Dear News Media – We need to talk.

Dear News Media,

You know how much I love you, I am hooked on you. My addiction knows no geographic bounds, and many of your members around the world from every major publication in Canada (and lots of minor ones – I’m looking at you, Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal. Hiya!) to major and minor US publications, major dailies in Australia and New Zealand (so, so sorry about the earthquake. Terrifying and heartbreaking.), Japan, SE Asia, Russia, across the Middle East, Europe, Africa (hello Cape Town! I want to come to visit!), South and Central America and the Caribbean. And of course, the Grey Lady’s world news (I like it because I am so used to the look and feel of the NYT site, and because it has world news in ONE PLACE!)

I spend at least 3 hours of my day reading news, to the point where I often pick up on headlines and can’t delve into issues that much anymore, but I suppose that the nature of a time-limited addition. I get as many viewpoints as I can on issues that are of interest to me or those around me. My university friends are just as hooked, so I have to assume that this is an addiction that higher education in the liberal arts – history and political science especially – encourages. When my boyfriend calls and says, “what are you doing?” and I reply, “reading”, he could truthfully testify that it isn’t a book even though we’re on the phone and he can’t actually see me (catch my drift, Hon. John McKay?)

Media, you’re a big part of my life. I read your news. I watch your videos on my Samsung Galaxy S when I am commuting or too lazy to turn my laptop on. I have downloaded many of your apps and I talk about you to my friends and family. I believe in your role in our society and I often thank you for the oversight and for bringing worthy stories to my attention. I’m pretty sure that I would pay for your content if push came to shove. I don’t think I could be any more clear about your place in my life.

HOWEVER, we’re in a big fight.

We have a serious problem in our relationship. Not a global problem (for now, I can’t even think about the US right now), but for my current issue, a Canadian problem. You see, News Media, it is likely an election year in federal politics, and is almost certainly an election year in 50% of Canada’s provinces. I understand that you think that means you need to gear up, but really what you’re doing is showing your editorial bias and I HATE THAT PART OF YOU. Commentators and pundits are excluded from our big fight because I expect them to show themselves. This is about regular news as reported by, well, reporters. In the last week, I have two great big shining examples of where you’ve fallen down, and I fervently hope that commenters on this letter will add their own examples because honestly, this has gotten out of control and either I need news media rehab, or you need to pull your socks up.

To understand our fight, we need to agree on what your job is as the Fourth Estate. (I love the estates of the realm – if you have a moment, look them up. Not a lot of people know what the estates are anymore and it’s too bad, because they are foundational to understanding the roots of our society and also really neato) Your job, beloved news media, is to provide oversight on society – to inform and educate about virtually everything that is current without bias of any kind. In short, I count on you to be objective in your reporting on current events, and to provide pertinent points of view on any given issue or event. While this may be naive, considering that for the most part you are confused about your purpose, which is NOT to make money for your owner shareholders, I believe that your role in society transcends your owners as businesses in our capitalist economy. Basically, you are more important than money.

I want to know what is REAL, not what you THINK about issues and events in regular reporting. That’s why you have commentators and pundits: to express the concurrent views of your owners, or, if your owners want some laurels for showing an ability to present differing opinions, some non-concurrent views. I think the whole world is on to you on that front. But you need to get your act together on being non-sensational on regular reporting. We live in serious times, with serious issues before us. We don’t need reporters to give our opinions to us directly or through the use of opinion and judgment words. We are adults, in an adult relationship, and each of us has the right and responsibility to form our own opinions without the background noise you are creating.

Here are some examples of the issue:
1. Reporting on the Oda Affair by non-opinion writers has been abhorrent, and really, you were just lazy. I understand you have deadlines, but honestly, this was just plain laziness. If I could go through the evidence and realize that the affair was not really an affair at all, so could you. I give you Campbell Clark’s article in the Globe and Mail using words like “stinging rebuke” and “doctored documents” – these are opinion words that you should save for your opinion writers. I give you Bruce Campion-Smith in the Toronto Star, who writes that the Minister made a “surprise admission [when last week] she told the Commons that it was she who had directed a staff member to make the change to reflect her decision not to fund the agency.” It wasn’t a surprise admission, she had already said so in her committee testimony. I give you, on the television, Terry Milewski and Peter Mansbridge. Mansbridge says it was a “big about-face” by the government and Milewski, cynically, says, “the issue here is the government’s honesty, or lack of it”. This is so clearly opinion and judgment, which is totally inappropriate, especially for a news organization funded by ALL Canadians, not just those who share Milewski’s and Mansbridge’s opinions. If Milewski wants to be an opinion reporter, he can join the At Issue panel – but he isn’t, and he hasn’t. News media, your members need to keep their opinions to themselves unless they are presented in opinion pieces.

