So it’s done. At 5am Eastern Time today, after a repeat of Byline with Brian Lilley and a promo ad featuring Pat Bolland, Sun News Network cut to black, eventually being replaced with notices from distributors that the channel has ceased operations.
So it’s done. At 5am Eastern Time today, after a repeat of Byline with Brian Lilley and a promo ad featuring Pat Bolland, Sun News Network cut to black, eventually being replaced with notices from distributors that the channel has ceased operations.
This marks the second provincial election campaign in which TVA has decided to separate itself from the consortium that organizes televised leaders’ debates and go it alone with a series of one-on-one debates.
It almost didn’t happen. Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois said no at first, wanting to limit her to the other, more traditional debate that aired on Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec. But she later relented.
You might recall that the Sun News Network, which like TVA is owned by Quebecor Media, also aired the TVA face-à-face debates in 2012. Few people watched it on Sun News, but when a report about the debate that included two short clips were posted to Sun News’s website, it went a bit viral. The clips came to a total of about 23 seconds, and they were highlights picked by Sun News, so they didn’t show the worst parts.
Since the translated debates weren’t posted online, they might have been lost to history if not for one thing: I recorded all three hour-long debates on my PVR. And they’ve been sitting there ever since.
With the 2014 face-à-face debates only hours away, I recorded some clips from the debate and compiled them into eight minutes of highlights. The result is the video you see above.
A source at Sun News tells me that the network will air tonight’s debate, but that they have hired different translators.
I’ll be PVRing it anyway. Just in case.
TVA’s face-à-face debates air Thursday, March 27 from 8pm to 10pm on TVA and simultaneously translated on Sun News Network. It will also air on CPAC.
UPDATE: After posting the video to YouTube, I went in to clean the automatically-generated captions. But the captions generated for the debate clips were just so great that I couldn’t touch them. They include such gems as:
We’re now a month away from all (licensed) cable, satellite and IPTV companies in Canada being required to add the Sun News Network to their systems, but one important question remains unanswered: Does Sun News have to be added to analog cable as well as digital?
It may seem like a simple question, but I’ve gotten contradictory answers on it, as I write in this story at Cartt.ca.
When the CRTC made its decision two months ago that all licensed TV distributors in Canada had to make all five national news channels available to all subscribers, it gave them until March 19 to come into compliance with the more important part of its order: adding Sun News to their systems. (Most of them already carry the other four channels — CBC News Network, RDI, CTV News Channel and LCN.) The TV distributors have a further two months, until May 20, to comply with other aspects of the order, requiring the channels to be added to the “best” packages “consistent with their genre and programming,” requiring that each be available à la carte (where possible) and filing affiliation agreements with the CRTC.
But the order, and the decision that led to it, don’t say anything about analog cable. This despite the fact that Sun News made distribution on analog one of its key arguments in favour of a mandatory distribution order. Sun argued that its audience skews older and rural, and that those viewers are more likely to have analog cable service.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has issued an order that all five Canadian national news channels (CBC News Network, RDI, LCN, CTV News Channel and Sun News Network) must be carried by all Canadian television distributors as of March 14, 2014.
The order requires the channels be made available, though not necessarily on the basic service. They will also need to be available on a stand-alone basis (i.e. individually) as of May 20 (or May 19, there’s a discrepancy between the languages).
The decision is a big win for Sun News, which has been arguing that carriage problems are the big reason the channel has not been successful. Now, with an order requiring that every cable company offer the channel to subscribers, and without having to buy other channels, they can’t really make this argument any more.
Sun News is already carried by most Canadian distributors. Telus and MTS are the biggest holdouts. But this decision gives it a bargaining chip during negotiations, which will help it push for a higher wholesale subscription fee.
The decision also requires distributors to put each channel in “the best available discretionary package consistent with its genre and programming, unless the parties agree otherwise.” This is open to interpretation, but if distributors create a popular news package, it must include all five Canadian national news channels.
But the biggest win is that it applies to all licensed distributors (some very small distributors with fewer than 20,000 subscribers are exempt from regulation, so this wouldn’t affect them). Though the decision does not discuss it, this appears to apply to analog cable as well, where Sun News currently has no carriage. Though analog cable is now a minority of subscribers nationally, Sun argued that its channel skews toward older Canadians, who are more likely to be on analog cable.
