A plea to end media hypocrisy

During what will hopefully be a brief period of being untied to any major media organization due to employment, I wanted to take this opportunity to make a request of my colleagues, and particularly their employers:

Stop being hypocrites.

I was watching an episode of Enquête recently in which Radio-Canada complained about what the Canadian government was doing to control information, silencing and punishing critics, getting around access to information requests, and preventing people from giving even public information to reporters without checking with the government’s communications department. All this despite having once championed the Federal Accountability Act and promising to clean up Ottawa.

As I was watching it, and the eerie, sinister way it portrayed the way the government tries to control the media, I was struck by the feeling that this sounded a lot like the way an entire industry seems to conduct itself: the media.

Privately (and sometimes on Facebook), many journalists will gossip about what’s going on at work just like any other employee of any other corporation whose name isn’t Apple and whose functions don’t include preserving national security. But it’s exceptionally rare that they’ll speak on the record criticizing a decision of their employer, for fear of getting reprimanded or fired. The employers, meanwhile, are more than happy to comment on the latest press release praising their latest big-budget project, but tend to be curt (if they respond at all) to questions about job cuts or anything else negative that happens.

The CBC, for example, still refuses to publicly acknowledge the decision to take Nancy Wood out of the Daybreak chair, even though the decision was announced to staff more than a week ago. Getting comment from coworkers has been like pulling teeth, and most simply refused to say anything. The only person to say anything on the record was Wood herself, and even that wasn’t much. (Negotiations that may affect the outcome of this may have something to do with that, but still shouldn’t have prevented even a brief acknowledgment of what’s going on.)

A journalist I respect told me that he’ll talk about anything but his boss. I understand the mentality. For one thing, you can’t really expect someone to be able to speak freely about their employer. It’s a conflict of interest, even if you try your best to be fair. This isn’t just journalists – people in any job should be expected to maintain a minimum of loyalty and respect. Besides, since journalists at other media are free to talk about your employer, it’s probably best to just let them do it and stay out of the way.

But there are problems with this mentality. First of all, in this age of increased media convergence, the number of independent voices is shrinking, and it’s gotten to the point where you’re either part of the organization or you’re part of their direct competitor.

This is a large reason why there are few media critics today, especially in the big media. Instead, you’ll find them at a few independent media outlets like Le Devoir, Voir or the mom and pop community weeklies. Or you’ll find them online, at Le Trente or right here.

It’s not like people aren’t interested in what’s happening in media. This blog’s readership is evidence of that. The Gazette and CTV have started to notice that people take a keen interest in local anglo media, and so will post more stories about local radio personalities getting fired (something that’s happening very often, unfortunately), because those stories prompt a lot of comments.

Devoted self-critics are even more rare. The Organization of News Ombudsmen lists three members in Canada, two work at the CBC and the other is Kathy English at the Toronto Star. That’s it. Unless one has been hiding somewhere, there is a grand total of one public editor at all of Canada’s private media.

The result of that is consumer complaints about news coverage is sent to upper management, and often ignored or dismissed. People whose only real goal is to be heard feel like their news organizations don’t care about them.

The problem is that as companies get bigger and more corporate-minded, they start thinking less in terms of connecting with an audience and more in terms of marketing. Decisions are made not by discussing them with the reader, listener or viewer, but by coming up with an idea and maybe running it by a focus group.

Even with social media, there’s little real communication with news consumers. When CFQR canned Tasso and Suzanne, the audience revolted using social media, and the station responded by shutting down discussion on its Facebook page. Daybreak’s Facebook wall has dozens of posts by listeners complaining about Wood being taken off the air (even though she hasn’t yet), but all that’s coming back from the other side are weather forecasts and messages from researchers looking for sources to interview.

And then they wonder why their ratings and subscriptions have dropped, why they can’t seem to connect with the audience.

