Violence “demands our concern, because it questions the stability of social order and makes us fear for our own safety, and for the safety of everyone around us.” Best (1999, p. 25)
It was the sound of glass shattering on the ground in London, Ont. that reminded me of covering a street party that happened in the heart of the Queen’s University student ghetto for each year that I was a reporter in Kingston. I didn’t see Aberdeen Street the year it got really bad — the year that rioters overturned a park car and set it on fire, similar to what happened this past weekend near Fanshawe College. I saw the aftermath and the frustration of police, the university, some students (I say some because others supported the “festivities” continuing) and the city as the party continued despite all attempts to end its life.
Some people in Kingston accused the media of stoking the problem, but not with the usual accusations of sensationalizing the event. The accusation was that by covering the party at all, and covering the preparations for Homecoming weekend, the news media in town effectively ensured that not only would there be a riot, but that the crowds would be enormous.
My response was simple: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to see it or hear it, it still falls.
The media have an agenda-setting ability to tell us what to think about. How much they tell us what to think is disputable, but the tree will fall and no one cares or knows about it unless it receives front-page coverage. When it does, an interesting thing happens. What may be speculation, or the zeal to find a rational explanation for a seemingly irrational situation or event can lead authorities to believe there is a widespread problem where none exists. A 2003 study made this point about school violence in the wake of several high school shootings, including the one that I remember very well, Columbine.
The study pointed out that when school shootings began taking place in rural settings, the media coverage of the events gave the impression that potential killers could be anywhere in the student body and could look like “normal” teenagers. Law enforcement agencies took up this mantra and held professional conferences and school meetings to support that concept. They gave legitimacy to a theory in the absence of empirical evidence.
The claims presented by the news media and the professional media were given further strength by conferences and workshops held by professional organizations and government agencies. … By drawing on the notion— presented in the news media, professional media, and at conferences—that others had ignored warning signs, with catastrophic implications, police and school officials could act on local incidents without the criticism of arbitrariness. In the context of these nationally publicized shootings, local decisions to act were legitimated.
Gans (1980 in Willis, 2010), argued that there were eight values in the news media, or eight values that guide whether the media cover a particular story or issue. One of those values is maintaining order, or identifying threats against the order. This category would explain why the news media dedicates coverage to crime and justice stories. We want to identify threats to law and order, as well as show how the concerns are being handled. It is also the reason why the news media would dedicate coverage to a particular event such as a riot, protest or demonstration. There is a possibility that mob mentality will take over, a psychological phenomenon that researchers have studied for years, and well-intentioned people will be lured into doing misguided things. If that’s the case, the news media will be there because, much like a car crash, we just can’t avert our eyes.
There is also another reason to cover such events. A riot, protest or demonstration, the latter two being defined here as peaceful gatherings, require public resources. Police need to monitor the situation. A public road must be closed down, or possibly fixed afterwards — in either case requiring public workers to perform a role. Firefighters or paramedics me be required to prevent a situation from becoming dire. All this requires dipping into the public purse to spend tax dollars that could be going to something else.
But covering these events at all may be contributing to the problem.
Consider these two, but equally weighty findings from a 2000 study about events at Michigan State University where students and alcohol mixed for what students, faculty and staff characterized as a riot, revolution, or wild party. On March 28, 1999, about 10,000 people gathered around the MSU campus. Spurred by the school’s Final Four basketball loss to Duke University and alcohol, the crowd turned ugly, lit fires and caused a total of US $500,000 in damages. Eddy, Hornak and Murphy (2000) found that participants believed the media, simply by being present, added to the problem, and affected how people viewed the evening’s events.
At issue during the evening of the Duke incident was the role of the media. Several interviewees cited occasions when they witnessed student behavior degenerating when the media was present. Students began “acting up for the cameras.” The perception was that the press fueled the event enormously. How the media portrayed the night’s activities swayed public perception of the event both locally and nationally. A student arrested the night of the Duke riots said, ‘They [the media] victimized the university and the city immediately.’ The media representation of the event was that of a riot.
But would it have been a riot had the media not shown up?
This brings me back to the tree falling metaphor I used earlier in this post and why I’m feeling as if by covering what I believed — and still do believe — was a story turned from being one about a wild party into a story about a riot.
