Tag Archives: journalism

Posted in Media, Technology

TUM TUM TUM TUM, TUM TUM TUM TUM TUM!

TUM pager

In our office, there are a few relics of the pre-Internet era, including pagers similar to the one pictured here. They’re called TUMs, which stand for téléavertisseur d’urgence médiatique. The idea is actually pretty smart, if antiquated: Quebec media are assigned these devices, and all emergency services, whether SQ or local police or fire departments or Transport Quebec or transit agencies, can send short messages about emergency events to everyone at the same time. The messages, written in all-caps, will alert the media to a breaking story, say where it’s happening and give a phone number to call for more information. They even have codes, “rouge” for deaths or life-threatening events, “jaune” for major events that are not life-threatening, and “vert” for information that usually doesn’t relate to an emergency. (You can find the full instructions on its use here)

As the Internet has taken on a larger role, the system has shown its age, and emergency services don’t seem to use it very reliably. So reporters call them up anyway at regular intervals to ask what’s up.

Recently, the group behind this system started emailing those alerts out to journalists using a distribution list. (They’re also on Twitter.) The messages are identical (even still being in all-caps), but email is more reliable, because you don’t forget where you put your email or realize three days later that its battery is dead.

At 1:22pm on Wednesday, an alert went out that said this:

SPVM JAUNE COLIS SUSPECT AU CUSM NON FONDE INFO 514-280-2777

This alerts journalists that a suspicious package found at the MUHC construction site was, in fact, a false alarm.

Two minutes later, journalist Maxime Deland of QMI did a reply-all to the message, apparently accidentally, saying “Je m’occupe de la mise à jour du txt.” Clearly a message that was supposed to be internal to QMI. Except, because it was replied to both the sending address and the receiving one, it went through the distribution list. Which is fine because that list is only one email address.

Normally, a distribution list like this would have protections so that only authorized messages would be sent out. A list run by emergency services that goes out to journalists you’d think would be very concerned about such security. But apparently this one allows any email (or any email from a list member) to be sent through the list to everyone else on it.

You can imagine what happens next: Three minutes later, a Reuters journalist says “Please take my name off these messages.” Ten minutes later, one from Le Droit: “Moi aussi SVP. Je suis en Outaouais… Veuillez me retirer de votre liste d’envois.” Two minutes after that: “Moi aussi svp. Je suis à Québec.”

By 2:12pm (the messages abruptly stop at that point), I count 38 messages sent to this list, including about half a dozen reply-all messages asking people to stop doing reply-alls, a few jokes about how technologically illiterate we all are, and one reply from CJAD asking to ignore a previous reply from CJAD asking to remove it from the distribution list.

Annoying as hell for a bunch of journalists, but for most it gives them something to talk to each other about around the water cooler. (Do they still have water coolers?)

Posted in Media, Opinion

Journalists need to leave the echo chamber

Journalism Strategies panel, from left: Moderator Mike Finnerty, Tony Burman, Kai Nagata, Dominique Payette, Judy Rebick

Last week, I attended a panel discussion about the future of journalism, and specifically about public policies to support journalism and whether we still need professional journalists. I resisted going to such a discussion, but decided to go anyway because the panel had some interesting members. Tony Burman, the former CBC and Al-Jazeera executive; Kai Nagata, the disillusioned former CBC and CTV journalist; Dominique Payette, creator of a report calling for accreditation of professional journalists in Quebec; and Judy Rebick, activist and creator of rabble.ca.

If you missed the panel, there’s a video of it online. It’s about two and a half hours long, including questions.

I was excited by the idea that there would be some interesting debate from people with different perspectives on how journalism should be done. But sadly, none of the debate I wanted to see materialized.

It became clear to me as the discussion went on how one-sided it all was. There was no representation, either on the panel or in the audience, of opinions from the right or even the centre-right. There was lots of discussion about the student strike and how the media was covering it, but no one questioned whether the strike itself was a good idea. There was discussion of Quebecor’s battles with Transcontinental in the community weekly war and how it has changed since the lockout at the Journal de Montréal, but nobody saw fit to defend the empire, or even point out that starting a bunch of new newspapers adds to the number of journalism jobs. There was condemnation of openly right-wing activist media like Sun News Network, but no corresponding condemnation of openly left-wing activist media like The Tyee or Rabble.ca.

