Sunday, September 14, 2014

Are Western Journalists Missing the Story from Ukraine?

The editor of the Kyiv Post, Euan Macdonald has been critical of western media in their coverage of the Ukraine-Russia conflict:
"The Kremlin propagandists know that Western journalists are risk-averse when it comes to reporting - they know that while each one of them is desperate to get the story FIRST, it must also be CORRECT. Mistakes will haunt you long after the story has broken and the brief glory of the breaking story has faded. This risk-aversion can be exploited by simply tearing off the shoulder patch of a Russian soldier. Western journalists can no longer report "Russian soldiers are in the process of annexing Crimea." They can't identify the soldiers for sure - they can't risk being wrong, even though it's completely obvious, even to themselves, who these soldiers are. Ditto unmarked Russian T-72 tanks in Ukraine. They can't report what they know personally to be the truth."
A friend and colleague from my CBC days, Alex Sprintsen posted this on facebook:

What Western journalists need to remember about covering the situation in Ukraine: there AREN'T two sides to every story and sometimes if you see what looks like a duck walking, it IS a duck. Will a time come when media managers adjust? Not their principles and values, but their approach to reporting the truth when the rules of the game are different from the norm.
Alex asked me for a response:

Alex - what part of the story has not been reported by western media? As I have been following it (mostly in the NY Times and the BBC which seem to have a ringside seat to the story), the issues that Mr. Macdonald raises are ones that have been covered. I don't sense any particular attempts to paint Russia in some neutral way. There is a Russian perspective (you may not agree with it) that has been reported, even by the CBC. That's the view that Putin has revived a spirit of pan-Slavism (just in time for the anniversary of WW1). It has elements of Sovietism and evoking Mother Russia. Obviously that makes former Soviet republics very nervous. 

And for good historical reasons. Putinism is also an expression of the new Russian crony and statist corruption. And the new Russian imperialism is designed to cover up various failures of Russian politics, economy and society. Nationalism has served that role for quite some time, as we know. So what am I missing here? I'll tell you what I haven't read: the return to a bipolar balance of power. 

Putinism may be a crude counter to the failures of American policies that began in 1989 and took an odd and troubled turn after 9/11. I leave these analyses to the Council on Foreign Relations et al, but we might consider that we could be on the verge of not only a new cold war, but a new international balancing of reinvented that which might presage a new era of international stability, punctuated as before by small clashes but no open warfare. 

This would likely happen at tremendous costs to political freedoms and human rights. But there would be great power stability and that's something both the US and Russia are moving toward. As for the journalism, I think that the art of reading the Russians was shelved back in 1989, (end of history etc.) but it is now being revived. We need more journalists like you Alex to figure this out. And yes, Stephen Cohen, you can come back in now...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Should We Ban Laptops from the Classrooms?

It occurred to me that one way to get my students' attention is to remove their digital distractions for a couple of hours.

I am teaching a first year course called Introduction to Journalism. The learners in this class at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus are 18 or 19 years old, mostly from the area, very computer savvy and as I suspected, easily distracted.

Now in my fourth year of teaching at UTSC, I noticed I was competing with whatever they were looking at: facebook postings, twitter feeds, websites that were evidently more appealing than what I was talking about.

But journalism is about, among other things, listening. What if I insisted that they close their laptops and shut off their cellphones for two hours, once a week? Would they listen more closely? Would they be more or less engaged in what the discussion was about?

(Prior to each class I email the notes for that week's discussion or the powerpoint.  There is no need to take detailed notes in class).

Some colleagues said it would be a losing battle on the fields of pedagogy. The lure of the laptop is just too great.

Other thought it might be worth a try.

Yesterday was my first class for the term. In a class of almost 90 learners, I took a leap of faith and told them to close their laptops.

There was some surprise but almost no protests. I also said that since newsroom journalism is a contact sport, they have to talk - forcefully - about what we will discuss. In previous years, I found the students were reluctant to voice an opinion. Partly this is because (I believe) they come from a conformist high school culture and being (mostly) Canadians, they are polite and deferential to a fault. International students, even more so.

The first class starts at the beginning and is called "What is Journalism?"

Within the first ten minutes, I saw that they were listening. Really listening. And it wasn't long before hands started to go up to discuss, argue and question. They couldn't use the laptop screen as a buffer to avoid being engaged.

It was, thanks to the absence of technology, the best first lecture I've had and the expressions of appreciation from the students at the end of the class, confirmed this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Did the Media Get the Israel-Hamas War Right?

Not very well, according to a former AP Jerusalem correspondent Matti Friedman.

In his blistering critique, Friedman claims that his own organization blew it. Big time.

Friedman blasts his former employer the Associated Press news service for a variety of sins. These include, over-covering the story ("The agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories...more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined...").