2. An analysis article by Tom Blackwell in the National Post is the latest flare. The article is not contained on the National Post’s Opinion pages, rather on it’s News pages. As such, I expect actual, relevant NEWS. Using a former, short-term aide to a man when that man was not in Cabinet on the issue being reported on is a clumsy attempt to lure the reader into assuming Ontario Liberal aides are turning on their ex-bosses on the issue at hand. This is simply not the case in this article. It is implied in the article that Mr. Laforet has credibility on the political challenges around the wind power issue in Ontario because he was an aide to Minister Duguid when the Minister was Minister of Energy. Obviously, Mr. Duguid has only been the Minister of Energy since January, 2010. Mr. LaForet has no clear experience working in the Ministry of Energy and it is Mr. Blackwell’s responsibility to ensure this is clear. The line, “Mr. Laforet, who worked for the energy minister for several months in the mid-2000s…” says that Mr. Duguid was the Minister of Energy in the mid-2000s and that Mr. Laforet was on his staff at that time, which is not the case. Indeed, Minister Duguid was a Parliamentary Assistant at the time Mr. Laforet worked for him. Was Mr. Blackwell trying to illustrate that Mr. Laforet would understand Minister Duguid’s thought processes? I’m not sure that working for anyone for more than a few months would make a person a credible source on their ex-boss’ thought processes. Mr. Laforet worked for Mr. Duguid before he was even in the Cabinet (approximately two years before his appointment to Cabinet) and it is fine to conclude that he has credibility as a source in his current employment – but cannot be considered a turncoat on this issue and I resent the implication on behalf of news readers everywhere that he is. We are in a time when Ontarians are paying attention to provincial politics more because of an upcoming election, and clumsily shrouding an incorrect implication as credible is not at all helpful to any Ontarian. I went to Mr. Blackwell’s boss on this one.

News media, you need to make a decision about where we are going in our relationship. If you want to be an opinion-maker, then admit it and be it. But don’t tell me you are something you are not – you cannot have it both ways. This relationship is becoming toxic, and I’m on the precipice of dumping you. It’s better to be alone than to live with your inability to know who you are. Your owners got into the business knowing the expectations of their readers. If they can’t live up to those expectations, then they need to change their business or the paradigm in which they operate.

Here’s the ultimatum: I’ll wait for you for a little while, but not forever. Make up your mind so we can move on together, or not. I’ll be here to support you if you choose what is right for all of us.




12 thoughts on “Dear News Media – We need to talk.

  1. Here’s another one to add to your collection on the Oda file, courtesy of commenter Peter B at a blog called BLY:

    In addition to misrepresentation, use of connotative rather than denotative language, and personal bias coming through reporters’ work, there is also the problem of what is left unsaid.

    One prime recent example is the kind of coverage given to the Canada vs. UAE controversy. The reporting concentrated on the UAE’s demands for additional landing slots, usually portrayed as reasonable; the purported slights of the UAE at the hand of the Harper government; the regrettable loss of such a staunch ally and consequently Canada’s influence on the world stage, all because of the Harper government’s purported mishandling of the issue.

    But very seldom was it reported in those stories that other countries had also turned down the UAE’s requests for additional landing rights. Thanks to blog posts such as this one Canadians were able to learn about other countries objections similar to those of Canada:
    “Canada is not the only country that has serious reservations about the UAE’s aviation plans. Air carriers from Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany have been up in arms for some time over demands by the UAE for even more traffic rights. The Koreans, too, are furious over the UAE’s demands for more landing slots.
    Germany has already had enough. It has just said no to Emirates Airlines’ request for landing rights in Berlin and Stuttgart, sending the CEO of Emirates into a tizzy.
    If readers were to check European web sites, such as Luchtzak Aviation, that follow the business closely, they would find experts there lauding Canada’s stance and demanding that their countries follow Canada’s lead.”

    I would think that information should have appeared in every report about the issue, but it seldom did.

