Most people entering journalism school have big dreams for themselves in the media—anchor, lead foreign correspondent, daily political columnist. As we near the end of our four years here, many have tweaked their goals, taking positions at advertising and public relations firms that promise a salary large enough to pay rent and put food on the table (these people have either given up or smartened up, depending on who you ask). Throughout our time in school, we’re taught how to work around the strong line between journalists and PR agents to get what we need. Apparently—untaught to us—straddling it is one of them.
Last week the Toronto Star reported that Global News suspended lead anchor Leslie Roberts indefinitely after Kevin Donovan uncovered he co-owned BuzzPR, a firm whose clients have appeared on Roberts’s shows. Roberts hosts The Morning Show and Toronto News Hour and is the executive editor of Global News. Yesterday, Roberts resigned from Global.
Various BuzzPR clients, such as Jacque Somerville, have appeared on The Morning Show and other Global segments. Others, like the app Checkout 51, have garnered praise from Roberts on air. Roberts told the Star that although he is creative director and has an “equity” stake in BuzzPR, he has never taken a salary or payment for having clients on the show and credits their appearances to the work of other employees.
But what Roberts didn’t do was tell his colleagues or viewers that he was reading pitches and giving media training to clients of BuzzPR, possibly the same companies that wound up on Global.
Global spokesperson Rishma Govani said the network takes “matters of journalistic integrity very seriously.” We’ve seen other networks try to protect their stars until it’s no longer possible—most recently with the Ghomeshi affair—and that’s probably the worst thing Global could have done. Roberts was groomed to be the centerpiece of the network’s news coverage, and with him as anchor, it pushed passed CityNews into Toronto’s top three most viewed dinner hour newscasts. But that doesn’t seem to have phased Global, whose two internal investigations were swift.
So what does Roberts do now? He initially told the Star he’d resign from BuzzPR, and that at the anchor desk, nothing becomes between him and a story. But if his work at BuzzPR didn’t affect Global, why keep it a secret?
Even if Roberts works as a journalist again, he’ll always be the newscaster who brought on his own clients. It will be difficult for anyone to trust him—if that’s fair or not—whether he’s doing lifestyle or hard news.
Integrity is the toughest thing gained and easiest lost in journalism, but it’s the most essential to producing any piece of quality work. Even if this conflict of interest didn’t affect 95 percent of Roberts’s coverage, viewers aren’t obliged to trust him anywhere, as we often feel when someone’s behind the anchor desk.
Roberts told the Star, “I agree this doesn’t look very good.” And it probably won’t ever, even if he somehow gets back on television.
Thanks for Damien D. for the photo.