The 21st century has heralded the advent of countless new journalism ethics societies, codes and vows. Ombudspersons have become fixtures in the newsroom; public apologies have become a mainstay in big papers that publish big errors. Or have they? A recent accountability failure by the New York Times requires concerned journalists to demand whether newsrooms are truly taking responsibility for all they print.
On April 24, a panel of five Indonesian judges acquitted American gold producer Newmont Gold Corp. and its president director, Richard Ness, of charges regarding environmental degradation in an Indonesian bay. The verdict was decisive, and the judges minced no words in calling the prosecution’s case “weak” and their evidence “flawed because prosecutors had used conflicting evidence, gathered unscientifically. Much of it was provided by the NGO advocates who had begun pushing to have the mine closed even before it opened.
In its coverage, the New York Times quoted the judges, recognizing the law had spoken. The Times was less forthcoming with the verdict the paper itself had laid down a year and a half prior. Times reporter Jane Perlez wrote a damning series about the goldmine that ran on page one and swept the globe. Beginning on September 8, 2004 (the same day the World Health Organization issued a report declaring the bay in question clear of mercury pollution), Perlez asserted that fish had died off and villagers had been sick since the mine opened. Perlez’s medical sources were a visiting coral paleontologist and a public health lecturer.
She rejected several doctors’ accounts of villager health. The villagers she quoted had been traveling the world with anti-mining NGOs since 2002 and earlier. For most of her claims in the article’s top 15 paragraphs, she cited no one at all. As for Newmont’s representatives and scientists, she spoke with them but failed to quote them. The indisputable conclusion readers drew from her accounts was that an American colossus was ruining the lives and livelihoods of defenseless villagers.
The story is credited with urging Indonesian authorities to arrest five Newmont employees, holding them for 32 days, uncharged, while reports came pouring in from international organizations, local universities, and government scientists indicating that the bay was clean and the villagers were suffering from very basic symptoms of poor nutrition, bad hygiene, and allergies. These reports were occasionally covered by the Times, but never on A-1. The trial’s verdict made page A-8 last month.
So, the Times never came clean on its initial faulty reports about the Newmont case. But, surely Perlez herself was scolded. Perhaps a slap on the wrist?
To the contrary, Perlez was recently promoted to the New York Times London bureau, where she continues to write A-1 stories. On May 2, she scored a front-page slot for a story on an immigration “loophole” for Britons of Pakistani descent, citing American officials with concerns over the number of terror plots involving Britons of Pakistani descent. Because British people with Pakistani parents are, by law, British, they need no visa to enter the United States. But, Perlez does not explain how this is a loophole at all – by all accounts, this is not a loophole so much as a guarantee of equal citizenship rights for all British citizens, regardless of their descent.
I have not seen a public apology from the New York Times for quite some time. Not for the faulty Newmont story in 2004, and not for the racist “loophole” story from this week. If this is allowed in 21st century accountability, we need rework our definitions. Talk is cheap they say, but it comes with a high price when readers are held in such low regard that they don’t merit apologies for such slights.
Although the North American mainstream media has recently jumped on the green bandwagon, its coverage of climate change has been lambasted for contributing to a culture of doubt and debate by covering an issue of fact as one of opinion.
Journalists often covered climate change stories using a traditional notion of objectivity – by giving equal weight to the views of the contrarians and the believers. But this practice meant that journalists continued to tell both sides of the story, even when there was no legitimate scientific “other side” to tell.
During UBC’s Celebrate Research week, the UBC School of Journalism and the DeSmogBlog.com hosted a panel discussion on media treatment of the climate-change issue entitled “The State of the Media on Climate Change.”
The panel was comprised of some of the best-known journalists, editors, academics and activists following the issue.
Panelists included Hadi Dowlatabadi, UBC Professor Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability; Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and author of The New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science; Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize winning editor and author of the groundbreaking book The Heat is On; Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun; and Jim Hoggan, president of James Hoggan & Associates and founder of DeSmogBlog.com
Throughout the presenters’ five-minute presentations and the discussion afterward, a consensus emerged – that journalists have contributed, willingly or unwillingly, to fogging and fueling the debate on climate change.
Jim Hoggan, a self-proclaimed “PR guy” explained to the audience the function of PR and spin. He told the story of S. Fred Singer, who some might remember from his previous efforts to allay public fears about the dangers of secondhand smoke, who became a spokesperson for big oil and climate change contrarians. Singer’s ability to get his views published and cast doubt on climate change, he said, is a perfect example of how the journalistic commitment to balance can be manipulated by spinsters, despite their pursuit of balance.
Ross Gelbspan highlighted the differences in the climate change coverage between the mainstream media and scientific journals. “Why is it that in a study of over 1,000 peer reviewed articles on climate change, not one refuted its occurrence or that humans contributed to it, yet the mainstream media still presents the issue as if it is contested,” he asked.
Hadi Dowlatabadi founded offsetters.ca to provide travelers with a way to pay to offset their carbon emissions. Dowlatabadi, like many of the other panelists, highlighted the sensationalist nature of the mainstream media by referencing the exorbitant amount of coverage of Britney Spears shaving her head and the controversy over Anna Nicole Smith’s death.
“What are the media’s priorities? Like scientists, it is to turn a profit, meaning that neither the scientists nor the media are completely objective in their self-interested pursuits,” he said.
Chris Moonely elaborated on the sensationalist drive in the media.
“During the week the IPCC report was released, it was one of the top issues in the media, according to Pew’s statistics. However, the week after it had fallen off the agenda, replaced with coverage of the Super Bowl and Anna Nicole Smith’s death,” he said.
This sensationalist drive produces a drive in journalism toward covering conflict and controversy because they get ratings and coverage of more long-term issues suffers as a result.
Kirk LaPointe anticipated being the “human piñata,” because he was the only representative of mainstream media in the panel group. And that is exactly how the audience treated him. Although he acknowledged that the media had done the issue a disservice in its previous coverage, he expressed his hope that the media have a renewed opportunity to earn respect for its coverage over the coming decades.
“I think mainstream news organizations are finally starting to get it, thanks to a tipping point in 2006 fueled by coverage of extreme weather, Al Gore’s movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and the nomination of Stephane Dion,” he said.
While the panelists and the audience disagreed about certain aspects of the media’s role in the climate change debate, they agreed on one front – that the media’s commitment to balance has obfuscated their climate change coverage, and that the mainstream media need to play a more responsible role in covering climate change by asking tough questions and verifying the answers instead of clinging to the journalistic standard of balance.
My shoe suddenly comes loose in the hallway. I leave it – turning back would only slow me down. I swerve right to avoid an oncoming tape cart but trip over my now-exposed loose sock and fall face-first into an opening door. I gather myself and amidst calls of, “Are you okay?” and “Oh my Lord!”, and scramble to pick up the dropped tapes. I hobble like the wind up a metal staircase, round two corners and burst into the “tape pit” (a.k.a control room).