If this is the case (I’ve asked the CRTC to confirm my interpretation), then it will be annoying for distributors who are trying to move to digital cable. Now they’ll have to find a bandwidth-hogging analog channel for Sun News, and if they don’t already distribute LCN and CTV that way, those channels too.
This isn’t a win on all levels for Sun. It doesn’t give the channel what it had originally asked for — mandatory distribution to all Canadians on basic. It also doesn’t regulate channel placement (Sun News had wanted to require distributors to put its channel next to other news channels on the dial), though it establishes guidelines for “news neighbourhoods”, effectively saying that if distributors redo their lineups to put like services together, it should include all five Canadian national news channels near each other. It suggested that failure to do this could result in an undue preference complaint.
Distributors who don’t have their own national news channels (i.e. everyone but Bell and Quebecor) argued that to give these channels this privilege, there must be more stringent criteria for licensing new channels, otherwise there could be an explosion of such channels as everyone starts out of the gate with guaranteed access rights. The CRTC didn’t set new criteria, but because the order only applies to the five services currently in operation, a new service would need a separate decision to get the same rights.
The CRTC says it will look at what criteria it should set for licensing new national news services during its wide-ranging review of the television regulation model. Until it does (the process is expected to take most of 2014), it will not process new applications for national news channels under the “Category C” framework that the five existing ones are subject to.
The decision also doesn’t completely level the playing field. It does not require that news channels on basic be removed from it. So if your provider has CBC News Network, RDI and CTV News Channel on basic, they’re not required to add LCN and Sun News to it as well. It just needs to make those two available.
Quebecor welcomed the decision in a statement: “Sun News will move forward in 2014 by negotiating new cable and satellite agreements that are in alignment with the new policy framework to ensure that Sun News is treated in a substantially similar fashion to other all news channels.”
Sun News Network lives. And you won’t be forced to pay for it through a mandatory tax.
On Thursday, the CRTC issued a series of decisions about applications for mandatory distribution on basic cable and satellite TV services. Most of the new applications were denied, including that of Sun News Network, which argued it should be placed on basic cable across the country so it can get the same regulatory boost that its competitors CBC News Network and CTV News Channel once enjoyed themselves. (They don’t anymore, though CBC News Network is mandatory in French-language markets and both are on most large providers’ basic packages.)
The reason was simple: Sun News is not exceptional, and hence does not qualify for an exception. Though it is certainly different from the other Canadian all-news channels, it is not significantly more Canadian nor does it serve a goal of the Broadcasting Act that the other services don’t.
It said it couldn’t continue to operate at seven-figure losses without the distribution order. But with the announcement of the new proceeding, it says it will keep operating.
This denial was predictable. It was only in 2009 that the CRTC officially opened the genre of mainstream news channels to direct competition, allowing all of them to be treated equally and allowing the free market to dictate carriage and pricing. To then turn around four years later and start re-regulating this genre makes no sense.
But Sun News had some important and valid points to make in its favour. It argued it was being treated unfairly by competing distributors (notably Bell, which owns CTV News Channel). It said it couldn’t come to deals with certain distributors, and that as a channel that provides 100% Canadian content and more than 90 hours a week of original programming, it should be treated better than channels that air reruns of Lois & Clark.
So the CRTC did what it usually does with controversial issues: It struck a compromise. No mandatory carriage, but it is proposing that all digital television distributors be required to offer all Canadian news channels to their subscribers, that they be required to group Canadian news channels together on their channel lineups, and that they be required to package Canadian news channels together.
In its call for comments on the proposal, it notes that, though older news channels don’t enjoy the kinds of regulatory perks they used to, their incumbency gives them an advantage:
Due to incumbency, non-Canadian services are distributed for the most part in packages that enjoy high penetration and therefore significant access to potential viewership by Canadians. These services have also secured more lucrative wholesale fees when compared to their Canadian counterparts. On average, non-Canadian news services receive a wholesale fee of $0.73 per subscriber per month, whereas English- and French-language Canadian news services receive on average a wholesale fee of $0.36 per subscriber per month.
