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Law or journalism: In these troubled times, what matters more? | David Israelson

Wednesday, January 13, 2021 @ 12:37 PM | By David Israelson


David Israelson %>
David Israelson
This new year brings a big anniversary for me, marking the time when I decided to work as a journalist rather than in law. If I were faced with the same decision today, I’m not sure what I’d do.

Don’t get me wrong. I value my legal education, and still love working in journalism and communications. I’ll keep writing, producing, broadcasting, narrowcastng, podcastng, blogging, e-blasting and whatever else it is we folks do to tell stories forever.

Until this past week though, I was no longer sure whether journalism is the most effective way to do what I set out to do when I started. Fix the world.

I’m still asking the same question, which is best at righting wrongs, journalism or law?

The deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 makes me ask all over again.

The answer isn’t so easy.

Until the deadly attack in Washington on Jan. 6, my answer was that journalism is no longer up to the job of conveying the truth. For years, journalists have documented a cascade of lies — from you-know-who, but then spreading — and yet it no longer seemed to matter. For millions of people, truth hasn’t made a difference.

Then, on Jan. 6, journalism came through. We knew what was happening in Washington for a simple reason: journalists told us. Reporters literally risked their lives to show the world what was going on and explain how it happened.

That’s inspiring, but journalism still has long-term problems. It’s not the journalists’ fault; it’s the way the system has evolved. The digital age is amazing for conveying facts, but it’s weak on providing context that we humans can process.

Since the arrival of social media as a major communications force — roughly the entire 21st century so far — we have been inundated with “equivalence.” That’s the idea that when someone conveys a fact, it’s equally valid for someone else to lie about the same fact and tell everyone, everywhere. “We report, you decide.” But what if what’s reported isn’t true?

Sound familiar? It’s not only the drumbeat of incessant lying the world has taken in from the outgoing U.S. president and his lickspittle sycophants. We’ve been subjected to buckets of lies for years about all kinds of things, about so-called weapons of mass destruction, about how the climate crisis “isn’t real,” take your pick.

In too many cases, the liars get a step ahead of journalism. And we get hurt.

Climate is a good example of an issue that journalism has a hard time keeping up with. There is lots of great, accurate reporting on the climate crisis, but it gets body-checked by so much well-funded counterfactual communication.  

What can we do? That’s where creative, thoughtful application of law comes in.

Digital media was supposed to make communication better, but it’s a struggle for journalism. No matter how much objective fact there is, it’s considered somehow responsible to give huge weight to the “other side,” even it’s just made up.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t hear and be exposed to different points of view — we should. But the digital world enables every spurious crackpot idea to be amplified and dressed up. Haters become “populists;” people who don’t “believe” in pollution become “skeptics.”

It gets hard for anyone to sift through the facts and find out what’s true. We’re only human — and the digital media monster is not.

So what would I choose if I were doing it again today, law or journalism? It’s a hard choice, but it’s not really a choice at all. We need both.

If anything, the monstrous events in Washington remind us how important it is to have a robust legal and justice system.

The attack in Washington was the latest in a series of attacks on the rule of law, and now it’s time for law to fight back. The deliberations in D.C. are part of this. COVID-19 is also changing relationships between law, journalism and the public.

It’s too early to tell how these relationships will be changed permanently — you might say, metaphorically, that the jury is out. But we can see patterns.

First, access to justice is changing, possibly for the better. The pandemic has forced justice systems, in Ontario, across Canada and elsewhere, to leap into technology. Video and Zoom hearings, electronic filing and other uses of tech that justice systems were experimenting with before are not only now acceptable, they’re normal.

This changes everything from the ability to set court dates to how disadvantaged people can deal with obstacles as simple as paying for transit or parking to get to court. It also make it easier for many journalists to cover legal proceedings — everything from a bail hearing to a presidential impeachment is available on every journalist’s screen, and everyone can be reached (except maybe an outgoing president who has been banned from social media).

Law sometimes gets denigrated for being too slow, too sophist and too complicated, and in the United States it has been debased by the outgoing president and his enablers. We’re resistant to this in Canada, but not immune.

In the play A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, Thomas More puts it this way:

“This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

Nope.

As a journalist, it’s impressive to see law in action — members of the U.S. Congress getting up from under their desks and immediately considering what the legal consequences of inciting a mob should be.

As a trained lawyer, it’s equally impressive.

We’ll see what those legislators come up with, and we’ll know about it because journalists will report it.

With all the challenges of the digital age and the era of lies, we should be thankful for both professions.

David Israelson is a non-practising lawyer, author, journalist and communications consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @davidisraelson or on Linkedin.  

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