The Canadian commission that oversees our nation's broadcasters has weakened the rule that prohibits the broadcast of "false or misleading news." At the request of the House of Commons, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission re-drafted an important regulation and released it for public comment in January. February 9, 2011 is the last day for public comments on this regulatory change. If it is approved, the new rule will only prohibit broadcasting news that the broadcaster knows is false or misleading and which is likely to endanger the public. The difference could radically change the way Canadian media covers many issues, including environmental news stories. Read Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's analysis of the new regulation below or visit the CRTC website to submit your own comment before February 9.
When we started Lake Ontario Waterkeeper back in 2001, one of our first projects was the creation of an online news archive for important stories about water issues, environmental law, and emerging science. Over the last ten years, we have monitored dozens of media outlets and government websites on a daily basis and archived more than 10,000 articles.
You may have noticed in the last year or so that we are archiving fewer stories each week. That's because it is getting harder to find informative articles about environment, science, water, and policy in local media. It is getting harder to find non-partisan legislative debates that provide more insight, fact, or analysis than mere party-line talking points can offer. We spend more time trying to find fewer articles today than we did ten years ago.
The seeming decline of meaningful environmental news and debate is an anecdotal issue that we talk about in our office from time-to-time. We did not think it had become a public policy concern. Until now.
In January, the CRTC announced changes to an important regulation that prohibits Canadian broadcasters from broadcasting "any false or misleading news." A House of Commons committee has, apparently, instructed the Commission to rewrite the regulation. The new rules would prohibit broadcasting "any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public ..." (emphasis added).
LOW reviewed the proposed changes to the Radio Regulations, 1986. We applied our experience with law, decision-making, environmental issues, and media. We submitted our comment today to the CRTC and formally (and strongly) recommended that the CRTC decide not to amend the regulation at this time.
Here's why the CRTC's new rules for news broadcaster spell bad news for the environment:
1. The current test is one of truth: Is the news false or misleading? This test will be replaced by a far more subjective test: Does the broadcaster know that the news is false or misleading? In essence, the amendment means that it is no longer a problem to broadcast false or misleading news in Canada; it is only a problem to broadcast false or misleading news if you can prove that the licensee knows it to be false or misleading.
2. Government, the general public, or competitors are highly unlikely to be able to prove what a licensee knew or did not know at the time of broadcast. As a result, there is no deterrent against the broadcast of false or misleading news.
3. Since the test is no longer "what is true?" but is instead, "what does the licensee know?", licensees are encouraged not to investigate controversial or complicated stories very deeply. This is especially problematic for coverage of environmental issues, which often require in-depth understanding of scientific and legal issues.
4. It is virtually impossible to prove that any news - false, misleading, or otherwise - will endanger or be likely to endanger lives, health or safety. To meet the new test, you must now prove that the news endangers or is likely to endanger lives, health or safety. It is virtually impossible to prove this element of the test, especially with regard to news stories about science, law, and the environment. Establishing causal relationships in environmental matters is complex, sometimes impossible to do with great certainty. It takes specialized scientific study, and may require decades of monitoring and observation before effects are known.
5. The new rules assume that there is always a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the false or misleading news and the consequence. As every environmentalist or scientist knows, the consequences of cumulative effects are as important as the consequences of individual effects - and they are not always predictable.
Each of the two new tests is unworkable: proving what a licensee knows and proving that one piece of false or misleading news is likely to endanger the public. Combined, they are impossible. That makes the CRTC's proposal bad law.
It is also bad policy. In the context of the decline of meaningful analysis and coverage on environmental issues, relaxing the standards for news broadcasters can only lower the quality of environmental education and awareness for Canadians. We have seen rollbacks to virtually every formal decision-making process in environmental law, including environmental assessments, licence approvals, and enforcement. Without access to fair processes, we rely on the media more than ever before to analyze and disseminate important news about environmental issues. That is not happening, and that is a public policy concern.
Learn more about the CRTC's proposal on the CRTC website. The deadline to support, oppose, or comment on the regulatory amendment is February 9, 2011.
See what Waterkeeper Alliance president Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had to say about the impacts on energy reporting when the U.S. eliminated its Fairness Doctrine.