Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Lost and found

Posted by cwaddell under All, Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Christopher Waddell

Let’s say you work in a store or business and someone comes to see you for a meeting. At the end of the meeting they leave, but forget a binder of documents they brought with them. What do you do?

You could wait and see if they notice they have misplaced something and if they don’t call, just throw the material out. You could look through the material in the folder to determine if there was anything in it that you could use to your advantage and then maybe let them know they had left it behind.  (You would have to decide whether to tell them that you looked through it.)

Or you could decide not to look through it but just call the person right away to let them know they had forgotten something and they should come back and retrieve it.

I know that’s what I hope would happen if I was the one who left something behind. It’s clear to me that is the most ethical way to deal with such an issue.

Should the same ethical standard apply when it is a binder of documents about Atomic Energy of Canada left by a minister in this case Natural Resources minister Lisa Raiit or a staff person, in a news organization’s office?

CTV doesn’t think so. It kept the binder for six days presumably waiting to see if anyone would notice it was gone (although it isn’t clear how CTV would determine if that had taken place), read it and reported some of its contents on the air.

It raises good questions that should be debated within news organizations.

On what basis does the media apply a different ethical standard to its activities than the standard we would like applied to us as individuals if we had made the error?  Do they need to explain that to the public?

Is there a difference between leaving a document in a public place like a coffee shop or on a bus or blowing down the street, than leaving something at an office where you attended a meeting? I think there is.

What if the story had been handled somewhat differently – calling right away and telling the minster something had been left behind and not looking at the contents. Then deciding whether to report that the minister was careless with documents – which is a legitimate story – by explaining to viewers the circumstances and telling your audience that on ethical grounds you had made the decision not to read the contents of the binder.

Unrealistic? Too much to ask?

Christopher Waddell is associate director of the School of Journalism and Communication and Carty Chair in Business and Financial Journalism at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief, national editor and associate editor of the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News.