Twenty seconds later those tapes played live on air. I had done my job; I had delivered the b-roll on time, and my work that day was done. I pulled up my sock and picked up my rogue shoe as I made my way back to my edit suite. This was just one episode in one day among many similar days, when I regretted not wearing running shoes. Hush Puppies do not breathe well.
For two months in the summer of 2006 I worked as a tape producer for the now-defunct CBC News: Tonight, which ran on Newsworld as a summer replacement for The Hour.
I will always have affection for my time at Tonight. It was a small show with a small staff and a small budget. It was there that I was introduced to the art of producing b-roll, which I soon learned was more of a physical test of endurance than a skill-craft. Most of my days were spent trolling the hallways between the tape library, the satellite feed room, and my edit suite in search of footage that could be cobbled together as b-roll.
From the time the show’s lineup is more or less finalized and b-roll requests are made to tape producers, to the time when the b-roll finally goes to air, it is a mad dash to find tapes, pick shots, cut together b-roll, output the b-roll to a tape, fill out information in a computer database and deliver the tape to the control room. Each of these steps must be followed for every piece of b-roll that’s produced, whether it is fifteen seconds of visuals for a quick voice-over or multiple tapes worth of b-roll for a long interview that covers many topics.
JAYSON GO is in the final year of his Masters of Journalism degree at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Cebu City, the Philippines, Go has worked for CBC as an associate producer and has also interned as a researcher for Global National with Kevin Newman. In 2006 he was one of eight student journalists chosen from across Canada for the Joan Donaldson Newsworld Scholarship. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from UBC. His academic papers have been published in the UBC Journal of Political Studies and the Southern Maine Review.
While many may dismiss the production of b-roll as straightforward busywork, there’s more to it. Production of b-roll and the choices tape producers are forced to make can get dicey when time runs out.
(Full disclosure: my work with CBC Newsworld inspired the argument that I present. However, it should in no way reflect on any of CBC Newsworld’s programs or employees.)
For the uninitiated, b-roll, or cover footage, refers to secondary images that appear onscreen during interviews, voice-over segments, “coming-up” bumpers, and the like. When Larry King interviews Bill Clinton, and footage appears of Clinton playing the saxophone on Asenio Hall in 1992, that is b-roll. When Peter Mansbridge says that “Stephen Harper met with George Bush at the Whitehouse today,” and footage of the event is played over the voice track, that is b-roll. When a news anchor says, “After the break we’ll take a look at Toronto’s new smoking ban,” while smokers appear on your screen – you got it, b-roll.
B-roll is all about making what’s being presented visually interesting.
I like to think that there are two types of b-roll that news networks use for live television: let’s call one “objective b-roll” and the other “subjective b-roll.” The difference between the two boils down to whether the tape producer has a choice over the footage sought.
Objective b-roll is time-sensitive, specific footage. When the story is, “Hugo Chavez visits an ailing Fidel Castro,” the b-roll shows the specific event. No other encounter between the two can be shown. Objective b-roll is often quite critical in telling the story. It isn’t enough to simply say that, “John Mark Carr arrived in Boulder, Colorado today.” News shows have to show him walking down the jetway, escorted by guards and surrounded by photographers.
Objective b-roll is harder to procure. Usually sent in through satellite feeds, it can often only be found on one tape and is highly sought after within a network. This is especially the case at a place like CBC Newsworld, where the network is divided up into separate and distinct “fiefdoms.” When footage for a leading story comes in, it’s first-come-first-served.
Subjective b-roll is different. It isn’t tied to any specific footage, so the tape producer has a choice in what to edit together as b-roll. For example, a story about the oppression of women in Iran could have footage of Iranian women hanging laundry, or being arrested for having her face exposed, or even young girls covered from head-to-toe in black. With this type of b-roll, the tape producer must be subjective and, to an extent, make ethical judgments about how particular images fit within a story.
Objective b-roll isn’t always new footage. In August when former hockey agent David Frost was charged with sexual exploitation, almost every CBC News show scrambled for the one tape with footage of Frost: a mere 15-second clip and a mug shot. But it was a necessary accompaniment to the story.
That August day I ran around the CBC building chasing the tape until I finally tracked it down. As soon as I had it, calls started coming in from people asking whether they could have it once I was done.
This happened a lot when I worked at Newsworld, due in large measure to the fact that three major programs – CBC News: Tonight, CBC News: The National, and CBC News Morning, which produced their b-roll at night – all needed b-roll at about the same time. I suspect that any network that has a stable of news programs faces similar problems.
Poorly produced or poorly chosen b-roll is almost always an indication that the tape producer was rushed.
The Problem with B-Roll
Two types of malfeasance can occur as a result of rushing b-roll, the first done unwittingly due to oversight, and the second done deliberately and ethically irresponsibly.
An example of oversight is misinterpreting a b-roll request or interview question. When discussing “the comeback of nuclear industry” you might run b-roll of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when in fact you should have found stock footage of nuclear power plants. These accidental mistakes are the most noticeable but also the most forgivable.
Because objective b-roll is often tied to lead stories, (1) footage is highly sought after within a network, and (2) it must be finished on time at the risk of ruining, postponing, or worst, dropping, a top story.
It is precisely because subjective b-roll is given a lower priority that it is subject to error. With objective b-roll there’s an iron-clad understanding of what’s needed, so rushing it isn’t much of a concern. Subjective b-roll, on the other hand, requires judgments and reasoning, so logically it shouldn’t be done last or at the last-minute. Rushing subjective b-roll can create problems due to human discretion.
In these situations, viewers may be seeing inaccurate b-roll. Locations, for example, are not often distinguishable. Streets in one city look like other street in other cities. Mountains in one country look like mountains in other countries. When time runs out and there needs to be b-roll for “Summer fun on the West Coast,” a producer might be tempted to use footage of a beach in Toronto, if the tape is handy and there’s little chance he’ll be found out. If he decides to do this, when that tape is archived, it will forever bear the tag “Vancouver beach,” and anyone who uses it to produce b-roll in the future will have no reason to assume it isn’t.
The process of producing b-roll is not amenable to deep, contemplative thought or sober, deliberative reasoning. There are no codes of conduct or principled guidelines to follow, because thinking on your feet means thinking with your gut. The problem with b-roll, as it relates to live news programming, is that it can so easily lead to breaches of ethical conduct and ethical principles of truth-telling, accurate representation and honesty.
In an environment where b-roll is thought to be absolutely essential to a live news broadcast, tape producers must deliver (often literally; a la Joan Cusack in Broadcast News) their orders on time every time. Faced with this pressure, tape producers are often forced to make snap ethical decisions that hedge the line between doing the job “right” and getting the job done. “Getting the job done” is often intimately tied to how one is perceived as a worker or even whether one stays as worker. In the end, it’s much more impressive to look like a miracle worker.
This year at the University of British Columbia, student elections were advertised and covered by the voter-funded media (VFM) initiative, billed as ‘the first of its kind in the world.’ Participants in the contest promoted the election, sought to improve the quality of media coverage, and, by extension, to imporve the quality of the democratic process.