I say this not because I want to become a Quebecor apologist or student-basher, but because as a journalist the last place I want to be is an echo chamber where everyone agrees on a set of facts that suit their agenda. I want to be challenged on my preconceptions, I want the most unpopular ideas to get a fair chance at being heard and considered. I want people who disagree on fundamental issues to discuss their opinions with each other instead of putting their hands over their ears.

There’s a reason I put the term “open-minded” in the headline of my review of Sun News Network. Open-mindedness is something I find too many journalists lack. And a closed mind is often the biggest reason why a journalist can’t be completely honest with news consumers.

Dominique Payette

Dominique Payette is a former Radio-Canada journalist, now an academic, who was invited on the panel because of her report into journalism in Quebec. It called for the establishment of a “professional journalist” title that would be given out (and could be taken away) by some quasi-government body. I was among many who argued against it because I’m uncomfortable with the government, no matter how arm’s length the distance, deciding who can and can’t be a journalist.

Payette expressed disappointment, perhaps even annoyance, that her report has essentially been shelved. That’s mainly due to the fact that two groups – the FPJQ, which is an association of Quebec journalists, and the Quebec Press Council, which acts as an ombudsman for Quebec media – both want to be in charge of deciding who gets to be a journalist in Quebec. Faced with a journalistic community divided over how to proceed, the government wasn’t about to start legislating what could be a very controversial issue.

But Payette’s interpretation of the reaction was different. According to her, there was a language divide at play. Anglophone media were largely against the report while francophone media largely supported it. She’s right on the first part – anglo media were just about entirely against the idea, for ideological reasons but also because of some of Payette’s other recommendations, like that all journalists be tested in French language skills. But many francophones also came out against the idea.

Payette also cited a language divide in the coverage of the student protests. Apparently francophone media were largely on the students’ side, while anglophone media were largely on the side of the government. This confused me, until I remembered something she said earlier in the evening.

“I don’t read the Journal de Montréal because it has become a right-wing newspaper”

A journal de droite, she said, in case there’s some debate over my translation. According to Payette, there were no longer journalists working there.

Now, there’s definitely debate to be had about journalistic ethics at the Journal, but it stunned me to hear that a person who considers herself an expert on Quebec media refuses to read its largest newspaper. Not only that, but she then analyzes Quebec media as a whole by conveniently ignoring one of its major players. The Journal de Montréal and other Quebecor media were against the licensing of journalists and highly critical of student protesters, but rather than acknowledge that different media have different opinions on important issues, she ignored media she disagreed with and simply resorted to generalizations and caricatures.

Not that there were too many people in the audience to call her on it. I heard only one question that came close, wondering why, if media working for “social change” was such a good thing, right-wing media like Fox News working for their own social change was so bad. The question wasn’t really answered by the panel, who instead pointed out that Fox News viewers are ill-informed and that the opinions it advocates benefit only a small number of people.

It’s sad to see a group of people, who apparently hold quality journalism so dear, seem to take the stance that activist journalism is okay so long as it’s activism on the left. It’s sad to see a crowd that’s interested in journalism openly applaud leftist activist sentiment.

Sun News personalities speak of the “consensus media” where journalists assume the same (left-wing) opinions as all the other ones, perhaps through peer pressure and a desire to fit in, or for some other reason. Coming out of a discussion like this, it’s hard to disagree.

I don’t want to suggest that the crowd thought with one mind. There were some in the audience (which had representatives from many media outlets, including CTV, CBC, CJAD, The Gazette, OpenFile, Sun Media, Presse canadienne, Projet J and probably others whose faces I didn’t recognize) who pointed out to me privately afterward how disappointed they were in the political bias. I myself didn’t speak up, which might have given others the idea that I endorsed the sentiments being expressed.

But I don’t endorse them. Nor do I endorse the opposite opinions. I believe most divisive political issues aren’t nearly as black and white as many people make them out to be. I don’t believe that people who disagree with me are either evil or stupid. I don’t believe that journalists should embrace bias simply because the ideal of objectivity is unreachable.

And I don’t believe that discussions in which everyone agrees with each other do much to further enlighten anyone.

(Then again, I could be wrong about this. I like to keep an open mind, after all.)

Posted in Media

Another boring journalism conference

I found it interesting that I saw this quote about journalism conferences as I was gathering links for a post about a journalism conference in Montreal.

I like hearing people talk about the trade, and giving insight. And considering what I do, it would be ridiculous to argue that I don’t like navel-gazing about journalism. But I’ve never been a big fan of big academic-style conferences, particularly those that cost hundreds of dollars to attend.

