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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Local TV News: Death By Self-Inflicted Wounds?

Rumors abound that the CBC, faced with yet another budgetary shortfall, will put an end to all local TV newscasts across Canada in an announcement scheduled for later this week.

If that happens, hundreds of jobs will be lost, and at the same time, a sign that commercial TV news values now predominate in Canada, just as in the US.

Will it mean that audiences for local TV News on the CBC will be losing very much? I don't think so. Local TV news - even on the CBC - has become a haven of hype for traffic accidents, tornado sightings and hysteria about crime. 

This terrible trifecta of weather, traffic and crime is a formulaic approach that works. Sort of. Audiences for this menu skew older and whiter. TV news in general validates their fears by pounding away at how unsafe its "out there."

Most people still get their "news" from local TV. Those audiences are in decline even as local CBC TV news tries to sound both populist yet informed. The result on CBC, at least is a sense of posh inauthenticity. Ratings for local CBC TV news are low and falling. Commercial stations seem to do this better due to a real connection to the audiences who are interested in this kind of news.

I got my first full time journalism job in TV news at the CBC in Montreal in the mid-70s. It was a great experience and I eventually became the city hall reporter. Our newsroom had some very talented senior people and I learned a lot from many of them. But try as we might, we could not beat the other English-language station in Montreal, CFCF. They just killed us, in rating period after rating period. I think we came across as too intellectual at a time of political turmoil, when TV audiences in English Montreal were looking for something more emotional, more connected, more secure. Finally, in a stroke of genius (or possibly desperation), we hired away CFCF's anchor, Andrew Marquis, a beloved Ted Baxter-type icon in English Montreal. The ratings began to turn our way and it looked like we would finally beat the opposition when Andrew suddenly died of a massive heart attack. As a host, Andrew was simply irreplaceable and CBC's audience numbers plummeted as the viewers returned to CFCF.

Getting back to today, it pains me to say it, but if these local CBC TV newscasts are cancelled, it would be no great loss. Even with the wealth of talent on many of these shows, their efforts have been undermined and misdirected by the CBC's trolling for ratings. 

Increasingly, I'm hearing that people are fed up with being frightened and they are turning off their TVs.

Some recent examples:

During his recovery after a serious traffic accident, MSNBC's Laurence O’Donnell said he couldn’t tolerate negative news: “I became one of those people who I’ve met from time to time who say they don’t watch the news. Too many bad stories,” he told the Daily Beast. “I never understood those people. Now I get them completely.”

Michael Getler is the ombudsman for PBS based in Washington, DC. Writing in his latest blog he says, "I've given up watching the local 11 p.m. television news (NBC) because, aside from weather and sports, it is a relentless recitation of murder, gun violence, sexual assault, fraud, fire and misery just before bedtime. My guess is it is much the same on other channels in other major cities."

O'Donnell and Getler may not be the core audience for local TV News. But they should be and many like them are opting out.

Crime rates in Canada and the US are in decline for a variety of reasons. Crime reporting, especially on television has risen 800% in the past decade, according so some researchers. The reasons for this are obvious: the news business is looking for ways to attract eyeballs (and ear drums). Spending money on more reporters, producers and technology is out of the question. So news managers are looking for so-called "low-hanging fruit" that can get on the air and into the newspaper "news hole" as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

Weather, traffic and crime are there, ripe for the picking. Curiously, as news organizations are told there is less and less trust in what they do, they have become increasingly dependent on these three narratives. And all three come from government agencies.

There is also research claiming that news that heavily relies on these extended disaster themes, tend to make people less trusting of governments, of their neighbors and even of civic engagement. In short, violence in the news has an effect on voter turnout, because it endorses a sense of hopelessness in society.

If the CBC shuts down its supper hour newscasts, that may be a glimmer of good news after all.    

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Journalism and Erasing History

Justin Bourque, the alleged Moncton shooter
A student of mine (and an excellent one, at that), asked me to comment on a policy stated by Sun Media where they will no longer mention the name of the man who shot and killed three RCMP officers in New Brunswick.

My student wrote:

I came across this on Reddit this morning. 


Interesting position on Sun News regarding this situation. They definitely raise some noteworthy points regarding mass shootings and how media plays into these situations. 

Sun Media (a Canadian Fox News wannabe) announced that in honor of the murdered Mounties, they will no longer mention the name of Justin Bourque, the man accused of the shootings. Sun isn't the only news outlet to stake this claim which says it is in support of the victims.

I find this self-serving. I assume that Sun Media is following the lead of Anderson Cooper on CNN, Cooper announced that he will no longer give the oxygen of publicity to mass murderer whether in Moncton or Santa Barbara. The ostensible reason for doing so is to remember and honor the names of the victims and not just the names of the killers.

A more interesting exploration would be to look at how the media cover crime overall. We are drenched in crime reporting from all sorts of media, from the tabloids (where this traditionally predominates) to the so-called quality journalistic platforms like the CBC and the New York Times.