The driving force behind VFM was Mark Latham, who was an economist and businessman until his retirement in 1995. For ten years Latham, the founder of Votermedia.org, tried to sell his idea of a voter-funded media to the corporate world. They didn’t buy.
In 2006, Latham applied his idea to democratic institutions instead. He gave $8000 to the Alma Mater Society election coordinators to distribute among “winners” of media coverage. The cash, said Latham, was an incentive for media to fight voter apathy in the student elections, and, in larger future elections, corruption.
Thirteen participants entered the contest this past January to win one of Latham’s prizes. While some participants relied on comedy and popularity to attract voters, others offered serious coverage.
The competition successfully increased coverage for the AMS elections, but it caused controversy as well. UBC’s campus publication, The Ubyssey, published several articles addressing concerns about conflicts of interest within VFM and criticizing some of its rules. The Ubyssey faced increased competition for readership during Latham’s project.
In an election-time interview, Latham talked about the logic behind his project and some of its most important aspects.
Your expertise is mostly in business. How did you become interested in the media?
I’m a media consumer and an economist. I looked at voting and information in corporate societies, starting off with voting of shares, so I have studied the media and gone to a lot of conferences where people talked about representation in the media. My knowledge of the media comes from there. I also read quite a few books about the media, including Journalism in the New Millennium (edited by former UBC Journalism School director Donna Logan).
How would you describe the VFM initiative?
It’s a way of informing the voters and encouraging the government to do a better job on behalf of the voters. It informs the voters better by letting them allocate money to the media. It gives the media a better incentive than they have now to serve the voter’s interests, especially their interest in voting and knowing who they vote for. In this case, I donated $8000. In the long run, the voters themselves should fund it. For a journalist, a voter-funded budget could mean having budget for more in-depth stories.
Might it lead to people voting for a media they already know – usually a media that is already doing well?
In the short run, yes. In the long run, it encourages new media to come in and build a reputation. If it runs again and again, it will build strength, because it creates a new funding source. It creates a new incentive to provide something more. Here, even some individuals who have a reputation on campus for having a particular insight might be advantaged.
A student election seems different than a municipal or federal election. Why have you chosen UBC?
I feel UBC is perfect. It’s big enough, but small enough. It has a lot of the problems of a democracy; students are disconnected, for instance, which is exactly the problem I’m trying to solve. It’s also small enough so I can afford it, and it’s a community with a wide range of views. You have a school of journalism, so there’s a pool of journalists, and there’s also an academic interest in there. The other really big advantage is the age of the voters. People in their twenties want to change the world. I found there was quite an openness to this new idea. No, I can’t really think of a better place.
In an essay you published about the VFM, you wrote the economic structure of the media was a cause of voter apathy. Could you develop that thought for me?
Voters don’t have an incentive to pay the media. Even though, as a group, we vote for better information, as an individual, I would personally not pay money from my pocket to buy information, because I would be helping the community, not myself. The media tend to serve more sensationalism, fashion, etc. than information, because they get funding from advertising and commercials. A lot of subjects that require a lot of time and energy won’t attract a lot of viewers or readers. To caricature me [as a representative of the public] – I want to spend most of my year looking at Britney Spears. Before an election, I want to spend 15 minutes that are boring to make sure I can cast my vote, because I know that it matters. We really need this information that is totally boring, but we only want to spend 15 minutes looking at it. I want to increase that coverage.
Are you afraid of conflicts of interests on the VFM? [Some of the VFM contestants were also involved in the AMS council.]
I designed the basic idea, but I don’t set the rules. I thought a lot about that – the VFM is all about conflicts of interest and reducing them. I think VFM will police itself. People digging up conflicts of interest are about the best protection we have. Therefore, my design says even electoral candidates can have their own media outlet. I do care about conflicts of interest, but the best protection is having other media monitor it.
So more coverage is better coverage?
If you have well-motivated candidates, yes. It would be a better protection than having the government control the media.
How would you feel if a joke candidate wins?
Of course I’d like my donated money to go for something that helped the voters. But even if some money is wasted that way, I think it will be a success if there’s a substantial amount of positive, successful coverage and a small amount of that joke stuff. If all the money were going to joke media, I would consider it a failure. I forecast that they would vote for helpful media, but I might be wrong. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, that’s why it’s so interesting. My hope is that it’s going to be successful and people will say that this was useful for UBC voters. But overall, I think it is working, we have got a better coverage than we’ve ever had so far.
Days after a man convicted of downloading Internet child pornography was spared a custodial sentence because Britain’s prisons are over-crowded, the assistant editor of the UK’s largest-selling Sunday tabloid was jailed for illegally intercepting celebrity telephone calls.
In January 2007, Clive Goodman, 48, who specializes in gossip about the royal family for the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, began his four-month sentence. His associate, Glen Mulcaire, 35, a private investigator hired by the newspaper, got 6 months.
Immediately after they were sentenced NoW Editor Andy Coulson announced that he had tendered his resignation weeks earlier. Accepting “ultimate responsibility” for the crimes committed in his paper’s name, Coulson said, “I feel strongly that when the News of the World calls those in public life to account on behalf of its readers, it must have its own house in order.”
Goodman and Mulcaire admitted hacking into the calls of members of the royal household who worked for Prince William, Prince Harry and the Prince of Wales. Their offence under the Criminal Law Act of 1977 surfaced when Goodman ran a story containing information that could only have come from a private conversation between Tom Bradby, then royal reporter with ITV News, and the Princes’ staff. Bradby alerted the police.
The case was handled by the anti-terrorist squad who swooped on the men’s homes and offices. They found a contract between the NoW and Mulcaire guaranteeing his ‘crisis management’ company, The Nine Consultancy, almost $245,000 (Canadian) a year. Mulcaire, who also received over $28,000 from Goodman for phone tapping, had been supplying information to the NoW since 1997. In court, he also admitted to unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages left by Liberal MP Simon Hughes, Australian model Elle Macpherson, the publicist Max Clifford, and several football personalities. Mulcaire used to be a professional football player.
Goodman’s incarceration is all the more ignominious since the last journalists to be jailed in Britain, Brendan Mulholland and Reg Foster, became professional heroes for refusing to reveal their sources to the Vassall Tribunal in 1963 set up to investigate a Soviet spy scandal. Goodman has worked at the NoW since the 1980s, and is reputed to have relied on his ‘contacts’ rather than footwork to supply juicy royal stories for the tabloid.
The case has shone a light on long-known but often-denied techniques used by many newspapers to obtain personal information. In the 15 years since the industry launched the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), supposedly to demonstrate a willingness to clean up its act, hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary people and ‘celebrities’ have had personal details splattered over intrusive and often inaccurate stories. Many lost relationships, jobs, and even homes after publication of prurient stories based on illicitly obtained information from employers, phone companies, banks or public authorities. None has ever received compensation from erring newspapers but Mulcaire pocketed four times the national average wage for supplying information exclusively to just one newspaper during one year.
