Exposing Lies: Rosemary Barton on Journalism

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Chris Roussakis

“Journalism’s job is not just to listen – it’s also to really make sure people are heard,” says CBC correspondent Rosemary Barton. “To ask questions so that people can get the answers they need. Now more than ever, journalism’s job is to not be afraid to say when something is not true.”

About 350 people attended the 25th annual Dick, Ruth, and Judy Bell Lecture hosted by the Faculty of Public Affairs on March 28 to hear the Carleton University alumna talk about the value of daily journalism.

Winnipeg-born Barton received her Master of Journalism from Carleton in 2001. She covered the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, and the fraud trials of Conrad Black and Mike Duffy as a CBC political correspondent. In 2015, she became the host of the show Power & Politics.

Parallels Between Canada and the U.S.

Barton said she wrote the synopsis of her lecture after reading a post by Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post about the “hellish” future of journalists covering the new American president. She found parallels between these warnings and her work on the Hill during the Stephen Harper years.

“Unfortunately, (in 2007) there was a really bad relationship between the press and the new government,” she said. “It was acrimonious from the get-go.”

Without press conferences, notices about cabinet meetings or access to ministers, the Canadian press gallery struggled to find its footing. Political journalism is sometimes based primarily on access, referred to as “transactional” relationships, but over time Barton found that more contacts in the government grew to trust her and were willing to talk.

“You can choose to see lots of discouraging signs—they’re everywhere—or you can believe that journalism is becoming more relevant, more resilient, and ultimately more welcome for people who are looking for answers.”

After the 2016 U.S. election, many American dailies dramatically increased their online readership. The New York Times alone gained 276,000 new digital subscribers in three months.

Rosemary Barton: Canadians Appreciate Nuance

Canadians also appreciate news and nuanced context, said Barton pointing to the 16 million monthly visitors to CBC and Radio-Canada’s digital platforms. She acknowledged a recent report from the Public Policy Forum noting that that, in the last seven years, 27 daily newspapers have closed or merged, and journalism jobs have been cut by a third.

Barton agreed that the industry is getting smaller, and more demanding. “Yes, I have bosses that want me to do more, I have to get up earlier,” she said. “[But] when you are under extreme stress, I would even say you flourish.”

When asked by a member of the audience if she had advice for young journalists just starting out, she said, “I think you have to be willing to work very hard, to be very curious and fairly fearless.”

Named after the philanthropist and politician, Ruth and Richard Bell, and Dick’s daughter Judith, who was a Supreme Court Justice, the annual lecture series honours distinguished Canadian contributions to the country’s public and political life.

Barton joined a list of lecturers from journalists—like Dalton Camp and Chantal Hébert—to leaders—Joe Clark, Phil Fontaine and Kim Campbell—who have spoken in the series.