Monday, March 9, 2009

How free is the press?

Spare me, someone, from the sanctimonious drivel from newspaper people, over the growing fiscal troubles in their industry and the threat that poses to democracy.

Recently, one long-running newspaper -- the Rocky Mountain News in Denver -- closed shop after 150 years; at least one "giveaway" paper has laid off staff in Vancouver, other papers are in trouble and two Canadian media giants -- Canwest Global, which owns both Vancouver dailies, and ctvglobemedia, which owns CTV and the Globe and Mail, among others -- are currently flirting with bankruptcy.

Two columnists in the Sun in the past week have written impassioned pleas, affirming that newspapers are the key to democracy, the alternative -- blogging and citizen journalism on the internet -- is woefully inadequate because these people are not "professionals" at digging out the facts, and that newspapers are required to "hold the feet (of governments and other officials) to the fire".

That's the theory, certainly. But the reality is that journalists have a far loftier view of their job and their ability to do it than is actually the case. My experience, both watching the profession from the inside for 25 years and now the past 3-and-a-bit years dealing with reporters as a public information officer, has been that reporting true facts takes a back seat to the egomaniacal thrill a reporter or news organization gets from making a monkey out of someone in an official position. Being seen as the champion crusader for the little guy is far more important than getting the story right.

Consider these points:
  • reporters have shown a disturbing tendency to assume that Ordinary Joe Citizen is telling the truth, and that even hard data refuting it must have been doctored. Case in point: an incident where a fellow claimed he'd been assaulted on a SkyTrain and it took 40 minutes for police to arrive. Even though we called the reporter within 20 minutes of getting the call, with information showing that the situation was in hand within 5 minutes and the man was in custody 11 minutes after that, the man's claim was the basis for both the "anchor lead" and the body of the story; the data refuting it was added as an afterthought, with that little "TransLink says that ..." nuance that suggested we had cooked up the data. Later, at a meeting with the assignment editors, we were told that it was assumed the data we provided had been fudged.
  • reporters prefer creating controversy to actually presenting information. In November, SkyTrain, TransLink and Transit Police announced results of a crime analysis study on safety and security on the system and around its stations. They also announced measures being taken to improve the public's comfort level. Reporters focused on the idea that police dogs may be tested out. One TV reporter went to the length of cutting in a visual of a snarling German shepherd lunging at the camera while asking "ordinary people" what they thought of the idea; this, even though it was made clear that these would be black Labradors, trained to sniff out contraband. A couple of weeks ago, Maclean's online made mention of SkyTrain security, so I sent in a comment, listing the measures we were taking to address the issue. Another commenter actually asked me why he had to read about it in a national publication and wasn't TransLink's PR department doing its job?
  • a "professional freelance reporter" used Freedom of Information to get records of the number of times Transit Police had used their Tasers in the previous 12 months. There were 10 incidents. The media leapt all over it and reported that people were being Tasered for fare evasion (because the incidents began with a fare check). The explanation that the Tasers were only used because an ID check had found the subjects were wanted on outstanding warrants and were resisting arrest was ignored, as was the fact that these were 10 incidents out of over 43,000 "contacts" between police and citizens during that same time frame.
  • the general bias among the media in Canada against war comes through clearly in the reporting on the Afghanistan situation. It seems like the only time we hear about our soldiers is when someone gets killed. The successes -- and any assessment of whether the troops are "doing the job" -- generally go unreported. It makes one wonder what the reporting on D-Day would have looked like if today's generation of journalists had been covering the Normandy invasion.
  • On the other hand, consider that the biggest media frenzy in Canada in the past year and a half has been the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport. That story came out because a "citizen journalist" with a cell phone camera took video of the incident and posted it on the Internet.
  • Similarly, how much "journalistic digging" did it take to discover Premier Gordon Campbell had been arrested for drunk driving in Hawaii, or that certain offices in the BC legislature were being raided by the RCMP?
  • When a Global TV reporter broke details about a federal budget prior to its being released, was that solid journalism or a fortuitously placed camera? (Hint: it was the latter.) How big a scandal was the building of Glen Clark's sundeck, really? Was the public interest served in either case? In the former, a dollar figure was revealed in the budget document, and the then finance minister declared it was only a "draft" and that the real figure was considerably higher. In the latter, the business of the province -- with all its problems with health care, education and the economy -- was hijacked while the world dissected the meaning of a gift hunting knife.
  • Watergate was definitely a high point for journalism in all its ideals, but since then, reporters have tried to emulate Woodward and Bernstein, looking for their own Deep Throat or smoking gun, with that very fleshly desire to be seen to be The One That Brought Down A Government. But in satisfying that desire, what have they really accomplished?
  • One of the columnists I referred to above noted that he'd been a journalist for 43 years -- and he doesn't look that old. This means he's been writing since he was a teenager. A lot of reporters come straight out of school into the news media, which leads one to wonder what kind of experience they have in decision-making, taking action that actually affects people and/or producing or running something.

Indeed, look at some of the stories out there and ask yourself whether they were really "broken" by a reporter working their contacts or observing an event first-hand, or whether they came from covering a meeting, attending a news conference, re-writing a news release (I love it when I see news releases I've written, printed verbatim in a newspaper with a reporter's by-line attached to it), or because they got a tip from a private citizen. Ask yourself, also, if the tone of the story assumes one side is "good" and another side is "bad", or whether you're left to draw your own conclusions.

There's something to be said for "citizen journalism", and that's that, while they may not be able to dig out all the facts, the CJ medium allows for "the other side" or "perspective" to get a fair hearing. Often, such explanations are considered "the official line" by professional journalists and therefore not to be given credence. We can send comments to blogs or set up our own blog and present our side of things that way. If you try to tell a reporter or his/her editor that they missed the mark in a story, or that the tone of the article is not in the public interest, one can expect a rather huffy lecture in Journalism 101.

I was blessed, early in my career, to work with some news directors who knew how to dig out a story and get facts from officials that went beyond the news release. One of them, the legendary JJ Richards (CHUM, C-FUN, etc.), told me that he wanted a legislature reporter that would make a politician say, "oh, s**t!" whenever he or she heard that reporter's voice on the phone. There are two kinds of reporters that make me say, "oh, s**t" when I get a call from them. One is the kind who legitimately has some really good questions and I need to find some really good answers -- even though we might not look good in the process. The other is the kind who already has his or her mind made up about the story and nothing I say to them is going to alter that.

Barbara Yaffe in the Sun is one of the columnists pleading for the preservation of the free world as we know it by keeping newspapers alive. One of her statements is spot-on: we do need a dialogue about the future of journalism in this country. But a lot of that has to focus on whether newspapers are really doing the job. Why are people turning to the Internet and citizen journalism? Why has the public respect for journalism as a profession plummeted from 73% in 1994 to 49% in 2008 (according to a survey by Angus Reid Strategies)?

And who holds the journalists' feet to the fire? (Quis custodes custodiet? Who guards the guardians?) In 2007, TransLink and SkyTrain took a Vancouver radio station (CKWX) to task for its reporting on (here's a surprise) SkyTrain safety and security issues. It took a year, but the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found the station in violation not just of the Code of Ethics articles we had cited, but of many more.

But that's just one example, and it's worth asking if the remedy the CBSC imposed, along with the reputational damage of having been "caught out", is enough to get a media outlet to re-think its approach or even really admit it had done anything wrong? So long as journalists maintain the lofty notion that, by virtue of their profession, they are the truth and the champions of the public trust, they will lose ground as people seek out and make use of other means of finding out "what's going on".

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