There’s a difference between someone mentioning that a tree fell in the forest and the media giving it front page coverage. The priming power of the media can coax a group of people to think about an issue or event and how the story is framed can influence how they react to the story. What people do after that, though, is left to their own cognitive processes, but the media can have just as much of an effect on the crowd as the general “mob mentality” that psychologists talk about when explaining how a group of young, educated, largely well-intentioned people can turn into a roving band of rioters.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to see it or hear it, it still falls. But, if I put that story on the front page, does it mean the entire forest will be chopped down?
Eddy, P., Hornak, A., and Murphy, E. (2000). Student Uprising at Michigan State University: Riot or Revolution?. (Michigan State University report)
Herda-Rapp, A. (2003). The Social Construction of Local School Violence Threats by the News Media and Professional Organizations. Sociological Inquiry, 73(4), p.545-74. (school violence pdf)
A few months ago while I was waiting to head to an overnight shift, a journalism student from Ryerson University (my alma mater) gave me a call. She was working on a story for the Ryerson Review of Journalism about news for kids and wanted to talk with me about news literacy for young people. I was thrilled to talk to what I always saw as a great, critically thinking magazine. Plus, how could I not help out a journalism student when I was one not so long ago?
Once I got talking, I talked for a while. I paced around my apartment rambling on, out of breath because my mouth was trying to keep up with brain as it was moving a mile a minute. I thought about not only saying something of substance that could inform her writing, but also say things that would make for good, colourful, insightful quotes. Not easy to do, and a reminder of difficult an interview is for someone who is a novice to the world of being interviewed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the final cut for her story, but the Center for News Literacy and I were featured in a blog post on the Review’s website. I encourage you to have a read because I think that Trisha Fialho does a great job of synthesizing an entire curriculum and field of study into a few paragraphs and then puts it into a Canadian context, which is where I come in.
I also enjoy how she ends the post:
Press makes clear his bias as a journalist, but says that if the American experience is any indication, it would be an excellent step.
I couldn’t agree more.
When I came to Ottawa and started covering Parliament Hill, I was in awe of the reporters here. They work in a stressful environment where trying to sort fact from fiction is never easy and trying to keep people interested in the highest level of government is a challenge. In scrums around politicians, the veterans of “The Hill” are quick on their feet, coming up with questions faster than I could fathom.
Needless to say, I hoped to get to that point.
But after a few short months of covering federal politics, I’m wondering if I was wrong. I feel we’ve lost our way and Friday of last week just drove home that feeling.
Now, I was incredibly frustrated and riled up after covering the whole VikiLeaks — what’s the right word? fiasco? debacle? controversy? — story and it took me a few days to relax a bit and give myself a chance to review the story with a critical, rather than annoyed, eye.
Friday was a frustrating day for any reporter, trying to sort through the spin, conjecture and limited facts that surfaced about the identity of the person — or people — behind the VikiLeaks account. Sufficed to say, I don’t think I need to go into all the details of the story right now. But there were a few things about the way the story was covered that show political media and maybe even political news consumers are more interested in a sexy story than one about the nitty-gritty of policy.
First, there was the immediate jump to the conclusion that the information the user was putting online was accurate. Twitter is, first and foremost, a source of raw, unfiltered information. It is a source of ideas and debate, but it can be hardly consider a 100-per-cent reliable source of information. Some tweets are unverified pieces of information. It is a conversation at the town well that is louder than a simple gab session. The analogy someone put to me was that Twitter is like two friends bumping into one another at the supermarket and broadcasting their conversation over the loudspeakers. Twitter is an echo chamber that magnifies a thought, idea or rumour and elevates it to the status of fact. In a world when the deadline is now and the traditional or legacy news outlets are trying to stay relevant and up to date, stories are pushed online faster than they can be properly fact-checked.
The thing is, just simply by doing that I don’t think the legacy news media make themselves relevant. They make themselves part of the echo chamber rather than the chamber of sober second thought (no offence to the Canadian Senate). Sadly, I felt part of the problem.
Another issue was that the story tracing the IP address of the user to the House of Commons was a legitimate story, but it went a step far when it added that the IP address was linked to Wikipedia edits that gave pages a pro-NDP slant. If ever there was evidence of the causal connections that people can make in their minds, this was it. There was no line in the story that said there was evidence, direct or circumstantial, that linked the New Democrats to VikiLeaks. But why should a lack of evidence deter anyone from making the connection? And so the accusations started flying in the House of Commons on Friday, but there was no evidence presented that this was the case. Politicians inside the Commons have the privilege to say what they want because parliamentary debate demands they be removed from the shackles of fear to speak freely on any piece of legislation. Anyone can report what is said in the House of Commons because of that privilege, but it doesn’t make it right. Or, just because it gets said over and over in the House of Commons doesn’t make it fact, just as saying something over and over on social media doesn’t make it fact when it is not. Evidence is evidence. If it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, why should the news media feel the burden of proof is any lower?
