Star’s Defence of Journalist’s Claim is Thin Gruel

The Toronto Star should either produce an expert who supports their interpretation or admit that it got this one wrong.

The Public Editor at the Toronto Star has responded to my formal complaint about their story alleging

“Senior civil servants warned the new Liberal government that ‘unmuzzled’ scientists still need a tight leash.”

The allegation is based on their interpretation of a Treasury Board document obtained through access to information legislation. It is not supported by any expert analysis, and my own interpretation – based on experiences in working on muzzling and other issues plaguing federal science – is quite different. The Star asserts that their story was “accurate” and “reported fairly and responsibly”. It led to the public shaming of a civil servant in their Letters pages.

I am not convinced by The Star’s response, and break it down below. Their position permits considerable license to reporters to interpret – and sensationalize – the facts.

Dissecting The Star’s Defence

The Star’s defence of the ‘tight leash’ piece can be broken down into two main points:

  1. Treasury Board President Scott Brison has not complained; and

  2. Three sentences in the Treasury Board document support the ‘tight leash’ interpretation.

Point #1 can be quickly dismissed. Ministers may choose to respond or not for a variety of reasons. For example, the Minister might well have chosen not to add fuel to the fire. Indeed, given the Public Editor’s recognition of the new administration’s “bold promise radically change the way government communicates with the public”, we should be asking instead why the Minister did not weigh in on this important topic.

Notwithstanding, it is perfectly reasonable for a member of the public to bring forth a complaint, especially when the target of the piece – a senior public servant – is not in a position to do so herself. I am rather surprised that The Star’s Public Editor would open her defence by taking such an untenable position.

Point #2 is similarly unsound. The Star’s Public Editor establishes that the “‘tight leash’ reference is based on [three] sentences advising Minister Scott Brison on communications conventions in the government of Canada”. Take note, E4D: no second document and no additional sources have been produced. It’s pretty thin gruel.

In brief, the document says this: a) Scientists are responsible for science; b) Ministers are responsible for policy decisions; and c) government scientists should therefore avoid speaking to policy. The sentences quoted by the Public Editor speak to points (b) and (c).

The sentences describe a long tradition in the Canadian federal government, in place well before the muzzling of scientists became a reality. A return of science to its traditional role in the federal government should therefore not be couched by news media in ‘tight leash’ rhetoric more applicable to recent years. The Treasury Board document outlines something completely different. Why pretend it is more of the same?

In further support of her point, English writes that the document provides a

“clear statement that government scientists should not have unfettered right to speak as they please about their findings, as some would believe should be the intent of ‘unmuzzling’ scientists.”

The sentence reveals a grave misunderstanding of the Treasury Board document. The only restrictions outlined regarding a government scientist’s right to speak to their findings are for security, public health, and contractual reasons. These are widely regarded as legitimate and reasonable exceptions, and The Star would be hard pressed to find “some” who would object. What’s more, speaking to findings is entirely different than speaking to policy. The document supports a scientist’s role in speaking to the public about their science, as is appropriate.

Why This Matters

Why do I care about this issue so much?

Journalism matters. The public relies on newspapers like the Toronto Star to report facts. When journalists draw conclusions without expert advice, difficult public discussions can be needlessly derailed.

Science matters. It is how we understand the world and forms the foundations for decisions in a democracy. It is therefore in the public’s interest for scientists to be able to speak freely about their science. Government scientists must also be mindful of maintaining the confidence of decision-makers. This too is in the public interest. News media should aim to inform – not inflame – readers about these issues.

Finally, as The Star’s Public Editor has written before, “Trust matters. Always has, always will.” It matters between scientists and politicians, and it matters between the public and journalists. Trust is broken when uninformed opinions are allowed to masquerade as fact. The Star should either produce an expert who supports their interpretation or admit that it got this one wrong.