There’s one such conference this weekend, called the Journalism Strategies Conference. It runs Thursday to Saturday. Unfortunately I’m working during much of it so I won’t be able to attend.

But I will be there for a free event on Thursday night, a panel discussion whose lineup is sure to make things interesting:

Just the thought of Payette and Nagata getting into a debate about professional journalism might be worth the price of entry. Which is, you know, free.

The discussion, moderated by Daybreak host Mike Finnerty, begins at 7pm at Concordia’s DB Clarke Theatre (underneath the lobby of the Hall Building at 1455 de Maisonneuve W., corner Mackay). The Facebook event page is here.

There’s another free event Friday at 6pm at the McGill faculty club, with invited guests from abroad.

Two organizers of the conference, Christine Crowther and Lisa Lynch, appeared on CINQ-FM’s Digital Life Show last weekend to talk about it. You can download the podcast on their website.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Show me your paper’s papers

It's not always so easy distinguishing journalists from the rest

At its general assembly on Nov. 28, the Fédération profesionnelle des journalistes du Québec will be debating a series of motions recommended by the organization’s executive committee. Among them is a demand for a parliamentary commission into the Journal de Montréal lockout, an update to its ethics guidelines to reflect the development of social media (a subject I’ve been invited to speak about at a panel discussion the day before), and a bill of rights for freelancers.

These things sound pretty good (though the wording of the demand for a parliamentary commission sounds like its goal is to get the government to publicly embarrass Quebecor and come down against the creation of the QMI Agency news service).

There’s also a motion to expand the definition of “Quebec”, as silly as that sounds, to include those media organizations that “étant établie au Canada, entretient avec le Québec des liens historiques et culturels“, which sounds a lot like they’ll accept francophone journalists from just about anywhere in Canada. I’m not necessarily against this, but it opens up a can of worms (will the FPJQ now have to deal with the Ontario and New Brunswick governments?) and reinforces the idea that there’s a French mediasphere and an English one, and the FPJQ is on the French side.

But the motion that really bothers me is a proposal to setup a certification system for journalists.

Continue reading

Posted in Media, Opinion, Technology

La Presse’s social media policy: Is it realistic?

La Presse has set new rules on how reporters can use Facebook and other social media

Patrick Lagacé has published on his blog a new policy on the use of social media by journalists at La Presse and Cyberpresse.

Having such a policy is a really good idea and I wish more media organizations would develop their own (or adapt those used by other organizations) and have frank, constructive conversations with their staff about using social media as part of their jobs.

But while Lagacé describes his employer’s policy as “le gros bon sens”, I wonder how seriously it can be taken and how rigidly it can be enforced in real-life situations.

Let’s explore it point by point:

  • Don’t republish (or “retweet”) unverified information. As Lagacé says, this is the “Pat Burns” clause, and it just makes sense. Some social media experts argue that journalists should republish unverified rumours and explain that they’re unverified, but I think even retweeting incorrect information can be damaging to your reputation. That said, how far should we take this rule? If a competitor has a major scoop, should it not be mentioned or even linked to on social media until the journalist has independently confirmed it? What about reports from so-called citizen journalists? Or celebrity gossip?
  • Journalists (except columnists and editorialists) should avoid publishing their political or religious opinions or taking sides in societal debates. I’m guessing this refers more to taking sides on, say, the euthanasia debate than the latest episode of Mad Men. I like the idea behind this, but I think journalists suppressing their opinions gives a false impression to news consumers that they have none. I’d rather have a journalist who expresses their point of view and keeps an open mind than one who keeps it bottled up and lets biases show up in print.
  • Journalists (except columnists and critics) should avoid giving their opinion on an event they’re covering. This one is more straight-forward. If you’re at a press conference given by Pierre-Karl Péladeau, don’t tweet “QUEBECOR SUCKS”. But would this mean, for example, that Fabrice de Pierrebourg couldn’t comment about politics?
  • Unless an agreement has been reached beforehand, journalists should report breaking news to Cyberpresse before publishing it through social media. This one bothers me a bit. Beat writers constantly have little bits of news that they publish on Twitter. Waiting for Cyberpresse editors to create a story and publish it online can waste valuable minutes and give competitors a speed advantage (looking at Cyberpresse’s Twitter feed, I don’t see a single breaking news tweet over the past two weeks that doesn’t link to an already-published story). Besides, why encourage people to follow journalists if you don’t want them to publish important news? I can understand wanting to make sure breaking news is on Cyberpresse’s website as soon as possible, but I think both should try to publish information as fast as possible, without one waiting for the other.
  • Journalists should indicate in social media profiles their employment for La Presse. Agreed. It’s something a bunch of people forget to do, but it’s important for the sake of disclosure. (Of course, context is everything – I’d expect this information on a beat writer’s Twitter account, but is it necessary for an online dating site?)
  • Profile pictures should be “professional” and not carry any campaign material (like those “twibbons”). I’m not entirely sure what “professional” means (no party pictures on Facebook, or just no pictures of drunken debauchery?), but it makes sense, provided the profile on the social media site is being used in a professional context. As for the “twibbons” (those little flags in the corner of profile pictures that show support for a cause, whether it’s supporting Haiti or bringing the Nordiques to Quebec), I’ve seen quite a few on journalist profile pictures and I wonder if a blanket ban is realistic here.
  • Journalists should inform their employer in writing if they have a personal blog outside of Cyberpresse. Having it in writing seems a bit much, but ok. But does this include, say, a LiveJournal account that’s restricted to friends? Does it include anonymous blogs? (Can you be disciplined if they find out you run an anonymous blog and didn’t tell them about it?)
  • Journalists should avoid publishing photos, videos or commentaries about meetings or other private events at the office. This sort of goes to one of the rules that many people overlook but is one of the most important: Don’t publish information meant for internal use only. Sometimes it can be something that seems innocent but turns out to be damaging, like inadvertently disclosing a colleague’s secret source or tweeting about office gossip. It may seem odd that media organizations would want to be anything but fully transparent (and I certainly believe in having as much transparency as possible), but there are things that are kept from the public for good reason.