Like it or not, news media make ourselves less relevant when we brush off the idea that readers won’t connect two separate ideas, or that everyone will understand exactly what is written or said. Everyone won’t and one seemingly innocent observation placed in a story with the belief that it will be understood as an observation rather than fact is misplaced.
The ironic situation here was that while everyone was focused on VikiLeaks, few took the time to read through the legislation and see what was actually in it. CBC Radio’s The House did, and Toews had to admit on the air that he didn’t know the “exceptional circumstances” clause existed giving police the option to snoop online without a warrant. We were all focused on the witch hunt, the exotic conflict that makes for a scintillating good story that doesn’t answer a basic question any citizen may be asking themselves: What do I think about the legislation? And, more importantly, do I have the information necessary to make a decision? Giving citizens that information is the essence of journalism, even if it isn’t as sexy as a good scandal.
Adding to the irony was that stories pointed out how this was distracting from the debate, even though the mere focus on the VikiLeaks account was the media being distracted themselves. To paraphrase from one of my favourite movies, if reporters (myself included) were looking for the guilty party, we need look only in the mirror. I know why we did it: It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s salacious. The scintillating details of a person’s life is way more fun to write about than the minutiae of government machinery. And everyone else is doing it, so we need to do it as well.
In my mind, there are only three reasons why I would cover or pry into the personal life of a politician:
- They have done something in their personal life that is illegal. This is no different than the crime blotter.
- Decisions they have made in their personal life runs counter to the public persona they are trading on. Think of a politician who sells themselves to voters as the “family values” candidate, when they have had extra-marital affairs.
- Something they do in their personal life interferes with their ability to perform their public duties. Last month, a cabinet minister advised his constituents and the press that he was not going to be do his job because of a medical procedures. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is worth a mention.
This fell into the, “well isn’t that interesting category,” which is why in my first story on the issue, I focused on the reality politicians face. No longer is their private life private. No longer is anyone’s private life really private in the Facebook era, when a status update and pictures provides me with more details about a person than a simple conversation.
And this leads me to my final observation and critical reflection on how I did my own job.
When reporters started questioning whether political parties have to change to adapt to this digital environment, I shook my head. The world hasn’t changed — we’re just catching up and showing it by asking the question.
The minister for democratic reform in Canada announced on Twitter changes to elections results laws to permit the reporting on social media. He didn’t send a press release to Parliament Hill reporters, nor did he hold a press conference. Instead, he went right to the people and bypassed the traditional gatekeepers of information. Barack Obama did a magnificent job in the 2008 election by drumming up support on social media and speaking directly to the people.
The traditional information gatekeeper role that the media once held is gone. Speaking from the centre out, as Global’s Tom Clark put it, has been replaced by the outside speaking to the centre. Reporters should keep that in mind as well. We no longer speak to the masses: They speak with us, so it is my job to further along the conversation in a constructive manner. What I feel I did Friday was less than ideal because only parts of the story — the problems with relying on a Parliament Hill IP address for proof, the lack of any evidence connecting anyone political to the account — helped the conversation, but the rest was distracting, which made me less relevant to the conversation.
And as the whole episode shows, and continues to show, is that the traditional information gatekeeper model is dead. Now everyone is the gatekeeper of some kind of information, and gatekeepers of spreading it on to their social circles and, eventually, wider online publics. In this modern information system, the key is to add some value to the conversation, give people something more to think about and consider. I just don’t think I did very much of that last week. If I fall for that trap like many other Parliament Hill reporters did last week, then I too may find myself irrelevant.
A local Ottawa story struck an interesting chord with me this week when the Ottawa Citizen reported on a missing person. The person in question happened to be the husband of a local CTV news anchor. The story became a top of the broadcast piece Friday for the local CBC affiliate, a CTV competitor.
However, CTV didn’t report the story the same way as the Citizen or CBC. When CTV first reported on the missing man, it left out the connection to their anchor. Why? The general manager told the Citizen it did so “‘out of respect for her wishes’ after police issued a media release.”
