Political standoff in Ottawa presents opportunity for journalism online

Robert Washburn

The political standoff in Ottawa has created an unprecedented opportunity for journalism online. The amount of commentary produced by these

events demonstrates how this publishing format can engage audiences in a way that is not only good for journalism, but good for


An unscientific survey of mainstream Canadian media websites showed thousands of people adding their comments to the bottom of

stories related to the events, starting with the fiscal statement on Nov. 27. One story about the press conference the

three party leaders held to sign the coalition agreement on Dec. 1 is a great example. As of 8:30 p.m., only a few hours after stories were posted, The

Globe and Mail had 1,222 comments on that story alone. Global TV National News set up a forum dedicated to the topic with 49 posts by this time. CBC.ca had an amazing 3,316 comments on this same story, while The Toronto Star had 59 pages of comments. The National Post had 21 comments and CTV.ca cut off its comments because there were so many.

For tech-utopians, people who believe the Internet is a panacea for

journalism, this is heaven. There is no way any newspaper or broadcaster could ever deal with this many letters to the editor or phone calls to a

station. It’s also hard to imagine this scale of letter writing in the past. Technology facilitated an exchange of opinions, comments and

questions. In one case, someone even wrote a poem.

This is a clear example of the rich and diverse kind of discourse that can take

place within this new medium. CBC National News went a step further when it announced its plans to air a special program on Dec. 2 to answer viewers’ questions about what is happening in Ottawa and the ramifications for the rest of the country. Canadians are asked to email questions (by

text or video) via the CBC website

But a question arises: What is the next step? Opinions are a very important part of democratic debate. The

news media have a long tradition of acting as a vessel for these kinds of exchanges. But, like so many aspects of civic life, there is a

lot of talk, but no action. In sifting through the comments, there is a strong sense that people feel disenfranchised. Politicians are labelled as children for their behaviour. One person asked why citizens even bother voting anymore. Another asked what an average Canadian can do to affect

this “ridiculous grab for power”.

If journalism is going to truly capitalize on the extraordinary tool offered by practicing

journalism online, it cannot be satisfied with merely allowing people to vent. There must be a sense of empowerment at the end of it all. Journalism does its

greatest work when it causes change. This is exemplified when an investigative piece forces new legislation or an injustice is

stopped. This is the time when opinions about journalism rise in the eyes of the public, the industry gains audiences trust and secures its credibility. Somehow

journalism must find ways to move beyond the role of giving every Canadian a soapbox. This must be the next debate for

the future of journalism on the Internet.

One of the best examples of empowerment took place during the recent federal election this

fall. Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC radio’s The Current, was unable to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to appear on her show. She played

a compilation of questions for Harper submitted by leaders of community organizations and listeners. No doubt, Tremonti could ask those same

questions and add a lot more of her own. But, by giving the audience the opportunity to express its concerns directly and participate

intimately in the journalistic process, she empowered her listeners, giving them a sense of ownership and the ability to act.

The Globe provides another example. It set up a space on its website to allow the audience to give advice to newly elected Prime Minister Stephen

Harper. While Harper was not obligated to act on any of these ideas, it gave audiences a greater sense of involvement — beyond ranting or offering opinions.

It is particularly vital during the current upheaval to facilitate this kind of exchange.

What can news

organizations do on their websites to give Canadians an opportunity to affect what is going on in Ottawa?