WHISTLER, B.C. - An email note this week to television reporters and personalities with the rights to cover the 2010 Vancouver Games was succinct and sobering: Don't hug Canadian athletes.

Bursting displays of patriotism among journalists over the last two weeks have given the country some cringe-worthy Olympic moments, especially for those who cling to the notion of journalistic independence and objectivity.

That such hands-off policy had to be written down may be alarming, but it may not be entirely surprising given the fever that has gripped the nation.

Sometimes the offence has been fleeting, a simple reassuring pat on the elbow for a skier who flamed out on the slopes. Some Chinese journalists have been seen openly cheering for their athletes.

Other times it's been in your face, such as the sustained round of applause Mellisa Hollingsworth received from journalists following a teary-eyed news conference on her disappointing fifth-place skeleton finish last week.

"Wow," a surprised Hollingsworth said. "I know journalists are supposed to be independent. That means a lot."

Toronto Star columnist Chris Zelkovich recently lamented that CTV announcers have shown a striking Canadian bias and pointed to the medals skeleton ceremony where Hollingsworth had been shut out.

The winners - Amy Williams of Britain and German racers Szymkowiak Kerstin and Anja Huber - were allowed to pass without mention or comment. But it was different when Canadian gold medallist Jon Montgomery came off the stage after singing "O Canada" during the flag raising.

"Michael Landsberg asked him to sing a couple of bars of the anthem," wrote Zelkovich, who began the column by insisting he wasn't a killjoy.

"Being an obliging type, Montgomery did. Now, if an American announcer had done that, Canadians would cringe. And imagine the reaction if an American announcer referred to 'this great country' as Jamie Campbell has repeatedly done."

Zelkovich noted that Canadians must be getting the boost of patriotic fever they want from the CTV-Rogers consortium because the ratings have consistently been through the ceiling.

There was no response for a request for comment from someone at CTV.

Indeed, the pressure to wave the flag is not limited to television.

Email feedback to The Canadian Press when editors decided to run a story on the cigar-smoking, beer-swilling, champagne-sipping antics of Canada's gold medal women's hockey team was scathing.

"You guys have made the team as well as Hockey Canada look bad," Darin Wager wrote on Friday.

"Obviously this was written by some idiot who has never played any type of competitive sport. I cannot believe you have bothered to write about this. This is an insult to The Canadian Press, not to the women's hockey team. Come on you guys. Get a life and support your country instead of trashing it."

Some even accused the news agency of trying to spoil the women's celebration.

"Shame on you," wrote Mike Currie, who conceded the on-ice antics represented poor judgment on the part of the athletes.

But he added: "I would think that there are plenty of good stories and photos to share with your audience. Look for the good, not the bad."

That's like nails on a chalkboard to journalism ethics professor Stephen Ward, who says the public has lost touch with the notion of news as impartial and balanced.

News is increasingly viewed by the people as an extension of marketing. Ward pointed to the participation of journalists in the Olympic torch run as an example of where reporters were asked to sell the Games. Journalists with The Canadian Press were among those who participated in the run and one wrote about the ethics of doing so.

But it's the charge of being unpatriotic that grates on Ward the most, partly because there's a whiff of politics in the accusation.

"You serve your country as a journalist by covering all aspects of the story, the good and the bad," said Ward, who teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"You don't get caught in cheerleading and you don't get caught up in muting your criticism."

He conceded it's tough, even for reporters, to choke back the tears when they see performances like bronze medallist Joannie Rochette's skate in the shadow of her mother's death.

"I'm not trying to be heartless here," said Ward, a former correspondent and bureau chief with The Canadian Press.

He compared it to the of burden of war correspondents who are sometimes vilified for critical coverage and not waving the flag.

Questions and criticism don't make journalists less patriotic.

"It's the same way I felt when I covered conflicts where Canadian soldiers were involved, but I didn't go around hugging the soldiers."

There will come a time, Ward said, when pretty tough questions will need to be asked about the Games.

"This is a big event, a major event costing Canadian taxpayers $2 billion and it is controversial. Not everybody wanted the Olympics, therefore that's more reason for them to take a more critical, independent approach."

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