“She asked us yesterday (Thursday) to leave the connection out, and she asked police to leave the connection out. But first and foremost the consideration was that the attention should be focused on nothing more than the search for Greg and for his missing vehicle, so that as quickly as possible the family could be reunited.”
Source: The Ottawa Citizen, CTV Ottawa anchor surrounded by support as police seek missing husband
A day later, CTV made the connection in its story.
Judging by the outpouring of support on the CTV News website, I think everyone can agree that we hope there is a happy end to this story. I hope there is.
However, the way CTV Ottawa handled the story reminded me of a similar situation in a newsroom I was once in.
One night, we got word of a fatal car crash. The deceased was a sibling of a senior editor, who was obviously not going to make it in that tragic night. After a confab in the middle of the newsroom involving every editor and reporter, it was decided to write the story up as a brief because the police had issued a release with the name of the victim made public. Normally, we would have gone to the victim’s home, knocked on the family’s door, done a “pickup” where we asked for a picture of the deceased, and then talked to the family hours after the tragedy to garner a brief bio of the deceased to put in the paper the next day. In this case, it was decided to give the family some space because we knew who they were.
The decision did not sit well with everyone, me included.
It was the double-standard that I didn’t like, a double standard that the missing person story raised again this week.
The Canadian Association of Journalists ethical guidelines is a good place to start. It says that when reporting on any story, a journalist or organization should “not allow our own biases to impede fair and accurate reporting.” The CBC has a similar line in its ethical guidelines. CBC/Radio-Canada reporters are to keep in mind that “public interest guides all our decisions.” As well, the CBC lays out to its reporters that it is to treat everyone fairly. Why? “The trust of the public is our most valued asset. We avoid putting ourselves in real or potential conflict of interest. This is essential to our credibility.”
The New York Times in its ethical guidelines has a similar statement that lays out exactly how it sees covering any story:
Companywide, our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so. The reputation of our company rests upon that perception, and so do the professional reputations of its staff members. Thus the company, its separate business units and members of its newsrooms and editorial pages share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict.
That appearance of conflict is, possibly, even worse than having a conflict of interest. Granting someone privacy during a moment of grief is not a conflict of interest. Consider what The Toronto Star says in its reporting guidelines about covering grief and tragedy:
Conflicts between the public’s right to know and the expectation of privacy of individuals are inevitable in the gathering and publishing of news, but common sense, our duty to inform and compassion should govern our judgment.
Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to be informed.
Reporting the connection between a deceased and a member of a news organization covering the story, I think, is a way to avoid a conflict of interest or the hint of impartiality. You need not trample on their privacy, but if you do it for one, you should do it for all. That was the lesson I learned years ago after that confab and had reinforced this week.
Just a quick glance online suggests that there are few newsrooms that have a specific section in their guidelines on journalistic practices that deals with reporting on our own. Rather, guidelines on personal or familial connections largely have to do with connections to political parties or organizations that are the subject of coverage.
Guidelines for reporting on a story involving a journalist from the same outlet is something newsrooms should consider putting down on paper (as antiquated an idea as that sounds in today’s digital world). If not, then newsrooms should fall back on what already guides our journalistic judgment: We treat everyone fairly, we treat everyone the same, because to do otherwise not only brings into question the transparency and accountability of our news stories, but the profession as a whole.
“If you watch the news and don’t like it, then this is your counter program to the news.”
Jon Stewart along with Stephen Colbert have become cultural icons for many young news consumers who spurn traditional media in favour of, well, fake news programs. While many, including myself, watch Stewart and Colbert for a good laugh, they also watch it for a “deeper level of processing,” according to a new study. In other words, they want to think more rather than think less when they watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
The study from the University of Delaware found that university-aged viewers wanted to watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report for context as opposed to information or a good chuckle. The university’s website quoted lead researcher Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communications, as saying that such viewers show a high need for cognition, or a need to have deeper thinking processes to analyze arguments and ideas, and problems and their potential solutions.
“We know that the reasons people seek out information strongly affect the implications of those messages,” Young says. “In this case, people coming to the show looking for satirical analysis of political information may exhibit more long-lasting shifts in attitude.”
Interestingly, that finding parallels a 2008 study that found that people used fake news shows to update their impressions of political candidates and personalities. The study suggested people take this information and then add it to the running score they kept on a candidate, a scoreboard system that is one way citizens make political and voting decisions. On the other hand, the study found that people who watched news shows, such as those on CNN, were prompted to learn more about candidates, issues and procedures.