His actions are commonplace. In May 2006, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas claimed to have a list of 305 journalists who had obtained information by illegal methods. They were customers of a single private detective (not Mulcaire) who specialized in delivering details of criminal records, telephone accounts and other personal information. No prosecutions followed publication of his report ‘What price privacy?’
Referring to the report at the time Goodman was arrested in August 2006, an editorial in the Guardian newspaper commented: ‘(T)he PCC has until now remained remarkably incurious and unwilling to instigate an inquiry of its own, despite the prima facie evidence against hundreds of journalists.’
The Information Commissioner, by splendid irony a royal appointment, issued a follow-up report ‘What price privacy now?’ in December 2006, providing more detail, but no names. It found that journalists had improperly obtained well over 3,000 separate pieces of personal data. The mid-market tabloid Daily Mail topped the list with 952 items obtained by 58 of its staff, followed by two left of centre tabloids, The People (80 items for 50 journalists), and the Daily Mirror (681 for 45 journalists). Nineteen News of the World staffers purchased 182 items, and four journalists from The Observer, a revered Sunday broadsheet, received 103 items.
Apart from reminding editors that such behaviour is a breach of the industry Code of Practice, the PCC kept its powder dry until Goodman was locked away and his editor had fallen on his sword. It has always tended to give the benefit of the doubt to newspapers when the public complains about underhanded methods used to manufacture sensational stories and it has been criticised by journalists, media commentators, and politicians for its apparent unwillingness to crack down on editors for evident breaches of their own Code.
Although funded by the industry, the PCC insists that it acts independently. However, on the very morning in 1996 that the then PCC Chairman and a senior editor were to be grilled by a committee of MPs about payments to witnesses, the industry announced a tightening of its code to outlaw the practice. This followed a series of notorious revelations, including the discovery that 19 witnesses in the case against mass murderers Fred and Rose West were found to have been offered money by newspapers.
On 1 Feb 2007, the PCC Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, former British UK ambassador to Washington, announced that he would write to editors about the “reprehensible” practices revealed by the Goodman case.
“The public has a right to know that lessons have been learned from this episode, both at the newspaper and more generally,” he said in a masterly understatement.
“The Commission will consider these industry responses with a view to publishing a review of the current situation, with recommendations for best practice if necessary, in order to prevent a similar situation arising in the future.”
Note the ‘if necessary’. Goodman’s jailing and Coulson’s departure are likely to have a more lasting effect than the half-hearted slap on the wrist issued by the PCC when it bucks up courage and occasionally finds a newspaper at fault.
Giving judgement in the case, Mr. Justice Gross described the men’s behaviour as “sustained criminal conduct” and said, “this case was not about press freedom; it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.”
Such behaviour undermines the role and respect that journalists should garner from the public, and it does nothing to dissuade politicians currently intent on limiting disclosures to journalists and the public under the hard-won Freedom of Information Act. If newspapers can afford massive fees to private investigators, how will they argue against paying higher charges for FOI requests? And how should the public now interpret press campaigns to belittle or repeal the Human Rights Act, which upholds the individual’s right to privacy?
Perhaps this sorry saga will encourage editors to invest more in quality investigative journalism and jolt politicians into asking more pointed questions about the management style and commercial priorities of the newspaper industry. No one wants to see the regulator given power to jail or sack editors, but unless the industry owns up to its failings and gets tougher on those who let the public down, news media could find pressure mounting for legislation.
There might be one unexpected happy outcome – an end to Royal honours ‘for services to journalism’. It would be far better if the accolade for editors and journalists who demonstrate that they are willing to put protection of the public good before their own bank balances came instead from readers and colleagues.
I should probably come clean right from the start. I am not an expert. I only recently graduated from UBC’s School of Journalism. And there are certain things for which no j-school, however solid the program, can properly prepare its students.
Torture is one of those things.
Not my own torture, mind you. The people I talk to are the ones at risk.
I am currently in Western Sahara, a territory about the size of Great Britain and as arid as the name implies. When the Spanish were preparing to relinquish this chunk of desert in 1975, Morocco swooped in to claim it and has been the de facto ruler ever since. A rebel Sahrawi movement fought for independence until the UN brokered a ceasefire and set up a mission intended to organize a referendum on self-determination. That was fifteen years ago. While the ceasefire has held, the referendum never happened and Moroccan security forces remain thick on the ground – by some estimates, as many as 170,000 troops police a population of roughly 300,000.
I have come here to report on conditions in a place where allegations of human rights abuses and repression are rife but outside journalists are few and far between. The authorities strongly discourage this kind of snooping, but Morocco enjoys good relations with the West and its leaders are far too intelligent to allow the kind of scandal that arises from pulling off foreign journalists’ toenails. No, I am not at risk.
But a recent report by the Irish human rights group Front Line describes in detail how two Sahrawi activists were arrested and tortured over a period of three days last year after giving interviews to al-Jazeera and a Spanish newspaper. According to one of the alleged victims, his interrogators wanted to know the names of the international organizations and media with which he was in contact.
Although propaganda abounds in this three decade old dispute, the number and variety of sources alleging gross human rights violations make the case fairly convincing. In addition to Sahrawi activist groups, international NGOs, national governments and even the human rights commissioner of a body appointed by the Moroccan King himself have joined the chorus of condemnation. Moreover, the recent expulsion of two Norwegian journalists and the refusal to grant entry to an EU fact-finding mission suggest that there is indeed something to hide.
That said, Morocco is neither the only country that does not respect internationally-recognized rights of civilians and media nor is it the worst offender. In fact, in its annual press freedom report, the French NGO Reporters Sans Frontières rates Morocco a semi-respectable 97th out of 168 countries, up 22 spots from last year. Such a ranking suggests one of two things. Either RSF underplays the importance of Western Sahara because it accounts for a mere one per cent of Morocco’s total population (though over a third of its territory) or the spectre of torture and intimidation is so widespread that many journalists working abroad will have to face it somewhere.
So, what to do? A little research gave some definition to my dilemma. I was faced with a tension between truth seeking and minimizing harm. These are two of the four pillars in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics but there is nothing unusual about their being in conflict.
“In any complex situation, journalists will have to balance two or more of these four principles,” Stephen Ward argues on this website before offering a rule of thumb: “Where serious public truths are at stake, pro-active principles trump restraining principles.”
In my case, that would mean truth-seeking (the pro-active principle) should win out over minimizing harm (the restraining principle). But of course, every situation needs to be examined in its own right. While most would agree that a politician’s privacy should be sacrificed for the sake of an important public truth, it is not at all clear that any piece of information can justify putting people at risk of physical harm.
Put another way, can I justify provoking new instances of the very abuses I want to expose, even in the hopes that international pressure might put an end to such acts?
Clearly, I had to go beyond reading prescriptions intended as general guidelines. I needed to give some specifics to people who, unlike me, qualified as experts in the field of journalism ethics. Luckily, there are quite a number of them about and there are even a few ethics hotlines. I fired off some emails and waited.
