Let’s Talk… Objectivity…

The late American film producer Robert Evans once notably said “there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.” Evans’ quote serves to remind people that their perspective is subjective and their opinion is not the whole truth, that reality lies somewhere between two opposing perspectives. Now despite the fact that a certain former president would probably like to take credit for coining the phrase “fake news”, false or misleading media content presented as news and communicated in formats spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic, and digital communication has been with us since ancient times. And more importantly, so too has the push to make sure that we assess all three sides of a story before accepting one argument as fact over another.

Unfortunately, little time is actually spent teaching students how to get to the facts of any given topic. As a student, I have been fortunate to take courses in philosophy, journalism, and media history that have educated me on how to properly consume media. That’s not to say that I don’t let my own biases get in the way sometimes, but I do strive to see all sides of an issue before making a judgment or taking a side. Having said that, I was reminded recently by a colleague that it’s all too easy to go with the flow if a story sounds like a positive feel-good tale. And if I can slip up from time to time, I can only imagine how easy it is for our kids to let things slide and to fall prey to “truths” that seem too positive to be true. 

I started thinking about this last week when I was sending out positive tweets to friends and family in support of Bell Let’s Talk. On January 28th, Bell Media once again promoted its signature charitable undertaking. The initiative began in 2010 and since then the Canadian media behemoth has donated $121,373,806.75, well on its way to its $155 million target. This year alone, the conglomerate donated $7,958,671.75 to mental health initiatives across the country. Despite the fact that Bell Canada reported annual revenue of $23.96 billion for the fiscal year 2019, up from 23.47 billion in the previous year, this is undoubtedly a generous donation to a worthy cause.  The objective of the campaign is to increase acceptance and awareness of mental health. The initiative is “focused on engaging Canadians to take action and create positive change in mental health.”

Now, few people would disagree that an initiative that promotes mental health awareness is a positive thing. Though, while researching this piece I did come across stories of those who suffer from mental illness who find the annual event very difficult. But what caught my attention was a tweet from a colleague who spoke about three things I really had not considered in my enthusiasm to wholeheartedly and blindly support the initiative. 

Yes, Bell Canada donates a good chunk of change to support mental health awareness across Canada once a year. The flip side is that their involvement is really cheap advertising for their product. Going even further along this train of thought, Bell enlists notable celebrities to help promote the initiative and therefore promote Bell Canada. I am not naive enough to think that all corporate goodness is completely altruistic, but I guess I didn’t sit back and see just exactly what Bell gains from their involvement. Surely, the $8 million dollar donation pales in comparison to their $100 million advertising budget last year, but one has to think that this is probably one of their best advertising buys in terms of national and even international exposure. As well, I am also certain that the donation comes with tax breaks that increase the value of the ad buys. Of course, there is nothing illegal about any of this, and Bell’s involvement certainly raises awareness of mental health issues in Canada, but it also helps their bottom line considerably.

A quick search of Bell Canada’s workplace culture returns a variety of positive and negative results. Of course, that’s the case for just about any workplace when you do a rather cursory search. And yet, a 2017 CBC News article exposed allegations of a toxic workplace environment as described by a 20-year employee. As already noted, negative workplace experiences are not limited to Bell and are not that unusual. But it should be mentioned that the story moved over 600 former employees to contact CBC with their own negative experiences. At best, this is a really bad PR issue and at worst it is a story that makes the company look incredibly hypocritically at least once a year.   

And finally, few people are aware that Bell holds a highly private and very preferential exclusive contract to provide phone services for inmates in Ontario jails. What little is known about the deal reveals that the landline only inmate calls are oppressively costly, which prevents inmates, who are often mentally ill, from talking to their counsellors, families, or wider support systems. A little more digging shows that Bell is not the only one to benefit from the deal, as the government receives a commission on every long-distance call made by an inmate from an Ontario jail. Last year As it Happens, also CBC produced, did a story on the victimization of some of Ontario’s most vulnerable by the very corporation that exhorts us to understand and talk about the issue of mental health.

So a number of things become readily apparent when looking at this issue. First off, I have not done a truly thorough job of looking at both sides of the issue. But, I can say without hesitation that somewhere in between is the reality and either way you look at it, Bell is profiting by doing good. The question is how much are they profiting and do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. 

Also, I had given scant attention to the reality of this interesting situation prior to a colleague pointing out the other side of the story to me. I happily tweeted, emailed, and messaged friends and colleagues to do my bit. Now, I do not regret checking in on people and being part of the conversation. However, I do feel a little sheepish about my lack of consideration of the whole story.

And finally, I go back to students who lack my experience when it comes to the consumption of media. We need to ensure that our kids, in fact, all of us, think of Robert Evan’s credo. It certainly is easier to accept things that sound or appear to be good without looking under the surface at all. But if we want to do the right thing and to truly understand issues, we have to do our homework and dig a little deeper. A corporate monolith doing good is not necessarily a bad thing, but it also isn’t always a good thing either.




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