I think my biggest issue with these new rules is that their goal is to dehumanize journalists, to present them as if they’re infallible beacons of objectivity and have no views of their own, even on society’s most polarizing issues. It encourages journalists to go underground with their personal feelings, either through locked-down personal social media profiles or by using pseudonyms to express themselves. It goes in the opposite direction of recent moves by La Presse and Cyberpresse to put their journalists in the spotlight, putting their photos with their stories on Cyberpresse and encouraging them to start blogs.

Of course, few of these rules apply to columnists, of which there are an increasing number. So Patrick Lagacé can be as irreverent as he wants on Les Francs-Tireurs, and Hugo Dumas can still say what he wants about Tout le monde en parle. Becoming a columnist now becomes a way of gaining freedom of personal expression, even if a columnist’s role is mainly journalistic in nature.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that my blog probably goes against the letter of about half of these rules. I wonder how much of what I do here would be considered inappropriate by the authors of this policy.

A good first step

Despite my concerns, I think this is a step in the right direction. News organizations need to have discussions with journalists about social media, and this policy was the result of such discussions. It might need a few tweaks to consider various contexts, but the fundamentals are sound. Journalists shouldn’t be advocating on one side or another of the debates they cover, and social media doesn’t change that. Nor does it provide a way to escape being as a journalist, because people will judge you as much for what you write as your Facebook status update as what you write in the lead of your next news story.

Even those journalists without formal policies should look at the above and consider following these rules (or at least understanding why they exist and thinking hard before breaking them, like I do regularly).

Because when it comes to journalists using social media, the most important rule to follow is to use common sense.

UPDATE: NPR has sent out a memo to employees warning them about attending rallies organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo has some common-sense rules about journalists engaging in political activity.

UPDATE (Oct. 20): The Washington Post is the latest to weigh in with warnings, saying that reader engagement is important in social media, but that journalists shouldn’t actually, you know, engage with readers.

UPDATE (Nov. 14): A piece in Trente calls for honesty if not absolute objectivity.

UPDATE (April 5): Mathew Ingram, formerly of the Globe and Mail, criticizes a similar social media policy at the Toronto Star that suggests reporters shouldn’t discuss articles in progress or engage with readers in online forums.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Rue Frontenac and donation priorities

There’s a debate going on, sparked by Steve Proulx, about whether Montrealers should be directing their donations directly to Haiti relief than by funding a trip by journalists from Rue Frontenac to cover the devastation.