Now, I am not sure exactly what I was expecting. Certainly not clear-cut, written-in-stone advice. Even with a description of my particular situation, a person sitting in a North American office can hardly be expected to understand all the variables at play on the ground in Western Sahara.
In any event, what I got (when I received any kind of response at all – at least one of these “hotlines” is not really worthy of the name) was a collection of common-sense precautions and Socratic “know thyself” sorts of questions bounced back at me.
In other words, I am on my own. And I suppose that is how it has to be. Ultimately, I am the one who must be able to live with the decisions I make and the actions I take.
The end result will be an imperfect form of journalism but I know of no other kind. There will not be as many voices in my work as I would like because I do not want to put the unsuspecting, “ordinary” person at risk. As I see it, all I can do is speak to local activists who, knowing the dangers and having been through arrest and violence in the past, have decided that being heard is most important. Even then, it is difficult to justify putting people in immediate danger for the sake of some far-off ideal.
I can only hope that I am doing the right thing. Because a few months out of j-school, the stakes seem to have gotten awfully high, awfully fast. But it is clear that the current regime fears journalists, so maybe my efforts will make some small contribution in a forgotten corner of the world. As the old Canadian song says, got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight. Then again, I am not the one running the risk of torture. And I am certainly not an expert.
As U.S. threats against Iraq mounted in 2003, the majority of media decision-makers docilely accepted the Bush administration’s claims that linked Iraq to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Their reports lacked sufficient investigation and verification. There were rare examples of truthful and responsible journalism, however. Oliver Moore of The Globe and Mail, on December 6th, 2002, reported on the Iraqi insistence, through the announcements of the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed al-Douri, that everything related to the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. Moore explained that the Iraqi government was “tired of repeating ‘again and again’ that it is not breaking any U.N. resolutions”. Though Moore’s truthful coverage was not appreciated by audiences or governments at that time, I think The Globe and Mail was very proud of their responsible coverage and increasing credibility when the truth was revealed later on.
By and large, the media strive to tell the truth, but what if the ‘truth’ as they know it consists of distorted facts? The unavoidable end result is that they repeat lies. Further, what about the subjectivity of truths arising from their societal context? As with ethical practices, what might be considered ethical practices from one perspective can be considered quite the opposite from another. It would seem, therefore, that there must be a way to solve these dilemmas and make media conduct more responsible, no matter what side of the fence reporters are on.
A reasonable solution to the ethical dilemmas media personnel face can be found using mathematics. In game theory (a branch of pure mathematics), there is one type of a game called the Truth Game. The Truth Game focuses on the ethical principle of telling the truth, but it can be broadened to encompass the ethical principles that guide any response to a dilemma. The Truth Game, which has been explained mathematically in my dissertation (2004), highlights the fact that telling the truth is a rational conduct that, in general, will lead to the best outcome for the media in relating to their audiences.
Investigating the ethical and unethical paths that journalistic coverage takes, one finds a motivation for journalists to report ethically and honestly. Journalists, editors, managers, and owners are likely to take actions that will (provably) benefit the medium and contribute to the common good of society. My dissertation demonstrated that telling the truth is fundamental in achieving goodness and managing a conflict peacefully (or winning a game). Therefore, motivation towards ethical conduct, where otherwise the tendency may be to opt for another path, would stem from a desire to achieve beneficial consequences. Further, this contributed to clarifying the debate surrounding the ambiguity of “ethical and unethical, but from whose perspective”, as journalists recognize that in telling the truth, whose veracity has been checked and verified – regardless of what it is, or who is favored by its content – will benefit them and ultimately result in favorable consequences. In essence, rational thinking, through use of game theory, helps us to understand and explore the advantages of ethical obligations in journalism. Rationality obligates media workers to adhere to ethical codes as a key condition for benefiting all parties involved.
When modeling the verification problem between superpowers in his Superpower games: Applying game theory to superpower conflict (1985), Steven Brams introduced a simple two-person, non-constant-sum (non-zero-sum) game of imperfect information played between a signaler (S) and a detector (D)—The Truth Game. I argue that if the mass media take the signaler position and the audiences take the detector position in the truth game, as illustrated below, it is rational choice that they will tell the truth in order to achieve their safer outcome (the next-worst) and avoid the possibility of getting the worst outcome, while they also participate in allowing their audiences to get their best outcome.
In the truth game between the mass media and their audiences, the media face the challenge of telling the truth. Media executives must decide whether to tell the truth when choosing content, and after they have made their choice, their audiences must then decide whether to believe the content. The Truth Game uses numbers to rank the outcomes of decisions made by the two players (the media and the audience) that satisfy specified goals (truth-telling and believability). Counterintuitively, verification and falsification exist on diagonals, both involving true and false statements. That means that verification ranges from strong to weak, strong being a believed truth and weak being a disbelieved fallacy. Conversely, the falsification diagonal crosses from believed fallacy to a disbelieved truth. In other words, falsification is range of wrongness and verification is a range of correctness. The chart below assigns numerical values to each option, indicating that strong verification (2,4) is numerically the highest and best outcome, while weak verification (1,3) is the worst. That means that the worst possible scenario for journalists is to have an audience that knows it lies. Journalists have seen this in action as citizen journalism has skyrocketed in stature.
It is worth noting that as a game of hiding and discovering the truth, with a secondary emphasis on the mass media’s desire to be believed and the audiences’ desire that the mass media be truthful, the truth game enables one not only to distinguish verification (main-diagonal outcomes) from falsification (off-diagonal outcomes), but also it suggests a strong and weak distinction in each of these main categories. Thus, verification is considered stronger when one believes the truth than when one disbelieves a lie (or untruth), because the truth is still unclear in the latter case. Similarly, falsification seems stronger when a lie (or untruth) is believed than when the truth is disbelieved, because disbelief in the truth indicates that one has missed the truth but not necessarily that one has been hoodwinked into believing a falsehood.
Given the fact that this game is not one of total conflict, i.e. what one player wins does not necessary mean that the other loses, both players do better at (2,4) than at (1,3). That is, it is better for everyone when the news is truthful and the audiences believe it than any alternative. In other words, truth to be believed is better than lies (or untruths) to be disbelieved because the former is strong verification while the latter is weak verification. In addition, the fact that (2,4) is better for both players than (1,3), and there is not another outcome better for at least one player and not worse for the other than (2,4), means that this is the best outcome that the mass media should work for, given that they start playing first.
Because there is no stability in this game, the mass media can do immediately better by departing in the directions shown by the vertical arrows, from (2,4) to (4,1) and from (1,3) to (3,2). Also, audiences can do immediately better by departing in the directions shown by the horizontal arrows, from (4,1) to (1,3) and from (3,2) to (2,4). However, if audiences could predict the mass media’s strategy choice with certainty and if the mass media knew this, the game would reach an equilibrium if it were played sequentially. The mass media would choose (T) and audiences would respond with (B); but each would do worse by departing from these strategies.
