Last Thursday, the big front-page story in many North American newspapers, from the National Post to the New York Times, was the primary elections in the U.S., where Tea Party candidates scored stunning victories over established Republicans. The Globe and Mail also covered this, but left its prime real estate—the spot above the fold—for a story on a global university ranking, in which a handful of Canadian schools placed in the top 200. (The University of Toronto finished 17th.) The article’s third paragraph reveals that Times Higher Education, the body behind the ranking, has partnered with Thomson Reuters. It does not reveal that Thomson Reuters is the most high-profile asset of the Woodbridge Company Ltd., which had just announced a deal to buy the newspaper.
Thursday’s front-page story followed a shakeup of the Canadian media landscape. Both Woodbridge and BCE Inc. had been shareholders in CTVGlobemedia, but as part of the new deal, BCE said it would acquire 100 per cent of broadcaster CTV Inc., and Woodbridge would get an 85 per cent stake in the Globe and Mail, with BCE retaining the other 15 per cent.
The Globe and Mail heralded it as great news for the industry, highlighting the Thomsons’ long history with the newspaper in an editorial. It said David Thomson, who chairs Woodbridge with his brother Peter, “made it clear that his family will continue to respect the autonomy of these pages and the independence of Globe staff,” noting that the family has run newspapers since the 1930s, “when Roy Thomson—later to become the first Lord Thomson of Fleet—announced his credo on the front page of his first media property, the Timmins Press.” In a video on its website, Globe publisher Phillip Crawley called the buy “a vote of confidence in the business.”
Buttering up the boss is standard in every office, but the fact that the Globe didn’t declare a potential conflict of interest when mentioning Thomson Reuters in the ranking story struck some as curious. “Normally, there’s a few words [noting] that this company is affiliated with the company that owns this newspaper,” says Chris Waddell, director of the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University, who worked at the Globe from 1984 to 1991. “The general sense is, if you’re making that disclosure, it’s up to the people to decide if it means anything.”
As for whether the university ranking qualified as front-page news, “it’s hard to say,” Waddell says. It is, after all, early September, and back-to-school stories are popular; the Times Higher Education ranking was also covered in newspapers like the Montreal Gazette and the Vancouver Sun.
Asked whether the Globe has an official policy on disclosing its relationship with Thomson Reuters, associate editor Sylvia Stead responded by email that the paper “does not routinely explain this relationship in stories mentioning Thomson Reuters, since Thomson Reuters is not a direct shareholder in the Globe and Mail . . . Any mention of Woodbridge would include a reference to its ownership position in the Globe.”
Reporting on issues that bump up against a parent company’s interests is unavoidable for most media outlets (Maclean’s is owned by Rogers Communications Inc.). “Ideally, conglomeration does not mean a conflict of interest,” says David Swick, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax, “but it does mean a perceived conflict of interest.” Swick points to a 2008 Léger Marketing poll showing that only 41 per cent of Canadians trust journalists. Which makes transparency, he says, all the more important.