It’s a simple argument, but there are a lot of nuanced points to consider on both sides:

  • Donations aren’t always a zero-sum game (though “donor fatigue” was brought into the lexicon after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Different causes attract different people, and the difference may not be between donating to Rue Frontenac and donating to Haiti, but between donating to Rue Frontenac and keeping the money to oneself.
  • There are already plenty of journalists in Haiti covering it. Is there really an advantage to sending more of them, especially when they might put even more strain on the already struggling resources of the area? Especially when the stories they file, while very emotional, don’t provide much in the way of useful news?
  • People making these donations are grown-ups and can decide for themselves how much money goes to humanitarian causes and how much goes to fund journalism
  • If we accept this logic, then how will organizations like Spot.Us (Dominic Arpin notes the similarity between the two) that take donations for journalism ever be able to cover humanitarian crises?
  • Rue Frontenac is not a newspaper. It’s not a profit-making enterprise. Its purpose is technically as a pressure tactic in negotiations with the Journal de Montréal to get locked-out journalists and other employees back to work. It doesn’t need to send journalists to Haiti to prove itself.

I stopped by Rue Frontenac’s offices this week and had a chat with one of its journalists, Jean-François Codère. He argued that other news media sending journalists to Haiti (and everyone’s doing it – The Gazette, La Presse, TVA, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, CTV, CBC among others) at much expense rather than donating money to relief causes.

Personally, I see both sides. I prefer to give my money to the Red Cross than Rue Frontenac because I think what Haiti is suffering from right now is not a lack of western journalists. But I don’t blame anyone for wanting to put a few bucks toward their plane tickets (their salaries are being paid out of the union’s strike fund). It’s their choice.

In any case, they’ve already got money and are reporting from Haiti. Vincent Larouche has a report and Martin Bouffard has photos and a video.

Posted in Media

It’s just copyright infringement

I was reading an article online by Jean-François Lisée, about the whole Denise Bombardier/Pierre Foglia brouhaha, when I came across this:

Denise Bombardier a dégainé dans Le Devoir de samedi le 17 octobre. Le texte L’intouchable (pas en accès libre sur le site du Devoir mais repris ici), vaut le détour et se conclut comme suit:

Le Devoir is one of the few remaining newspapers that still keeps its online articles restricted to subscribers, which is quite annoying to bloggers but nevertheless their choice. Though there are many articles published by the paper that talk about Quebec media (without the awkwardness of being owned by a huge megacorporation like Gesca, Quebecor, CTV or Canwest), I can’t share them because others don’t have access.

In this case, an anonymous member posted the complete text of the article on the public forums of the Cowboys Fringants website, allowing others to read it without subscribing. That forum post was passed around through social media, in lieu of a proper Le Devoir link.

The post is blatant copyright infringement, and Lisée clearly knows that. But he links to it anyway in his blog.

What’s surprising is that this is something I see a lot of from professional journalists online. Maybe it’s a YouTube video of the latest Tout le monde en parle segment that’s getting everyone talking, or some photo they found on the Internet that they want to use to illustrate a blog post. They’ll link to or duplicate something that they either know or should know is infringing on someone else’s copyright.

You’d think professional writers, of all people, would know better.

Posted in Media, Navel-gazing

The Link looks at media democracy

The Link, one of the student-run papers at Concordia University, focuses this week on the challenges facing the news media in its Media Democracy special issue.

The eight-page insert is part of the weekly paper, available for free on campus or for download in this 10MB PDF file. Or you can read the stories online.

Among the articles is this interview with some know-it-all complaining about his doomed career.

Also in this section:

Posted in In the news, Media, Opinion

Reporters gone wild

Monday’s paper contained a couple of first-person pieces from reporters who were a bit closer to the action than they normally are. In the first, Gazette reporter Jason Magder recounts walking by a relative’s place whose burglar alarm had just gone off. Nothing happened, but he got scared when he thought there might be nefarious burglars nearby. He later learns that police recommend always calling them first, even if it’s more than likely a false alarm and will result in a fine, because (and this is pretty good logic here) a fine is worth less than your life.

The other, a few pages down, comes from Canwest’s Scott Deveau, who is a reporter in Afghanistan and came face-to-face with a roadside bomb. Again, no serious repercussions, but a pretty huge scare.

So what should we learn from this encounter? Simple: Jason Magder and Scott Deveau are pussies.

But perhaps we can look into this a bit deeper. What purpose do these first-person articles serve? There have been other home break-ins and other roadside bombings that have been worse but gotten less coverage. Is a reporter’s first-person account better than a second-hand version given by a witness? Is this a this-happens-every-day story? Or is it just a way for reporters to placate their enormous egos, a preview into their future memoirs, and an indication that things are more significant when they happen to people we know?

Discuss. Please include unnecessarily personal references in your comments.