In other words, there is a risk for the mass media of not telling the truth, and the worst outcome stems from audience disbelief in the face of media untruths. In contrast, if the mass media tell the truth, the audiences will be most benefited (seek their best outcome) by believing them. This provides the media decision-makers with internal motivation to tell the truth, thereby following one of the major journalistic ethical principles, that is based on their recognition that rational thinking will lead to achieving their desired goals and help them to practice their responsible role in society.
It can even be argued that the media can play an influential role in government policymaking by being truthful. That is, if rationality leads the media to be truthful and abide by ethical principles, they will not rely blindly on announcements by governments or military authorities. Rather, they will access various sources of information ensuring that the veracity of this information has been checked and verified before passing it on to the public. If this adherence to the truth is followed, then audiences will trust that what the news media say is true. But, and here is the catch, if they find that the news media say “the authorities are hiding facts” or that there is no access for the media to the information, then the audiences will think that the government is doing something wrong, since if they weren’t they would not be afraid of the media’s scrutiny. Thus, denying the media access or telling them lies will lead to negative attitudes towards the authorities. That is, the credibility of the media that has been acquired by playing the Truth Game rationally and telling the truth to audiences gives them power over authorities, but their choice of not telling the truth, which is irrational according to the Truth Game, will make them lose credibility not only with their audiences but also in their relations with the authorities.
Nearly six yeas ago the body of Heather Thomas was found floating in a lake in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. The girl, ten years old, had been missing for 23 days. Hers was the highest profile kidnapping in a summer that saw an unsettling number of attempted kidnappings in the Greater Vancouver area.
As police investigated the scene of the crime, a helicopter buzzed overhead and snapped pictures of the shoreline. The next day one of those shots appeared on the front page of The Vancouver Province newspaper. In the bottom left-hand corner was Heather’s dead body. Clearly visible, it floated in the water as three police officers stood discussing the situation. The headline read: “Is it Heather’s Body in the Lake? Massive investigation as corpse discovered in Golden Ears Park.”
Sherry Charlie was only 19 months old when she was killed in foster care on Sept. 4, 2002. Three years later it was discovered that her uncle and foster parent, Ryan George, had a criminal history. Suddenly Sherry’s death was front-page news, and her face symbolized a childcare system gone terribly wrong. A family photo of Sherry, smiling and wholesome, made the rounds on newspapers and television broadcasts across the country.
The story has persisted, and with every caveat, development and nuance reported, there is Sherry’s face looking back at readers and audiences through the newspaper page, the television set, the computer screen, smiling.
Because of their vulnerability, children require extra sensitivities in news coverage. Yet the duty to inform the public, combined with the pragmatic arguments for publishing captivating images, can leave sensitivity by the wayside.
In spite of newsroom standards that emphasize minimization of harm and increased discretion when covering moments of death, especially with children, harm reduction is often secondary to the news value of a story and the public’s right to know.
More harm than good?
Sherry Charlie’s face forced harsh criticism on the BC Liberals, her smile urging politicians to make changes that would save other foster children like her. It must be recognized that these photos resonate with those immediately connected to the deceased child as well as with general readers and viewers. Given the trauma experienced by families that lose a child, is it unethical to use a child’s face and name to promote social change and bring a criminal to account?
Dr. Patrice Keats, a counseling psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, lives by the philosophy of “Do no harm.” In journalism, as in life, harm is unavoidable. Considering this, she cautions against using murdered children such as Sherry Charlie as “poster children” unless broader context is provided – in this case, a longstanding problem with First Nations childcare systems in BC.
“In a sense, by putting this picture up, it’s like it’s just now, and it is not – that limits people’s understanding of what is going on,” says Keats.
KRISTINE THIESSEN is a graduate student in her final year at the UBC School of Journalism. Prior to entering the program, she achieved a BA in Political Science. Her roots stem from the heritage village of Steveston in Richmond, BC. Experimenting as a writer/editor for a university publication triggered a curiosity for journalism. This interest was furthered this past summer, when she had the pleasure of interning at a local paper, The Richmond Review, and CTV Vancouver.
JAYSON GO is in the final year of his Masters of Journalism degree at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Cebu City, the Philippines, Go has worked for CBC as an associate producer and has also interned as a researcher for Global National with Kevin Newman. In 2006 he was one of eight student journalists chosen from across Canada for the Joan Donaldson Newsworld Scholarship. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from UBC. His academic papers have been published in the UBC Journal of Political Studies and the Southern Maine Review.
Keats, who studies traumatic stress, says that the printing of a photograph of a murdered child, such as the one of Heather Thomas’ body in the lake, can cause a family to experience “secondary wounding.” She explains: “Seeing the image would be like a re-opening of the wound…it can never really heal until the coverage stops.”
However, the managing editor of CTV offers an alternative perspective. Ethan Faber says that often families desire to speak to the media about the loved ones they lost, as a way of remembering and seeking justice.
In light of this, Keats says, “The photo should be one [the family] chooses as a way of honouring the child.” If she had her way, traumatized families would have greater control in the decision-making process.
Wayne Williams, deputy bureau chief at CBC News, doesn’t agree. These stories, he says, “should be handled sensitively and with the family in mind, but it doesn’t mean the family gets to say ‘no story.’”
For Williams, minimizing harm is “a question of how [the photo] is handled, not whether it should be done or not.” By and large, the newsrooms examined agreed on this perspective and on the actual handling of sensitive imagery.
“I think television has the ability to reduce the impact of the photo by broadcasting it for a shorter period of time,” says Faber, who chooses to show an image for three seconds if it’s deemed graphic yet important for the public to see.
Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, agrees and admits being extra careful in the print business. “We’re a little more conscious in the sense that it’s an image you hold in your hand and you basically can stay focused on it for a long time.”
Keats, in contrast, argues that broadcast images are more powerful than the printed image. Photos in newspapers can be skimmed over, she says, while “TV is immediate, it captures you. I think even if it is shown for one second, even in a blink people can see amazing amounts of things.”
But whether shown for three seconds or printed in the back section of a paper, an image is there to be seen.
Ethical codes generally acknowledge the need to minimize harm when covering victims of crime. For instance, the Radio-Television National Directors Association (RTNDA), the code, which CTV refers to, states: “Treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy.”
Yet in one of the first statements on the RTNDA’s code, it says that: “Professional electronic journalists should recognize that their first obligation is to the public.” The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) all have similar statements.
The use of photographs depicting dead children is appropriate as long as it is advancing a cause and is not merely “pandering to lurid curiosity,” which the SJP warns against. As shown in ethical codes and as stated by the directors of newsrooms themselves, both principles of minimizing harm and obligation to the public must be weighed.
However, the pressures facing newsrooms to get the story or capture the attention of audiences cannot be ignored.
In the newsroom
Journalism is a public undertaking and journalists have an ethical responsibility to inform citizens about the events and issues. Is there room in this equation for precautions against poor taste or traumatic depictions?