He questions his editors' editorial judgment: "The AP's editors believed, that is, that Syria's importance was less than one-40th that of Israel..."

"Every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported...I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every two days."

"A story on Hamas intimidation...was shunted into deep freeze by...superiors and has not been published..."

"...A significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority (in early 2009)...but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story."

These are damning accusations. So I asked the AP for a response. In a polite email from the AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford wrote "we'll refrain from commenting on the piece and the writer in question."

I tend to agree with much of what Friedman writes....or at least I recognize some of the thinking...
The media's obsession with Israel tends to be exaggerated in many cases. And there is a media bias in general toward any group in the conflict that advocates for a peaceful outcome.

But Friedman's essay evoked a couple of thoughts: one, the murder of James Foley has now I believe, shifted opinion in a significant way. More people are stating (quietly thus far) that the values of Hamas and the IS are not so different. Criticism of the war on Gaza and of Israel's prosecution of the war, is declining, in part because the worst of the TV images have ended, but also because to do otherwise runs the risk of being lumped in with the IS barbarians.

Two, aside from the appalling European anti-Semitism which one ignores or downplays at one's peril, there is a growing fatigue with the Israel story. There is a sense that the situation is truly hopeless and the parties are unable to settle this either militarily or otherwise. The next step seems to be an American imposed deadline for a settlement, followed by the imposition of an agreement. 

Finally, Friedman's observations are - to my way of thinking - very much from the shop floor. Decisions made by editors and managers (who often don't communicate very well) have a way of appearing to be thoughtless or deceitful. At their worst, they give an impression of being anti-journalistic at best and craven capitulation at worse.

It sounds like Friedman did not do a lot of reporting on his bosses. He may not have asked them why they took the positions they did. That way, it's easier for beleaguered journalists to believe the worst of their bosses and the role of aggrieved-reporter-as-vicitim-of-management gets further petrified.

My bias stems from years in the management trenches, with my motives and decisions often being second guessed by the reporters and editors. Explanations from the corner office can be dismissed as self-serving and unduly defensive. 

So while Friedman makes some interesting observations, it feels a bit short-sighted to me and plays just as effectively into the trope of mendacious media management as much as he wraps himself in the victim flag.

I've known a few AP managers. It is an excellent and trustworthy news organization. Like all news orgs these days, I'm sure there are the usual assortment of characters - some more beleaguered than others, whose motivations may be less pure than Friedman's. 

But his unproven assumptions about those motivations feel like the musings of a disgruntled ex-employee thus reducing the value of an otherwise interesting column.

Friday, August 22, 2014

James Foley and the Rise of News Adventurism

The youtube execution of James Foley has revealed just how vile and repulsive his killers are.

The same could be said for how digital media now serves the purposes of these despicable excuses for human beings.

The ubiquity of visuals and the willingness of young journalists to employ them now makes for a range of reporting that can be quite overwhelming.

Some of the freelance materials are terrific and media organizations like Vice have produced some remarkable reporting. Vice's recent reporting on ISIS is strong, only because we know so little about this group. But Vice has been known to allow its journalists to engage in risky behaviour, both for its employees and more seriously, for the people they interview.

Vice did a series of reports from Aleppo in Syria in the midst of a Syrian Army bombardment. Gritty stuff. Vice identified anti-regime civilians without understanding how those interviews might put these people in danger.

Recently a group of so-called journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan reported on Facebook, that a number of women who had been kidnapped by ISIS had hidden cellphones under their abayas, so they could let family know where they were. No evidence was given that the women had done this. But the implications of what might now happen to these women are it the stupidity of posting that information online.

As for the media organizations that allow anyone who self-describes as a journalist to wander around war zones, this is also unconscionable.

Jim Foley was an experienced reporter who due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, got himself kidnapped and murdered.

Yet media organizations who encourage risk-taking are also complicit.

Global Post who hired Foley, may or may not have done enough to support him*. And other media organizations who hire ambitious young journalists, eager to make a name for themselves in this digitally crowded landscape, also need to figure out the best ways to hire and support journalists on dangerous assignments.

Even as the news from overseas this past summer has been relentlessly grim (two Malaysian Air jetliners gone, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria...), the amount of reporting of international events is in decline.

Media organizations in a struggle to gain financial stability have been cutting foreign reporting for years. As they look for ways to strip out their budgets, eager young people rush to fill in behind repatriated correspondents from shuttered bureaus. Some of these would-be correspondents will find their niche inside established media once they prove their worth.

Others will not be so lucky and we will be seeing the unhappy results of their recklessness in the weeks and months ahead.  