“We don’t consider ourselves equal opportunity anythings, because that’s not – you know, that’s the beauty of fake journalism. We don’t have to – we travel in fake ethics.”
- Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart has repeatedly said that he is not a journalist, nor is his show a source of journalism. It is political satire and social commentary — context for what happens politically in the United States and around the world. It may be that context that drives viewers to his and Colbert’s program. One theory is that the reason people watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report is because both shows focus on just a few stories each show and then have an in-depth interview — a format harkening back to an earlier era of broadcast news — rather than quickly scanning through a number of stories in a 30-minute or one-hour newscast. Young news consumers are interested in more context in news stories and avoid “above the fold” scanning. The Daily Show provides that context and, apparently, a deeper cognitive experience. Just more reason to watch them daily.
Okay, okay, I know I should start a blog post with something more unique than an old newsroom cliché, but I think it works well here. (If you think otherwise, just let me know.) The adage goes something like this: Dog bites man? That’s not news. Man bites dog? That’s front page.
Moral of the story? What’s unique — sometimes what’s unique to the newsroom members — is what is considered news. Secondary moral? What is news is largely a subjective decision because what I find newsworthy you may not and vice versa. You can see this on a daily basis online through a completely unscientific comparison of the most prominent stories on a news website compared to the ones highlighted under the most read list. You can also see it at the end of a year when newsroom put out their top stories of the year lists, and compare the newsroom selected stories against those of the readers. I did this with the lists developed at Postmedia, where I work, which are based on polling of Canadians and an unscientific poll of top editors across the chain. I also took a look at the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s studies about the stories that captured the greatest percentages of the annual newshole versus the top stories the public followed.
For the most part, there is much agreement about the top stories of the year, which shows that newsrooms and readers appear to be in sync about what is news. The economy, for instance, was of major concern to news consumers in the Pew study, and so too was it important to newsrooms.
But there were also diversions. The Pew study pointed out that readers wanted to know more about rising gas prices, there was very little coverage of it in the American press. And while the News of the World phone hacking scandal attracted media attention, relatively few Americans were interested in what was happening across the ocean. At Postmedia, the biggest story of the year internationally for editors was the Arab Spring, while readers chose the death of Osama bin Laden.
So how is it that what news consumers felt were the biggest stories of the year didn’t completely jive with what Postmedia editors selected as their top stories?
I have two theories.
The first is that the public may be seeing the impact of one story, rather than the impact of an ongoing narrative. The death of bin Laden ended a narrative that began 10 years earlier on Sept. 11, 2001, while the Arab Spring started a narrative that has included the toppling of dictators, continues to evolve and unfold. It may also be the narrative’s proximity and impact on the news consumer that makes bin Laden stick out more than the Arab Spring. By proximity and impact I mean the proximity of the 9/11 attacks to American and North American cities and the resulting impact on Western society. Those two news drivers make the killing of bin Laden more newsworthy, in a sense, than the Arab Spring, which is an ocean and a bit away from the average North American news consumer.
The second thought I have is that news consumers may only be reading the headlines and keeping a tally of the most recent stories they have seen. Research has shown that viewers don’t perfectly remember every story they watch in a news broadcast, nor do they have perfect recollections of the news stories they consume in print. They may not remember the ongoing headlines about the protests in Egypt or the demonstrations in Tunisia that were at the forefront of news coverage over the spring and summer when the Arab Spring began. They may not have gone “below the fold” and read more than just the top headlines of the day — as a 2008 Associated Press study showed — when the Arab Spring moved from front page to inside news. Newsroom editors may have constantly been handling copy about the Arab Spring, and therefore had if forefront in their minds.
Does that mean newsrooms are wrong in their choice of stories? No, but what it means is that newsrooms need to be in tune with their news consumers, avoid blind spots in coverage and ensure that the stories people want to read about get as much coverage as the stories they need to read about. That involves interacting with news consumers, maybe bringing in a member of the public now and again to serve as an honorary editor for a week or opening up news meetings to the public either in person or streaming them online. It means interacting with them on social media to see what stories they want to see covered. And it means having a diverse newsroom with a number of viewpoints to question the stories being assigned and propose others that may not be on the newsroom radar. That sounds like a lot to ask for, but I think just a few ideas such as these, which newsrooms have already adopted, spread across the entire news sector can make for a better news relationship in 2012.