  2. With all due the respect the News media has been partisan for a very long time. The change has been the public is able to push back now with internet.

    We can post within minutes examples of bias or mistakes in the actual report. The MSM has lost the soapbox to themselves.

    As we see in the middle east, we on the web are not a collective we are individuals forming our own networks and dialogue.

    The old model is broken and those in power have lost the narrative.

  3. IMO, part of the problem is the 24/7 news cycle and talk radio. More and more sensationalism is needed to keep the audience, ever more fragmented, interested. Maybe if there were fewer news outlets? But then we would have the spectre of message control concentrated in the hands of a few.

    This page offers some reasonable explanations about why things are as they are.

    As for solutions, maybe a start would be for journalists to apply these principles:

    • That explains original reports being a little shy of the facts,
      but nothing excuses the media from not getting the story straight 24 hours later, and by omission, keep the lie alive.
      Bloggingtories manage to get the facts out within hours, what can’t PAID journalists?

  4. The Globe and Mail has made it clear for some time that it subscribes to “interpretive journalism” as opposed to straight reporting, which I suppose means the editors are OK with the reporters insinuating their opinions and biases into the news.

    On a more optimistic note, there are some exceptions. Last night on the A Channel news there was a report about the PM speaking about a new helicopter facility to be built on Vancouver Island.
    After the piece ran, the anchor pointed out to the (very young) reporter that this had actually been announced a couple of years ago, so it was nothing new. “Oh no,” she replied. “What they announced two years ago was the intention to get design work done for the new facility. What they announced this morning is that now the funding to build the facility is in place, so they can move ahead.” Now that’s reporting, particularly when it leaves the anchor with egg all over his face.

    • I am delighted by the young reporter. Well done! That’s what anchors who think they are the purveyors of all things relevant get.

      It seems, then, that the anchor was questioning the value of the piece by saying, “this is old news”. Pretty astonishing to do on air, and cruel to do to the cub reporter. Unless it was the other way ’round and the anchor was addressing that some viewers might remember that the first part of the story was reported previously, and wanted to be clear that there had been developments in the story.
      Regardless, anchor on A Channel, no one cares about your opinion. Read the news, that’s what you’re there for. If I want opinion, I’ll go looking for it.

      “Interpretive Journalism”. Honestly. No words.

      • “Unless it was the other way ’round and the anchor was addressing that some viewers might remember that the first part of the story was reported previously, and wanted to be clear that there had been developments in the story.”

        To my mind he looked a little stunned that the girl had the nerve to make a comeback, so I think you are being a bit generous here.

        • I like to give benefit of the doubt until it’s obvious that it isn’t deserved, and make sure I look at all possible angles (“is it within or outside the realm of possibility?”) before coming to a conclusion. I’m totally willing to accept that the anchor was being opinionated and thought the story was a waste of airtime, and thus stunned by the reporter’s comeback. Anchors tend to be a haughty bunch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a producer or the assignment editor pulled him aside afterward and said, “last time I checked, I decide what stories we cover, so if you’ve got a problem, take it up with me afterward and not on the air”.

          Also, it’s not the anchor’s job to be opinionated about the topic or quality of news coverage on the broadcast unless he or she is a) acknowledging that what has been said is opinion (however, people like to think their anchors don’t bring their opinions to the broadcast and are “just the facts, ma’am”) or b) talking to people outside of work hours. I’m an adult, and I like my news to assume that I can make my own decisions.

  5. You should check out Ralph Goodale’s article on National Newswatch entitled, ‘Oda and the Conservative Culture of Deceit’. It was published in the Nipawin Journal. I found it full of assumptions stated as facts. It got my ire up, but I couldn’t seem to post a comment, although I tried.

  6. Here’s another example of commentary presented as “news”:
    “Fiscal report shows **Harper trying to hide true costs** of proposed crime laws, corporate tax cuts”
    By Ethan Baron, The Province

    This “news report” begins with
    “A scathing report released Friday **reveals the contempt Stephen Harper’s government holds for the Canadian taxpayer.** …”
    continues with
    “The Tories have given **a politically distorted spin** to the impact of planned corporate tax cuts …”
    and ends with this
    “By **keeping us in the dark**, the Tories seek to avoid the public outcry that would result should the true costs become known.”

    Yup, that’s the news according to Ethan Baron.

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