, to the decline of
the quality of decisions. Public relations did not create this crisis but can help maintain quality
journalism, by dealing with journalists with the seriousness and professionalism they deserve.
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Ruelland, Jacques G. 1776 – Naissance de l’imprimerie et de la liberté d’expression à Montréal, Petit
musée de l’impression, Montréal, 2008, 136 pages.
Bazzo, Marie-France, Collard, Nathalie, et Dubois, René-Daniel. De quels médias le Québec a-t-il besoin?
Leméac, Montréal, 2015, 202 pages.
Cutlip, Scott M., Center, Allen H., Broom, Glen M. Effective Public relations – eighth edition. Prentice Hall,
New Jersey, 2001, 588 pages.
Grunig J. et coll. Excellence in Public relations and Communication Management. Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, publisher. Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1992
Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon, Toxic Sludge is Good for You.
Hutchins Commission, A Free and Responsible Press. University of Chicago Press, 1947, 147 pages. Peut
être commandé par internet au
Gouvernement du Canada. Rapport de la commission royale sur les quotidiens. Commission Royale sur les
quotidiens (commission Kent), 1981, 92 pages. Aussi disponible sur Internet au http://epe.lacbac.
Centre d’étude sur les médias. Réflexions et mises en contexte de la situation créée par l’élection de
M. Pierre Karl Péladeau. Université Laval, 2015, 80 pages. Aussi disponible sur Internet au
Chomsky, Noam et Herman, Edward S., La fabrication du consentement (édition de 2009). Éditions Agone,
Marseille, 2009, 670 pages.
Coombs, W. Timothy et Holladay, Sherry J., It’s NOT Just public relations – Public relations in Society
(second edition). Wiley Blackwell, 2014, 162 pages.
Maltais, Robert et Cayouette, Pierre, Les journalistes. Québec Amérique, 2015, 290 pages.
Henrard, Pascal et Pierra, Patrick, Guide du marketing de contenu. Éditions Infopresse, 2015, 205 pages.
Cagé, Julia, Sauver les medias, éditions du Seuil, 2015.
Journalisme et relations publiques
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Web sites
Center for media and democracy
Blogue de Michel Lemay sur les médias et
Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de
Press in America – dossier sur la Commission
Convention européenne des droits de l’homme
Canadian Media Concentration Research Project
Site de l’UNESCO sur la liberté d’information
Guide de déontologie du Conseil de presse du
Guide de déontologie de la Fédération
professionnelle des journalistes
Ethics Guidelines, Association canadienne des
Canadian Journalism Project (J Source)
Journalisme et relations publiques
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Articles, documents, conferences
The News Today : 7 trends in old and new media. By Elaine C. Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele. Brookings
Center for Effective Public Management, November 2015
Trente, le magazine du journalisme, édition Automne 2014, dossier sur l’identité du journaliste.
Trente, le magazine des journalistes, édition été 2015, dossier sur la publicité
Three issues that will shape the future of newspaper « brands ». By Kenneth J. Goldstien, conférence livrée
à HEC Montréal, le 25 mars 2014
Whether the Giants Should be Slain or Persuaded to Be Good : Revisiting the Hutchins Commission and the
Role of the Media in a Democratic Society. By Victor Pickard, in: Critical Studies in Media Communications,
Routledge Publishers, 2010.
The Hutchins Commission Turns 50: Recurring Themes in Today’s Public and Civic Journalism. By Fred
Blevins, Southwest Texas State University. Paper given at the Third Annual Conference on Intellectual
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Canada’s Digital Divide, a discussion paper from Communications Management inc., August 2015
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Guy Versailles, APR, FCPRS
Versailles communication
Guy Versailles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Laval
University and has completed a graduate course in «Management and
Sustainable Development» at Hautes Études Commerciales, Montreal’s
foremost business school.
Throughout his career, first as Press Secretary and Chief of Staff for
different ministers of the Government of Quebec and then in various
senior management positions at Hydro-Québec and the Fonds de
solidarité FTQ, he has developed expertise in fields such as
communications strategy and planning, with special emphasis on press
relations, public affairs, and crisis management. He is presently acting
as a consultant.
Guy Versailles earned his accreditation in public relations (APR) from the Canadian Public
Relations Society in 2004 and in 2012, he was admitted to the College of Fellows of the CPRS in
recognition of his proven leadership and exceptional contributions to the development of public
He is Chairman of the board of Public relations Without Borders, a Montreal-based non-profit
He is a past director of the Société des professionnels en relations publiques du Québec
(SQPRP), Quebec's foremost association of public relations professionals that is affiliated to the CPRS.
In 2011, he was awarded the SQPRP’s Yves Saint-Amand Award of Excellence, in recognition for his contribution to the advancement of public relations.