Code of Silence award: entertainment or journalism? 

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We received a number of emails and comments this week relishing — almost gloating — over the news that the Resort Municipality of Whistler received the Canadian Association of Journalists' Code of Silence award last weekend.

"Have you seen this?!" was how many started out.

Well, yes. We helped bring it about — not by design, but we did.

The "award" is obviously embarrassing for the RMOW — which almost everyone who isn't part of the RMOW seems to be overjoyed with. But public embarrassment doesn't foster a relationship, and Pique has relationships with the RMOW on several levels. We put the municipality in a difficult position. Sometimes that's part of our job. Not this time; not in this way.

The whole matter was born out of frustration last Friday. It had taken days for a reporter to speak to the Whistler fire chief about the fire hazard rating, and as a result the story missed Pique's deadlines and didn't make it into the paper, as the fire hazard climbed. Previously, the editor of The Question apparently had similar frustrations stemming from attempts to talk to a librarian. Those personal frustrations, which represented for the writers ongoing problems receiving information from, or interviews with, RMOW staff, led to the municipality's nomination.

The mayor explained the municipality's communications policy clearly and eloquently this week. "I am very confident that we are communicating well with our constituency," Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said, adding that the municipality has reviewed its communications policy and is sticking with it. Members of the media are welcome to contact municipal staff to get technical information, according to the mayor. However, to get the policy rationale behind an issue media must speak with a designated spokesperson, usually the mayor, and commonly at an assigned time on a Monday (see associated story page 20).

If that's the municipality's policy, fine. One of the issues for us has been getting timely responses, but there's no reason that can't be accommodated within the policy.

So about this award, "...presented to the most secretive government or publicly funded agency..." According to the CAJ's release, "A panel of reviewers was swayed by two powerful submissions by local journalists in Whistler that tipped the scales."

Two? The second of which was submitted on Friday before Saturday's awards dinner.

A number of other "worthy nominations" were made to the CAJ. We don't know how many people supported the other nominations but the suspicion is there was no more than one reporter behind each of them. From those nominations a panel then decided the Code of Silence winner and declared: "Openness and accountability takes a holiday at the Resort Municipality of Whistler."

CAJ president Hugo Rodrigues warned Whistler voters: "If you care about what Whistler is doing with your hard-earned dollars, it's time to effect change at the ballot box so these practices get changed."

The CAJ does some good work but the basis for this award seems to fit a stereotypical media formula: The good: frustrated reporters (getting together to complain); The bad: governments run by faceless bureaucrats; The result: another top 10 list.

The CAJ does well when it recognizes good journalism. It doesn't do itself, or journalism, any favours by creating a news story out of a flimsy contest.

Sure, Pique has similarly flimsy contests, the annual Best of Whistler and Best of Pemberton polls. But most people realize these are popularity contests, entertainment rather than comprehensive evaluations.

One long-term Whistler resident spoke to the credibility of the Code of Silence award this week. While not defending the RMOW he wrote: "... but really, isn't it just a bunch of pissed-off journalists that are unable to misquote some minor bureaucrat because the policy won't allow them to speak to anyone but the Mayor or the CAO?"

A few years ago Denise Rudnicki, a former reporter on Parliament Hill who later worked in communications for the federal government, spoke at a CAJ conference about the level of sophistication that goes into federal government communications. She spoke about the permanent election campaign and the 24-hour news cycle as important aspects of how the federal government controls the agenda, deciding what is news. She explained how there is a communications plan for every issue, even at its earliest stages. She described how focus groups are struck to determine how an issue should be sold.

Rudnicki was speaking largely from her experience within the Liberal government in Ottawa. By most accounts the level of control has increased under the Conservatives.

Small municipal governments, including the RMOW, aren't in the same stratosphere as federal governments when it comes to controlling messaging and limiting openness and accountability. That's not to say everything is perfect with the RMOW's communications policy, or its practice. But declaring Whistler "the most secretive government or publicly funded agency" in the country is more entertainment than journalism. It doesn't help the CAJ's credibility and the mayor has stated it's not going to change the municipality's communications policy.


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