* I am informed that Global Post does a significant job in supporting its reporters in the field.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gaza, Social Media and The Odyssey

Homer, early journalist
The war in Gaza appears to be winding down. It may just moving into another phase - one that hopefully, might include peace talks. Regardless, this awful war with its dreadful visuals of murdered children has been one in which the role of social media has changed how legacy media have reported this conflict and possibly, in future wars as well.

Israel has been accused of using disproportionate force and the tally of dead Gazans compared to dead Israelis has allowed for a powerful international denunciation of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

The emotional tone of the coverage has reduced any attempt by Israel and its supporters to justify its position to mere sputterings. Rocket attacks by Gaza were met with a much more violent reply. There was no military equivalence, despite attempts by the Israeli government to claim that it was the first victim. In the realm of public opinion, the Israelis have lost this round. Even if Hamas were to disappear tomorrow, Israel's ability to respond in this heavy-handed way in future battles, will be even more strongly resisted.

Media organizations especially in the US and Canada (and to a lesser extent in the UK) have come under heavy criticism for their perceived pro-Israel coverage. My sense is that the coverage in this instance was less pro-Israel than in the past.

It is now considered part of a reporter's obligation to tweet and post on Facebook at least five times a day. The goal is all about marketing - to attract (younger) eyeballs on social media and drive them to the newspaper or the broadcast.

My sense of the tweets from Gaza is that they were highly emotional, deeply descriptive and utterly anguished. If there was a sense of perspective, or context (difficult to achieve in 140 characters), that sense was absent in those digital despatches.

Watching the nightly television newscasts, the reporting was equally powerful and emotional. But the intensity of the tweets often found their way into the standup closers.

This may have been the reason why so many people on the pro-Israel side found yet again, more reasons to condemn legacy media.

Which leads me to The Odyssey, Homer's immortal tale of Greek war, passion and struggle.

I am grateful to Martha Bayles and her book entitled "Through A Screen Darkly." Ms. Bayles talk about how public diplomacy in the United States has failed to convey the better angels of America's nature. After 9/11, the issues were stark. But the ability to tell the story had been weakened by an overdependence on Hollywood values and the quest for ratings and profits.

In her book, she describes teaching about Odysseus in her Humanities class at Boston College. That's when it occurred to me that Ms. Bayles isn't just talking about the failure of public diplomacy. She is speaking about the weaknesses of modern-day journalism as well.

She refers to a Greek concept called sophrosune which means "shrewdness, gutsiness, persistence and grace. Mostly it mean knowing what to do in the right situation...Above all it means alertness: the capacity to read the situation, fathom the other guy's motives, grasp the moral imperative at work, and act. The personification of sophrosune is Odysseus..."

But our hero also has a flaw (he's human after all and the Greeks understood this well): he lost sight of his long goal which included listening to those with whom he disagreed. Odysseus was brought down by hubris - again a Greek concept meaning pride and overconfidence that usually results in punishment from the gods.

In Homer's reporting of the story, Odysseus is held captive by a one-eyed giant called The Cyclops who eats several members of the crew and washes them down with red wine! Odysseus comes up with a clever plan: he drives a stake into the eye of The Cyclops then as the giant is writhing in pain, the Greeks escape by hiding in the fleece of the monster's sheep. They get into their boat and begin to row away to freedom and safety.

Bayles again: "But then Odysseus trades sophrosune for hubris. Looking back, he can't help taunting the raging Cyclops: 'If ever mortal man inquires how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye!' This is a mistake, because the Cyclops complains to his father, the sea god Poseidon, who sends a mighty tempest to blow Odysseus off course and delay his homecoming for ten years."

Did reporters from Gaza hype the story and trade their sophrosune for hubris? While there was much great reporting, the emotional tone was very high. Twitter and Facebook (and possibly an absence of editing) helped drive it there.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

NPR Learns About (New) Media Accountability - the Hard Way

NPR HQ in Washington, DC
It began with a job posting on the NPR website.

NPR is looking for a new ombudsman to replace Edward Schumacher-Matos who has held the post for the past three years. He steps down in September.

The ad seemed perfectly boiler plate: "experienced journalist, knowledge of public radio, good communications skills, etc."

But two sentences in the original job posting stood out to close observers of the public radio world and to those who know how an ombudsman must function.

             The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.


            In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment...

Jay Rosen, a highly regarded professor of journalism at NYU, contacted me to ask if this is the new normal for ombudsmen in general and at NPR in particular. When I told him it was not, he wrote a scathing condemnation in his blog Pressthink.

Rosen's blog concludes: "NPR has downgraded the ombudsman position. Two former ombudsmen agree with this. To understand why, just think about the effect that "your job is not to pass judgment" has on the pool of potential applicants. It's likely that similar moves by the Washington Post helped clear the way. It's possible also that dissatisfaction with the performance of previous ombudsmen contributed to the decision, along with the feeling that criticism rains down from all sides nowadays, so why do we need an in-house critic?"