All of this is made even worse by the fact that news outlets are more than happy to criticize their competitors. Quebecor’s news outlets won’t mention the existence of Rue Frontenac, but they’ll trash La Presse or Radio-Canada, and vice-versa. Richard Martineau, who writes a column for the locked-out Journal de Montréal, was recently interviewed by Paul Arcand, shortly after Corus announced that Arcand would replace regional programming with his show, resulting in layoffs. Both explained that the controversies didn’t affect them, and while I don’t think either of them was lying, the instinct was that I couldn’t entirely believe them either. Are they both truly free to say whatever they want about their employers?

Honesty is the best policy

I’m not calling for a free-for-all where everyone’s telling off their bosses or putting company secrets on their blogs. There are things it is perfectly understandable to demand journalists keep to themselves. When I worked at The Gazette, for example, I accepted that it would be inappropriate for me to be leaking internal documents, airing my personal employee grievances, breaking embargoes or posting office gossip. These were common sense rules like those spelled out in the CBC Blogging Manifesto and later enshrined into CBC policy.

What I’m asking is for other organizations to adopt similar policies concerning journalists who use social media, since just about all of them are doing just that now. And then to allow those journalists to go out without fear of what their bosses might do if they dare to say they disagree with a decision made by their employer or say something that wasn’t first vetted through the PR department.

What I’m asking is for media managers to be a little more honest with people. If you’re ditching a local radio hosts for syndicated programming, don’t say you’re improving the schedule and you’re excited to bring Ryan Seacrest to the airwaves. If you’re cutting the size of a newspaper, don’t say it’s to make it more convenient. Just say you can’t afford these luxuries anymore and you need ways to save money.

Of course, increased honestly might lead people to realize that these budget cuts aren’t because the radio station or newspaper is on the brink of bankruptcy, but because the giant multibillion-dollar corporation that owns it needs to siphon off more money from its assets. And that’s where it becomes harder to justify it honestly.

What I’m asking is for the media to understand that bullshitting your consumers just isn’t going to work anymore. They’re too smart to fall for it, and they’re going to look elsewhere if they don’t feel they can get the full story from you.

It’s easy to say you’ll talk about anyone but your bosses. But if you can’t talk freely about your own organization, how can I trust you to talk freely about anything else?

UPDATE (Feb. 27): I meant to add that this piece from David Olive is one of the rare examples of honest self-criticism I’ve seen, even if it’s taking shots at a former publisher of his paper.

10 thoughts on “A plea to end media hypocrisy

  1. telso

    Although I’m sure you weren’t thinking of student newspapers when you referred to “private media”, The McGill Daily has had a public editor since 2006. The board probably doesn’t think spending $150 US a year to get their paper in ONO’s list is a worthwhile use of students’ money, especially since the public editor changes every year (and it has often taken till near the end of the fall term before someone’s finally appointed), but maybe ONO will give them a discount.

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  2. Patrick Déry

    Very well said.

    If I may, I disagree about one very specific point:

    “What I’m asking is for the media to understand that bullshitting your consumers just isn’t going to work anymore. They’re too smart to fall for it, and they’re going to look elsewhere if they don’t feel they can get the full story from you.”

    Consumers won’t look elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s a question of being smart or not, but most of them don’t care. Le Journal de Montréal has not lost readers after a one-year lock-out, and after many years of being blatantly one-sided about anything remotely related to Quebecor.

    But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking…;)

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  3. mike

    In my opinion is hypocrite to do this plea now, as an unemployed person. Why not few months before when you where working for a newspaper?

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t pretend that I’m somehow disconnected from this reality, or that I have perfect freedom when I’m working for someone else. And I wanted to be sure people understood that I was truly free to say what I wanted.

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  4. Tux

    People are still stuck in pre-internet thinking. In the hey-day of TV and Newspapers, these were the only real ways to get information from outside the local community. While newspapers and especially TV revolutionized the transmission of information, average people consuming these media had very limited ways of participating. You could write a letter to an editor, or if you were lucky enough to be considered “noteworthy” you might have the chance to talk about your views on TV.

    Now that anyone can transmit almost any amount of information, anywhere, instantly, for free or almost free, the playing field has been leveled somewhat.