All of the newsroom decision makers interviewed spoke of some sort of deliberative process that filters editorial decisions of taste in photographs. “It’s a tough an imprecise art form, there’s no science to it,” says LaPointe. “It’s often dependant on the gaggle of people that you have around it.”
Faber says CTV tries to get as much input as possible. “We like to hear from people who are parents and people in our newsroom working with all kinds of backgrounds.”
CBC handles editorial decisions differently. Their process can at times involve speaking with senior management in Toronto. “CBC has policy, journalistic policy, fairly rigid standards and practices, procedures,” says Williams. “We live and die by that, it’s what makes a public broadcaster different from a private broadcaster when it comes to news.”
The sensitive journalist
The Province ran an apology after publishing the photo of Heather Thomas’ body in the lake. Then editor-in-chief, Vivienne Sosnowski wrote:
Our front-page handling of the Heather Thomas story in Monday’s paper was insensitive. I believe it must be an unshakable philosophy at The Province that this paper must show kindness and compassion at all times to our community, to our readers and to families and loved ones caught up in the tragedy and horror.
Sensitivity, kindness and compassion are mentioned as parts of an “unshakable philosophy.” However, the Heather Thomas photo, according to LaPointe, was a reflection of The Province’s style. “They work the notion of fear much more in a tabloid than we do … we [a broadsheet] tend to be more ‘clean-finger nailed’ about those types of things.”
LaPointe and Faber both agree that photographs of children add to the effect of a story. In regards to the Sherry Charlie example Faber says, “The drive for accountability is strengthened by being attached to a face and a name.”
To Faber, having a face and a name is “the most important thing about this story.”
LaPointe says that photos of children take people back to their childhoods. “I think we can be safely accused at times of exploiting that, and frankly, of overusing some images, but on balance the picture helps to tell the story and can a lot of ways resonate much more with people.”
Williams, over and over, maintains that each individual case has to be judged on its own merits. “If there’s a larger public good that can be gotten from the spotlight being shown on … an incident … the same rules apply [between adults and children].” There were no apparent objections to the “poster child” effect.
Despite their differences, all three say that the public benefits from linking news with images. Ultimately, the only firm consideration with respect to sensitivities in the death of children was notifying next of kin. All three mentioned this as a hard rule. “The only thing that we have to be sensitive about is that the person’s family has been notified,” says LaPointe.
Little was said about trauma. Once next of kin is informed and the story enters the public sphere, harm reduction is given little consideration. This supports the principle that the first loyalty of a journalist is the public. It is the public, as general and wide a term as that may be, that is of primary importance.
Williams, LaPointe and Faber all felt that the persistent re-airing of Sherry Charlie’s photograph spotlighted an important issue in a positive way.
The Heather Thomas photo that The Province ran on its front page was discussed in terms of taste and public reaction, not its contribution or effect on the story. Although mentioned in The Province’s apology, potential trauma to the family and loved ones did not seem to be the reason that moved Sosnowski to publish the letter.
In general, harm reduction was secondary to news value and the public’s right to know. And in general, photographs of children and the emotions they convey are seen, if anything, to benefit to a story because of the added interest they bring.
So what now?
Sherry Charlie’s image recently resulted in the BC provincial government accepting 62 recommendations put forward after persistent coverage of her death. Whether these recommendations will change the child welfare system remains to be seen, though BC has apparently made efforts, creating a new cabinet position to oversee child welfare. But without her face shown repeatedly it is unlikely that an inquiry would have taken place.
The effect pictures of children have on society cannot be denied. Yet in today’s newsroom, the value of minimizing harm is secondary to the consideration of journalists’ responsibility to the public.
The public’s need to know is a principle entrenched in codes of ethics and translated into practice. The potential trauma caused to families by printing photographs of murdered children seems to be an afterthought to community values and standards of “taste.” Families can be traumatized by media attention surrounding lost loved ones, especially children, and, as Keats pointed out, their trauma can be exacerbated by images.
The photographs of dead children should not be eliminated from stories where they add to the understanding of a greater problem. At the same time, these photos should not be over-used.
There needs to be conscious restraint in the decision making process, especially when dealing with children and death. In the decision making process, it seems that trauma is not adequately addressed. News Media have the power to traumatize families and communities. This power must be recognized, and a system for reigning it in must be implemented in newsrooms.
After a century of service, the old warhorse of newsroom practice — a strict distinction between news and opinion — is so weakened by scepticism, and so useless in controversial cases, that it should be retired.
The recent controversy over Jan Wong’s Dawson College article and recent moves by The New York Times to distinguish news and opinion only confirm my view that this is a topic dominated by fuzzy logic.
Attempts to distinguish between reporting and non-reporting in terms of “just the facts” and “just your opinions” are greeted by a wall of scepticism. Many people refuse to believe that journalists can separate fact from value, fact from interpretation. This scepticism is supported by academic studies and by trends in news reporting. Much of journalism today straddles the boundary between “straight” and “unstraight” reporting.
I do not reject the distinction between news and opinion. I do not say the distinction is unimportant. I do say that the old way of understanding the distinction is exhausted. It fails to apply to new or hybrid forms of journalism. It fails to help us deal with controversial cases. It is time to re-think the entire concept.
Consider the Wong case. Her “Get Under the Desk” report in The Globe and Mail (September 16th, 2006) raised the possibility that the Montreal shootings were linked to alienation among non-francophone communities due to the “decades-long linguistic struggle.” On September 23, Edward Greenspon, Globe editor-in-chief, wrote: “In hindsight, the paragraphs (that linked the shooting to others in Montreal’s recent history) were clearly opinion and not reporting and should have been removed from that story. To the extent they may have been used, they should have been put into a separate piece clearly marked opinion. That particular passage of the story did not constitute a statement of fact, but rather a thesis — and thus did not belong in the article.”
Did this appeal to reporting-versus-opinion settle the issue? Hardly. On the CAJ list-serve, journalists wondered if Wong, a well-known columnist, had written a news article. One journalist said the Dawson article contained Wong’s picture, like articles by other Globe columnists. Another journalist questioned a premise of the discussion: “I doubt it is possible to report a story without opinion. First one has to decide whether to write a story at all about an event — a matter of opinion. . . . Then there is the decision on what to emphasize by putting it in the lead — again, a matter of opinion.”
I note this debate not to take sides but to show how, in today’s journalism, the news-opinion distinction can produce as much disagreement as agreement.
The traditional news-opinion distinction also provides little help in evaluating the many forms of journalism that lie between straight reporting and commenting – the analysis, the backgrounder, the first-person news account, the investigative inquiry. For example, take those “special reports” in weekend newspapers. On September 30, the front page of The Vancouver Sun featured a large photo of criminal eyes. The headline blared: “Stolen Goods.” Readers were directed inside to two pages of articles by reporter Chad Skelton on the high rate of property crime in Vancouver. The pages contained different forms of journalism with different purposes: statistics on crime and court sentencing; a featurish report on police interviewing repeat offenders; tips on how to protect your home from robbery, and so on. It was part feature, part straight reporting, part consumer report. It contained not just facts but perspectives and values. The old news-opinion distinction has little application to this form of journalism.
