Ryerson’s course on handling media has raised eyebrows
By David South
Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), November 12-18, 1992
The whimsical Certificate of Military Achievement hanging in the offices of the Ryersonian newspaper at Ryerson journalism school is testament to the warm relationship between the armed forces and one of Canada’s top journalism schools.
But a two-month crash course in journalism for military public affairs officers hosted by Ryerson this summer has left a bad taste in the mouths of some participants and critics.
The course, which involved 18 soldiers, included two weeks of classes in each of print, radio and TV journalism, wrapping up with two weeks of “crisis management” training. The 60 instructures included such prominent journalists as Ann Medina and Pamela Wallin.
According to an administration newsletter, the course netted Ryerson more than $350,000. Organizers say the course was merely an exercise in familiarizing soldiers with the needs of working journalists. But given the often conflicting roles of the military and the media, some fear journalistic ethics may have taken some collateral damage.
“The course had nothing to do with national defence or the armed forces,” says course teacher and organizer Shelley Robertson. “They just wanted to understand the roles of journalists from the other side. The military didn’t ask us to teach what we teach our students.”
Robertson says the course also benefited the participating journalists by giving them contacts in the military.
But according to media critic Barrie Zwicker, the exercise blurs what should be the distinctly different interests of journalists and the military. “It’s similar to press and politicians. By getting close to the politician, journalists can get information they couldn’t normally obtain. The negative side is that the media can get sucked in and lose a larger perspective. The same tensions exist with covering the military.
“It’s up to the media to break the rules and try and get the story. The military always wants to hide its victims. If a Ryerson journalist strikes up a friendship with a public affairs officer, will the reporter be true to their journalistic tradition?”
Colloquially known as spin doctors, hype-meisters and flak catchers, public affairs officers perform much the same tasks in the military as their civilian counterparts in industry and government – including managing information that gets to the public or media.
In the past, Canadian soldiers had to go to the US for special training at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison. But, according to Robertson, the armed forces were looking for a Canadian spin.
With 4,600 Canadian peacekeepers now stationed around the world, including a contingent in the dangerous and volatile former Yugoslav republics, the chances for conflict – and casualties – have increased.
Lieutenant-commander Glen Chamberlain, who helped coordinate the course, says the military’s increased profile means that the forces have to become more adept at media relations. “There is a great desire among Canadians to know what troops on peacekeeping duties are up to. We have a wonderful story to tell.”
Chamberlain says he works on journalists’ behalf with stubborn military commanders. “The armed forces are finding there is a real benefit to having specialized PA officers. We want to help journalists to tell our story well.”
The crisis management section of the course offered participants a hands-on approach to managing journalists. The officers were presented with two scenarios – a murder at Moss Park armoury and a highway helicopter crash – and then practised handling a group of journalists investigating the events.
Course lecturer Kevin Donovan, who covered the Gulf war for the Toronto Star, remembers the effectiveness and sophistication of PA officers in the field.
“When I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I walked into a hotel and on the wall were pool reports – news briefs written by US military public affairs officers – that journalists were encouraged to use for stories. There were some journalists going out into the field to cover stories, but a huge number just sat in this beautiful hotel.”
Donovan feels uncomfortable about teaching on the course.
“I was asked by Ryerson to give a talk on my experiences in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq,” he says. “My initial reaction was no. I hate the existance of public affairs people with a passion. Their job is to stop information.
“I’m uncomfortable with Ryerson being hired by the department of national defence. One officer in the course got very upset when I told them to make contacts with the media and leak stories.”
Course organizer Clive Vanderburgh admits organizers had concerns about conflicts between the role of journalists and military officers. “There was a lot of discussion concerning the potential for conflict – especially that the people hired to teach might think they were there to help the department of national defence to avoid the media
“But we were trying to give a general understanding of the media’s needs. We didn’t sell the country down the drain.”
Another teacher was Robert Fulford, the well-known writer and lecturer on journalistic ethics. “I don’t have a problem with Ryerson teaching the military,”says Fulford. “It’s a way of spreading journalistic technique to people in the DND. It seems to be a natural extension of the work of Ryerson.
“Canadian journalists are ignorant of the military and could do with getting closer. You almost never find a full-time journalist in Canada who knows anything about them. The more you know about the military, the less you will be manipulated.”
But Gideon Forman, coordinator of the Canadian Peace Alliance, fears Ryerson may be helping the military mislead the public.
“Why do these guys practise handling the media so much of there’s nothing to hide? This is just better packaging for the military so they can get what they want from the public.
“I have problems with public money being spent teaching the military to be more effective with the media, while other organizations have their budgets cut or eliminated.
“Is there a similar program for food banks or women’s shelters?”
Note on story context: This story was researched and written after two key events involving Canada’s military: the first Gulf War from 1990-1991; and the Oka Crisis in 1990, where the Canadian Armed Forces confronted an armed group of Mohawk “Warriors” in Oka, Quebec.