It was just a few weeks ago here at TVO.org that I wrote about the terrible communication coming from the provincial government. I described how the various extracurricular activities my kids are involved in, covering a variety of sports, had produced a tsunami of confused emails as each organization tried — and often failed — to figure out what was allowed during the second wave of COVID-19.
Things are only getting worse.
On Saturday, public-health authorities in Peel region, in the Greater Toronto Area, decided to simply cut the province out of the loop and issue a series of orders intended to further restrict the transmission of COVID-19. Under the province’s new colour-coded system, Peel is considered a red zone. Indoor gatherings are permitted, up to a maximum of 10 people, but dining is permitted only outdoors. Venues must track visitors. Team sports are limited to practices only, with a maximum of 10 participants. Peel officials, however, have decided that those limits are insufficient and have gone further and more tightly limited indoor gatherings through an order that extends into January.
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In other words, Peel is no longer in lockdown or in a modified Stage 2: it is now under a locally improvised Red-Restrict.
Everybody clear on that?
This really does reflect more than simply a communications failure. It is fascinating to see one of Ontario’s more densely populated regions overtly breaking ranks with the provincial guidance and striking out on its own. John Tory, mayor of Toronto, has said that the city is now considering doing the same. This is a pretty dramatic signal by local officials that they have lost confidence in provincial leadership. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Ontario government was out early on Monday morning with a series of local announcements targeted at Peel.
But set aside that political story for a moment. Let’s take one last look at the communications side of this. And this part actually does not land at the feet of the government. It’s more complicated than that — and harder to solve.
Early in the pandemic, I realized I should probably spend less time watching TV when my then-seven-year-old daughter casually announced that “Toronto’s breaking news” was her favourite television show. She was referring to Toronto-based CP24, a 24-hour all-news channel that I regularly had on in the background while I worked. Even if she was getting into it a bit too early in life, the stories at least applied to her. We do, after all, live in Toronto.
However, for reasons that are very complicated — but can perhaps be quickly summed up as “we have run out of money because our advertising market has been obliterated” — modern media outlets are a shadow of their former selves. Many have closed down entirely. What this means is that you have fewer journalists covering larger areas. Torontonians may not realize how lucky they are to live in a city that still has a relatively robust media market. You do not need to drive far out of the city to discover that there’s virtually no local media on the ground. What local news-gathering and reporting resources there are are simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news coming out of Toronto.
If you live in any one of the cities or towns in Toronto’s cottage country, for example, you might have a local weekly newspaper (a very few of you might still have a daily). You might have a couple of local radio stations that play some local news at the top of every hour before the music comes back. You may even be lucky enough to have one of the new digital journalism startups active in your community. (And, of course, you can always count on us here at TVO.org.)
But almost all the news you will be getting will be coming out of Toronto — or possibly Ottawa or Windsor or some other local hub. With constantly changing terminology and varying directives being applied in different geographic regions, it is undoubtedly difficult for those who are not living in these larger cities to follow what rules apply to them locally.
Normally, a local response would be a feature, not a bug. Indeed, Ontario’s response to the first wave was rightly critiqued as being too broad, applied without any particular understanding or recognition of local conditions.
Now, unfortunately, we may have gone too far in the other direction. Not only are different parts of the province under different conditions as per provincial guidelines, but there is now at least one large region going off on its own. Others may follow. The premier and David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, will get up and give their press conferences, but we cannot assume that 14.5 million people are sitting through them every day, paying rapt attention. Local media must filter guidelines via tangible, easily digested local reporting. And that local reporting is vastly reduced, if it exists at all.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers continue to be worrying. In this, we have company all around the world. Europe is riding out a second wave. The United States remains a disaster. We need to get this under control.
In theory, applying a broad spectrum of targeted restrictions on a highly localized basis makes a lot of sense. But that is going to require a clarity and consistency of communications that is simply proving beyond our provincial officials’ ability to deliver. There is no excuse for being this bad at this so far into the second wave. Lives will be lost if provincial directives are not effectively transmitted to citizens living their lives in villages and towns across the province.
It’s easy to dismiss a journalist clamouring for more journalists as simply a matter of self-interest. Fair enough. But those who are not in the big cities and miss having a local paper, TV crew, or radio station to depend on will know to what I’m referring.
Revitalizing local news is a good idea on its own merits, not that anyone has figured out a solution to that yet. In the aftermath of this pandemic, once it’s finally over and we can take full stock of the experience, I wonder whether the importance of local journalism will be even more apparent than it is today.
If so, God help the person who has to figure out what to do about it. But we should at least know where the challenges lie. And this is a big one.