Self-produced Toronto police news show: Propaganda or PR?

By Cynthia Mulligan and Jessica Bruno

Toronto police are launching their own news show Thursday morning on Youtube – and it is sparking a healthy debate about whether it’s propaganda or simply public relations.

Police promise the show will be balanced – others say it will be biased.

“We would have the ability to cover a story that is balanced and captures what we do, or we would be able to correct the record or elaborate on existing story that missed a key piece of the story from our perspective,” the police service says in a promotional video.

Toronto Police News comes at a time when police have been under intense scrutiny amid calls for greater transparency. It’s also a time when the media has the testiest relationship with a Toronto police chief in memory. And a time when U.S. President Donald Trump accuses news organizations of fake news nearly every day.

Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray calls the news show a great initiative, meant to spread positive stories about the work officers do that can often go unrecognized.

“We’ve been communicating with police and public for some time through a number of different mediums,” she says. “This is just another tool for us to put out information”

CityNews has learned that the idea for the newscast came directly from police chief Mark Saunders.

Mayor John Tory, who sits on the Police Services board, says he was not aware of the police show until CityNews told him about it. He says it’s not right to judge the show before it’s released.

“I think they would argue this is meant to make them more transparent,” he says. “You’ll have to be the judge of that, and the public will have to be the judge of that.”

He says that since he’s become mayor, the police have taken “unprecedented steps to be more transparent.”

But when the stories aren’t positive – such as when three Toronto police officers were charged with sexually assaulting a parking enforcement officer – it’s unclear if the service will be as forthcoming.

CityNews was the first to break those allegations, though Gray says the police service released that information.

Former mayor John Sewell, who is a vocal police critic, says this self-produced show is a concern, and the police services board should put a stop to it.

“The police will not [release] anything that says they are doing something wrong, or someone questioning how they are behaving,” says Sewell. “Let’s face it – when we talk about ourselves we say how great we are. It’s not balanced. Media can provide an independent window into what government is doing.”

A Ryerson University journalism professor questions how forthcoming the police would be in cases like the 2013 death of Sammy Yatim, who was shot by police multiple times while brandishing a knife on a TTC streetcar.

“What do you think we would have seen from TPS the day after Sammy Yatim was shot? Do you think we would have some critical questioning of the fact there may have been wrongdoing by a Toronto police officer?  There will be no balance,” says Lisa Taylor.

“The police have a certain point of view and they should have a certain point of view. But call it corporate communications, call it media relations, do not dress it up in the trappings of journalism, it is misleading to the public.”

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