    Big media still has something of an upper hand… the internet is still relatively new technology, and there are still a lot of people alive who remember the pre-internet world. Still others fear and actively resist through counterproductive lawmaking (ACTA) the inevitable coming changes. All this adds up to a climate where Big Media is slowly but constantly losing ground in both reader/viewership and advertising dollars, which they are trying desperately to make up for.

    The thing is, they will never be able to compete, the internet offers information for free, and content providers usually have a direct and honest dialog with their audiences. A single skilled blogger can be a worthy competitor to a multi-million dollar news machine nowadays, at least in terms of audience.

    Big content can’t justify giving away content for free (they only do so grudgingly) and they can
    t justify honesty with their audience. The profitability and advantages of these things are hard to put down in an Excel sheet, therefore big corporations won’t do them. Either everyone who runs the company is net-savvy enough to be able to guide a company well as it sails the seas of internet culture, or, as is usually the case, you’ve got a bunch of old white guys who’ve got virus-ridden $3000.00 computers at home that they use to play solitare and surf the web on IE7. These are the guys who think paywalls on news sites are a good idea instead of a laughably stupid one. These are the guys who think no one wants to watch TV on their computer.

    So basically we’ve got these dinosaurs running these huge media companies that are suddenly finding that the money to KEEP them running isn’t there any more, so like a slowly starving beast they get more and more vicious, doing everything they can to survive in a landscape that just doesn’t support them anymore. There’s nothing they can do but get smaller and smarter, and while getting smaller is easy to model in Excel (just cross off a few employees) getting smarter isn’t. Big Media is doomed to die, and to be replaced by Distributed Media.

    All this is just my opinion, obviously.

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  5. Fabrice Calando

    Great post! I’m sharing this with coworkers as we speak! I think this is true of all enterprises, regardless of industry. I think the key statement is

    “What I’m asking is for the media to understand that bullshitting your consumers just isn’t going to work anymore. They’re too smart to fall for it, and they’re going to look elsewhere if they don’t feel they can get the full story from you.”

    Although the impact of bullshitting isn’t always obvious to enterprises and people don’t always realise how different news outlets are owned by the same companies, the consequence is always there. I think the drop in revenue is a big indicator. Consumers are smart and if they feel not treated well, they will go elsewhere or tune out. This trend will become more dramatic as consumers get more and more comfortable with social tools.

    Your post reminds me of a Mitch Joel Podcast I listened to a while back – I’m pretty sure it was this one: http://www.twistimage.com/podcast/archives/spos-190—nurturing-your-best-customers-with-joseph-jaffe/

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  6. wkh

    When I hear La Presse complain about being broke, and yet six days a week receive a beautiful mostly full colour on every page paper, complete with visually stunning space wasting layouts, I feel like someone is playing me for stupid.

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  7. Joe Clark

    One issue is the degree of formality of the venues for externally published criticism of one’s media employer.

    Facebook status updates are kind of lame, since it borders on impossible to link to them. A Twit is rarely of use for this purpose. Internal blog? Viable, but isn’t Weisblott always complaining that nobody reads David Olive’s?

    Outside *watch blog (CBCWatch, QuebecorWatch, etc.)? You’d think those would work, but we have empirical evidence they don’t – dating all the way back to MediaWhoresOnline, MediaWhoresOnlineWatch, MediaWhoresOnlineWatchWatch, and MediaWhoresOnlineWatchWatchWatch and continuing with that troublesome group Weblog.

    Related: Anonymous comments work as well in this context as they do on 4chan.

    Also related: Critique one establishment (e.g., RyeHigh J-school) and a forum for criticism of another establishment will criticize you. In Soviet blogosphere, allies bash you!

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The other thing is that if you leave the criticism to forums that are setup because the authors dislike you, that doesn’t make it any better.

      Independent journalism blogs like Trente and J-Source offer some promise, but they’re done by volunteers who have a habit of being overly polite when it comes to media criticism.

      Reply

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