The intersection of politics, local news and the idea of journalists acting as citizens: Jill Winzoski’s firing

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The story of Jill Winzoski’s firing is a she-said, they-won’t-say kind of story. So where does the blame lie? Alexandra Posadzki gets the former Selkirk Record reporter’s side of the story and the opinion of a few ethics experts on the dos and don’ts of journalists expressing themselves as citizens and publications’ role in standing up for their reporters. 

By Alexandra Posadzki

The story of Jill Winzoski, a 38-year-old reporter in rural Manitoba who was fired last month after signing a petition, may serve as a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of journalists expressing themselves as citizens.

But some journalism ethics professors say that if Winzoski's allegations – that pressure from the local Member of Parliament contributed to her dismissal – are true, then it's the newspaper that should bear the blame.

Winzoski said she was fired from the Selkirk Record, where she had worked for more than two years, on Oct. 19. Although she was technically a freelancer, Winzoski said she wrote six to 12 stories for the publication each week and wasn't allowed to freelance elsewhere because she was using company equipment.

It's unclear why Winzoski was fired. The Selkirk Record refused to comment for this story, saying the firing is a private matter between an employer and an employee.

But according to Winzoski, several factors were at play.

James Bezan, the local Conservative MP, had been complaining about Winzoski to her editors for months, she said. In a statement, Bezan denied responsibility for Winzoski's dismissal, saying that it was “an independent decision made by her employer.”

But Winzoski alleges that he was trying to muzzle the press by complaining that she was biased every time she wrote an article that contained criticisms of the Conservative government.

 “I was compelled to write stories that impact our collective interests, not out of partisanship, but out of a sense of civic duty as a journalist,” said Winzoski in an email.

 “If I had any leaning at all, it was for the truth, for social justice, for fairness, for equality and for the betterment of the community ... I was interested in transparency, accountability and was driven to write about issues I felt are fundamental to maintaining a healthy democracy. That’s not really a political leaning. That’s me doing my job.”

Winzoski said her editors eventually told her to stop writing about the federal government because of Bezan's complaints. She reluctantly agreed.

But then there's the issue of the petition, and how a journalist's role as watchdog can clash with his or her ability to express personal views.

Shortly before she was fired, Winzoski signed an online petition opposing Canada's investment treaty with China. To Bezan, the petition was proof of Winzoski's anti-Conservative bias. Winzoski said he brought the petition to the attention of her editors and said he would no longer deal with the paper.

This all happened after Winzoski had been asked to stop writing about the government, she said. Since receiving that directive she had only written a few stories about politics, with permission from her editors.

It's common for news organizations, such as The New York Times, to have policies that prohibit reporters from signing petitions or participating in rallies. The CBC has similar restrictions. But Winzoski said the Selkirk Record had no such policy.

According to the Canadian Association of Journalists, while a reporter has a right to express his or her views as a citizen, doing so may create a public perception of bias and affect the reporter's relationships with sources.

Larry Cornies, a journalism ethics professor at Western University, said that being an effective journalist may occasionally restrict your freedoms as a citizen. That effect is amplified in the small-town setting, where reputation can be even more crucial.

 “Your interest, first and foremost, is to protect your reputation as someone who can be impartial, fair and balanced,” said Cornies.

 “I think we make a choice as to the kind of vocation that we pursue, and this is one of the small prices that we pay for being journalists and having ring-side seats at the side of history.”

Winzoski said she's surprised that journalists aren't challenging policies that violate their Charter right to express themselves freely.

 “If I had known being a journalist meant I had to forfeit my rights as a citizen to express concerns to my elected officials, I may not have pursued a career in this field in the first place,” she said. “One should be judged by their work, not what opinions they express in their personal lives.”

Ivor Shapiro, a journalism ethics expert and the chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, agrees that journalists should think carefully before engaging in any political activities. But he also said that if Bezan's pressure was the impetus for Winzoski's firing, then the blame lies not with the MP or with Winzoski, but with the Selkirk Record.

Unhappy sources, like Bezan, have a right to complain about the coverage they receive, advertise where they wish and even refuse to speak with the media, said Shapiro. Sure, Bezan may have been trying to muzzle the press, but so do a lot of people. It's the newspaper's duty to ensure that it upholds its morals.

 “We ask news organizations to be courageous in pursuing the truth and reporting it,” said Shapiro. “Obviously giving in to pressure of any kind, whether it's from an advertiser or a government official, is not what we expect news organizations to do.”

And although the newspaper had a right to impose conditions on Winzoski's employment, Shapiro said those conditions must be articulated in a policy.

He also said it's wrong to fire an employee for a “relatively minor offence,” even if it does breach an official policy or contract. Terminating a reporter for signing a petition is “like capital punishment for theft,” said Shapiro.

 “Surely there are worse things than [signing a petition], and surely the worst penalty should be reserved for the worst offences,” said Shapiro.

In short, the punishment should fit the crime.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Jill Winzoski's surname. We have corrected the misspelling and regret the error.

Comments

Does anyone agree that impartiality and fairness are far more comprised when a Legislative reporter is married to a person who works as a high-level communications official for the provincial government? http://www.cbc.ca/ombudsman/pdf/2012-01-18-Adey.pdf

Ms. Winzoski's action pales in comparison, doesn't it?

This story caught my interest, as I have run into these types of situations a number of times in 34 years working in community newspapers.

My first observation is that reporters in doing news stories must be objective and be seen to be objective. In smaller communities, signing a petition, even a fairly general one as in this case, is a strong sign of subjectivity. Whether or not it is the newspaper's policy, journalists should stay away from signing petitions, speaking at public meetings and expressing opinions or other obvious signs of what could be interpreted as bias.

The story's point about sources, businesses or MPs (as mentioned) refusing to deal with a newspaper because of a certain reporter is an important one. This type of pressure is often applied to media outlets, large and small, but can be more pervasive at smaller media outlets. This is often because we are dealing with the same sources on a regular basis, living in the same communities and interacting with them much more than would be the case in a large city.

These are all reasons why it is important to keep being as objective as is humanly possible.

However, it is also important to mention that journalists are called on to express opinions as part of their jobs — if they are editorial or column writers. In such cases, they are being asked to take a stance. In my experience, virtually every community newspaper is happy to allow its reporters to take stands within columns and editorials. I believe this allows reporters to express themselves, and if they do so in a well-researched and well-presented fashion, they will attract interest and readership. They must at the same time be open to those who differ, and be prepared to be chastised in letters, comments on websites etc. It is also important when a newspaper publishes a letter that disagrees with a column or editorial that the reader's opinion be allowed to stand, and not be immediately rebutted.

If an issue comes up which involves a jourmalist's family members, the journalist needs to take a hands off approach and be sure that the news story (or other item) is handled by someone else at the newspaper and that those involved in the issue know that.

Journalists in my experience should not belong to political parties or run for office, even of the smallest nature, until they have left the field of journalism.

I have run into all these situations over the years and it seems to me that adhering to these principles will avoid most problems.

Frank Bucholtz, editor, Langley Times

 

There has got to be more to it than what is being reported. Chances are The Selkirk Record needed to make some cutbacks, and whacked the gal that was causing management the most grief.

Always follow the money.

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