Take, as another example, Michael Valpy’s analysis of Belinda Stronach and her alleged affair with Tie Domi. In the Focus section of the Globe and Mail on September 30, 2006, Valpy began with this: “Belinda Stronach, multimillionaire divorcee and recent minister of the Crown, likes sex. She likes athletes’ good hard bodies. Acquaintances say she’s partial to younger men. And, being a dude magnet, she appears able to come-hither any hunk who catches her eye.”
Sheer naked opinion, right? Wrong. In the rest of his article, Valpy provided an interesting analysis that used many of objective journalism’s methods – an appeal to facts, to biographical documents, to relevant sources and interviews. He didn’t just express opinion. He grounded in fact his interpretation that there is more to Stronach than meets the eye. What does the news-opinion distinction say about this form of journalism? Not much.
One response to the blurring of the news-opinion distinction is to alert readers to stories with significant amounts of interpretation. The New York Times established a “News/Opinion Divide Committee” of nine editors to not only separate news and opinion, but to recommend better ways to identify the many types of analytical articles that fall between straight news and opinion columns. One result is that on September 20, articles that are not “straight news” will appear with a ragged right-hand margin – a convention already used for columns. I applaud the paper’s efforts to clearly label stories. But it also shows how complex the categorizing of articles has become.
How might we re-think the news-opinion dichotomy? In The Invention of Journalism Ethics, I offered a book-length theory of news objectivity for today’s more interpretive journalism. I can’t repeat my theory here, but I can boil it down to a few fundamentals.
1. Stop thinking of the objective reporter as a passive stenographer of facts. Start thinking of all journalists as active, value-guided inquirers who interpret and investigate their world.
2. Stop thinking that a report is objective if it contains only facts. Similarly, stop thinking that any report that contains opinion or interpretation is therefore incurably biased. Start thinking of good journalism as informed interpretations – informed by multiple perspectives and tested by objective standards of fact, logic and knowledge.
3. Stop thinking that objectivity applies only to straight reports. Objectivity, as a set of standards, can be used to evaluate analysis or features.
4. Stop dividing journalism into two camps — reports and opinion. Start thinking about journalism as a continuum of forms of communication that contain varying degrees of interpretation for different purposes.
5. Stop thinking that, if journalists choose their facts and sources, then they cannot be objective. All inquirers, including scientists, select and choose. Start thinking of objectivity as standards to test the selection process.
6. Whether or not my theory works, it is time for journalism to move on beyond a simplistic news-opinion dichotomy, with its reliance on a narrow idea of objectivity.
It is time to give the old warhorse a decent burial.
BC’s reporters and government don’t see eye-to-eye on the public’s “right to know.” Freedom of Information [FOI] has been in decline since the late-90s, reports a local non-profit group, with response-times slowing, citizen requests deteriorating, and funding to the FOI department evaporating.
On September 29, 2006, the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), attempted to bridge the gap between government and the public in an all-day Freedom of Information Summit. During a mid-day session, three government representatives from administrations past and present exposed the roots of that divide.
Within minutes, it became clear that the line can’t be drawn between reporters and politicians. An audience member asked which party had dealt the greatest blows to FOI, inciting an onstage NDP – BC Liberal tug-o-war over who respected transparency more.
“There are actually groups out there that are well funded and will use FOI…for ideological and partisan purposes,” former Liberal Minister for Environment and Management Services Joyce Murray told the audience. Those “groups” were addressed in the FIPA analysis of government openness.
Murray didn’t mention that the government flagged political parties’ information requests as “sensitive” 75 per cent of the time. “Sensitivity” is linked to slower response times and a 10 per cent increased likelihood that the government will refuse the request.
Former NDP Minister of Finance, and of Health, and of Education Paul Ramsey was quick to point out that secrecy had worsened under the Liberal government. Politicking continued throughout the question period, reinforcing the notion that political partisans will find the faults in their opponents’ policies in any way possible – FOI included.
But is a partisan use of FOI an abuse? One questioner asked why governments would want to hide their actions, presuming they had good explanations for all their decisions. Another suggested that the lack of transparency has costly and inefficient effects that nullify any savings the government makes by cutting the FOI budget. At the root of many questions was the notion that, since democratic government exists of the people to serve the people, secrecy should serve only to protect the people.
A reporter from Kamloops asked why the local forestry office staffers were forbidden to answer reporters’ questions about local occurrences. Under the current government, all information flows from Victoria. Judging by the cheers and applause the questioner received from the audience, many agree the flow is more like a trickle.
Mel Rothenburger, a third panelist, attempted to explain. He has been both journalist and politician, serving as Kamloops mayor in the years he took leave from editing the Kamloops Daily News. “FOI is terrifying to government,” he said. “It’s viewed not just as an annoyance, but as coming from the enemy.” While he notes that in hindsight it’s clear that “there’s no reason to withhold information,” he felt differently when first elected. “There’s a tendency to take [FOI requests] personally,” as if requesters are looking for dirt specifically on the elected officer.
Murray argued that there are reasons to withhold information, most notably, money. While freedom of information is important to some people, “there’s a reality of healthcare budget.” In other words, more pressing concerns are likely to receive more funding, and programs like FOI will suffer as a result of “practicalities.”
Murray took the field already playing catcher to Sierra Legal Defence lawyer Randy Christensen’s hardball pitch. Christensen had spoken earlier in the day about the Liberals’ decision to cut the BC corporate pollution registry. His FOI request for the information was delayed for two-and-a-half years and he was told the information would cost $170,000. The average public administration worker, according to BC Stats, makes just under $50,000 a year, meaning that compiling pollution data would take three to four employees a full year.
Murray had cut the registry. In explanation, she called it, “something that was not affordable, and according to what I was told, not actually a level playing field kind of data.” The registry was reinstated earlier this year.
The issue on hand was not whether the registry was affordable, but whether government was making a legitimate effort to use and empower it. Later in the day, a former special advisor on the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), Murray Rankin spoke about “rethinking” FOI. Much of his talk focused on less successful elements of the 13-year-old law, with a special emphasis on court rulings that have limited the scope of FOI and government actions that have made information less accessible, including fees, delays, and government moves to privatize public services (like BC Ferries).
Depicting “how badly things have broken down,” he described the efforts his son had made to learn which neighborhoods were available for private lawn-cutting services. Government officials would not tell him (one even asked him why he wanted the information), and by the time the FOI request was processed, summer was half over, and his lawn-mowing opportunities were shot.
This was a case, not of government secrecy, but of the system’s outdatedness. Rankin pointed out that requests are still processed entirely in paper, though email would take minutes to travel from one government office to another – and spare the cost of postage. More importantly, though, it would bridge the gap between the citizens and journalists who seek timely access to information, and the government that has seemed so reticent to comply.
“We need a strong message from the government and policy people that this [FOI] matters,” Rankin said.