Other online and media criticism of NPR's decision followed. 

Joe Strupp, senior reporter for Media Matters for America, looked at this issue from the perspective of the public radio stations, who have always been strong supporters of the ombudsman at NPR. Every general manager Strupp interviewed said this would be a retrograde move.

At the same time, social media weighed in on Facebook and Twitter.

Last Thursday NPR finally relented and NPR's new president Jarl Mohn put out a news release stating that the original job description was "flawed." It was rewritten and can be read here.  

However, prior to that decision, Minnesota Public Radio also asked two senior managers at NPR how this was allowed to occur. Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and soon to be departing Senior VP of News and Information, Margaret Low Smith (Smith's departure was announced prior to this embarrassing incident) were unapologetic. 

Kinsey and Smith used the opportunity to deflect the original decision and to attack Rosen. Kinsey said Rosen "did a lousy job of reporting and instead chose to opine based on singling out some words in a job description and a couple of words from ex-ombudsmen." (Emphasis added). 

Smith took on the critics from public radio station who also objected to the change in the job description. "I honestly thought (the Rosen article) was a lazy piece of reporting.  (Emphasis added). I would ask you to believe and give us the benefit of the doubt..." 

I asked Rosen for his response to this attack on his blogpost and his reputation. His response: 

"It was my understanding that 'fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment' is an idea well known in the public radio community. There is not a lot of ambiguity about what it means. But just to make sure, I asked some people with NPR experience. So I like the chances for my interpretation over Kinsey Wilson's 'The job description was in no way meant to diminish the role, limit the independence or handcuff them.' 

Here's what I did in reporting my post. I will leave it to journalists to decide if I was being 'lazy' as Kinsey Wilson said. 

* To make sure my impression(that NPR ombudsmen routinely comment and make judgments) was correct, I reviewed dozens of past columns and found some typical examples. 
* I contacted several former NPR ombudsmen for comment and quoted two who would go on the record. I also got from one an earlier job description for the position. 
*I contacted several ombudsmen or former ombudsmen at other national news organizations and quoted one who went on the record. 
*I know more than a few people who work at NPR and they know me. I knew they wouldn't comment on the record but I talked with them to check my assessment against theirs and make sure I wasn't crazy. 
* I contacted NPR's spokesperson around 10:30 am July 15, and said I wanted to post the piece that evening, so could she please get back to me by 5 pm. I also told her that two former ombudsmen interpreted the language the way I did, so there was a zero chance that NPR would be surprised by my take. I later spoke to the NPR spokesperson by phone to clarify what I was asking about. 
* I received the NPR statement around 5:30 pm July 15, and published it in full.


Monday, June 30, 2014

On the Future of Journalism, the CBC as "Media Company" and a few other notions.

The CBC's latest strategic plan is to move from being a broadcaster to a "media company".

On June 26th, CBC President Hubert Lacroix announced that the corporation will pursue a "digital first" strategy. Here's the quote from CBC's p.r. department:

As the Corporation shifts from public broadcaster to public media company, and focuses on partnering to develop content, there are opportunities to reduce, rethink or eliminate aspects of the current infrastructure, such as reducing the technology footprint, reducing in‐house production, and rethinking bricks‐and‐mortar locations. This long‐term strategy will have a phased implementation.

In principle, this appears to be a good idea. Eyeballs are moving on line and the media needs to anticipate that shift. The problem is that the CBC, under its present mandate may not be legally able to do very much of that.

Moving away from broadcasting to online has enormous implications. Not the least of which, is the fact that the Internet does not fall under the remit of the regulator, the CRTC.  Sources tell me that the CRTC is upset by this move partly (or mostly) because the CBC would then cease to be a public broadcaster.

For example, if the CBC in its new incarnation, still receives a Parliamentary appropriation, yet is not answerable to the regulator, to whom is this "public media company" accountable?

Some observers expect that other broadcasters may attempt to stop this by claiming this to be a breach of the CBC's mandate. It could change the media landscape in which the CBC, even in its present wounded state, remains a formidable (and heavily subsidized) competitor to the commercial networks which are also on increasingly shaky financial ground.

A few months ago, the troubles of the CBC - already apparent - became grist for an interview mill with me by Jesse Brown.

Jesse is the producer of a blog and podcast called "Canadaland". He invited me to meet with him in his studio in downtown Toronto to talk about the state of the media, the role of journalism, journalism schools and of course, the CBC.

This interview took place as the CBC began to salvage something from the wreckage left behind after losing the rights to broadcast hockey on CBC TV. The CBC had just announced that more than 600 employees were being laid off and schedules were in flux. So there was a lot to talk about.

Jesse and I spoke for more than an hour, and the edited version is here.