Yet there should be a role for contextual crime reporting in the media, but the disproportionate nature of the reporting and the lack of any explanation for the crimes only serves to heighten a sense of "moral panic". Moral panic as an idea goes back to the 1840s and is defined by the OED as " instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society." As a result, the usual beneficiaries of this heightened concern are often the more conservative elements in society including religious denominations and political parties.

Suppose we stop naming names of mass murderers, how far will this erasing of the names of villains extend?

If journalism is supposed to be the "first draft of history" how will future citizens (and future historians) handle this absence of names? By that same specious argument, can we assume journalism should no longer mention Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot or Osama Bin Laden?

Refusing to ever mention Justin Bourque's name, the alleged (and not yet convicted) killer of the three Mounties in Moncton, New Brunswick, will not honour the dead at all.  It may only serve to make the public wonder, what else are the media not reporting?

It may serve to give the dubious impression that the media are "on your side" by imbuing a supposed sense of solidarity on the part of media organizations with the victims. However, this is more p.r. than journalism. And bad p.r. at that.

Erasing names is a lot easier than looking more deeply at the causes of our present predicament. It also ignores the public's fascination and obsession with the culture of violence for which the media is largely to blame.

But that would be a lot more uncomfortable for the media to admit.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Knowlton Nash and his Vision for Canadian Public TV

Knowlton Nash 1927-2014 
There has been a strongly sentimental reaction in Canada to the death of the CBC's iconic TV news presenter, Knowlton Nash.

The implication is that the past at the CBC was a lot more engaging than how the CBC appears today.

Some of this is pure nostalgia for an era that people remember fondly only because it seems less complicated than today. And public broadcasting audiences have a propensity to feeling nostalgic. Perhaps that is a common human attribute. But it is a strong sentiment among listeners and to a lesser extent, viewers of public broadcasting.

The country has indeed changed since Knowlton read his last newscast in the early 1990s and handed the anchor desk over to a younger man, Peter Mansbridge.

In that pre-digital era, there was a stronger sense of community that the CBC was able to both serve and represent. It's ironic that at a time when media organizations have the ability to have closer connections to the audience, that same audience is more impatient and more fragmented than every before.

So that nostalgia is I believe, less for the CBC as it once was, but for a pre-digital country where the media were agents of community, not for the individualization of the audience.

The CBC, to its credit, has made efforts to connect with that audience, but that is harder than ever specifically because that audience has different needs now. The idea that the public will tune in the nightly news because it wants that connection is very much a 90s concept. The audience already knows the news because it has been awash with information all day. The nightly news assumes that the audience has been kept in the dark and now needs the newscast to catch up on events. Nothing could be farther from the present reality. The audience, however, still wants to know why it happened, not what happened.

Until the CBC figures that out, the once proud national TV newscast will remain mired in third place in a three horse race.

So my own nostalgia is tempered with the thought as per Joni Mitchell, "you don't know what you've got till it's gone..."

My appreciation of Knowlton Nash was in the Globe and Mail today.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Why Newsrooms Are Tough To Manage

Baquet, Abramson and Keller in happier Times
The backstory of Jill Abramson's firing from the New York Times deserves to be told in full. There are lessons learned for present and future managers to avoid this morale and p.r. debacle for the next time.

I don't know Abramson although I have briefly met Bill Keller, Dean Baquet and Arthur Sulzburger during my time in Washington. And I don't know the specific newsroom culture at the Times, but I have some knowledge of how newsrooms ought to work. The Times can be and should be -  an inspiring work environment. But like all alpha news organizations, apparently, a tough place as well.

At a social gathering in DC, my wife (a voracious Times reader) observed to a Times reporter, "It must be a great place to work." To which he replied, "You obviously don't work there."

At their best, newsroom cultures can be similar to one another in that they are often inspiring, competitive and highly-charged. As someone once observed about the newsroom where he worked, "you can't buy that level of adrenalin on the street..."

But the downside of newsroom culture is that it can be deeply obsessive, powerfully competitive and very macho. Bullying occurs. It's a lot like high school with the cool kids running the show. If you are young and female, there can be a lot of sexual tension, even predatory behaviour. Often successful women in news organizations assume a lot of those so-called male qualities.

Abramson found out just how tough a place it was and probably always will be. News organizations like the New York Times, NPR or the CBC are seen to be pinnacles of journalistic ambition. When gaffes occur, they quickly become public. Journalists defend their turf through tough infighting, and employ any tactic that might lead to an advantage. (Quoth one wag: "A good day in a newsroom is when you get stabbed in the front...").

When that happens, newsroom piraƱas start to circle the wounded. Gossip (the stock in trade of journalists everywhere) exacerbates weakness by anticipating impending failure and possible job vacancies/opportunities.

If a high-profile newsroom journalist or manager makes a gaffe or a misstep with upper management, the smell of blood in the water is powerful. Ambitious journalists who have a keen eye for when something is out of sync, know it instinctively. When that happens, it's almost impossible for that person to recover his or her once lofty and previously unassailable position.

That's what appears to have occurred at the Times.