Specifically, the proposed rules are as follows:
Note that these rules would apply to national news channels under Category C, not to regional news channels like CP24, or to news-like Category B channels like BNN or Argent.
As it stands now, Sun News is carried by most major television providers in Canada, including Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Videotron, Cogeco, Eastlink and Sasktel. The largest holdouts are Telus Optik TV and Manitoba’s MTS.
But getting an order requiring distribution would give Sun News a leg up on negotiations. It would no longer have to beg for a spot on the dial. And submitting the channels to automatic dispute resolution would give distributors (and Sun) additional incentive to come to a deal.
The packaging requirement would give Sun News its biggest boost, requiring distributors to distribute channels like Sun News in their most popular news packages, and possibly force people to subscribe to it if they want non-Canadian channels like CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.
The exact details of how that would work will probably be worked out through this process.
Sun News made a big deal about channel placement, and this proposal hopes to address that, but as I’ve written previously, that’s not such a huge issue for most distributors, which already place Sun News with other news channels. The exceptions are Shaw Cable and Rogers Cable (admittedly the most popular cable systems), which had Sun News as an outlier among Canadian news channels. The Rogers case was often cited because it put its own regional news channel CityNews on Channel 15 in SD. (That channel has since been shut down.)
One thing this won’t do, though, is put Sun News on analog cable, which is still used by about 20% of Canadian television subscribers. The CRTC says it made it very clear that it will not add new services to analog cable, and it won’t make an exception here. So despite Sun’s arguments that its competitors are on analog cable and its viewership skews toward older Canadians who are more likely to have analog cable, it won’t have access to them unless (or, likely, until) they upgrade to digital.
Expect this proposal to meet opposition, both from Sun News opponents and from distributors who oppose more rules about how they should package and number channels.
But though I have issues with forcing Sun News onto subscribers who might want CNN or MSNBC (assuming this is a result of this process), the proposal strikes a balance between the desire to encourage new Canadian news channels and the desire for consumer choice.
Remember that this policy would apply to all Canadian national news channels. If Global decided to launch one or expand its BC1 service nationally, or if a channel like BNN decided to convert to this category, it would have the same obligations and benefits.
The CRTC is accepting comments on this proposal, and has not set it in stone yet. It has not called a hearing to discuss it, and generally proposed policies presented in this way have already been decided on and will be approved. It will be up to interveners (in this case, the cable and satellite distributors or other broadcasters) to bring up any issues the CRTC may not have considered and to recommend minor changes to the policy, but the commission is unlikely to be swayed to abandon it entirely.
The CRTC is accepting comments until 8pm ET Sept. 9, and those that file comments may reply to others’ comments by Sept. 24. After that, the commission will consider a decision, and the new rules could take effect within 90 days of a decision on a new policy. “The Commission intends to act swiftly on this matter,” it says.
Comments can be filed by clicking here. Note that all information provided, including contact information, is placed on the public record.
More coverage of Sun News decision:
The CRTC’s long-awaited decision on mandatory carriage came out today. While everyone’s attention was on Sun News Network, which was denied a mandatory carriage order but thrown a bone with a review of rules concerning the distribution of Canadian news channels — see my analysis of that decision here — there were a bunch of decisions here. For the most part, proposals for new services were denied and existing services were renewed, some at slightly higher rates.
The exceptions are these:
Here, in chart form, is what was proposed and what the CRTC decided for each channel:
|Channel||Description||Language||Current fee||Requested fee||Approved fee||Conditions||Notes|
|ACCENTS||Francophone minority communities||French||N/A||$0.25||Denied||Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|All Points Bulletin||Police bulletins||English||N/A||$0.06 (E)||Denied||Licence renewed as non-mandatory service|
|AMI-audio||Readings of news articles||English||$0.04 (E)||$0.04 (E)||$0.04 (E)||Licence renewed|
|AMItv||Described video||English||$0.20 (E), $0 (F)||$0.20 (E), $0 (F)||$0.20 (E), $0 (F)||Licence renewed|
|AMItv Français||Described video||French||N/A||$0 (E), $0.30 (F)||$0 (E), $0.28 (F)||New licence approved|
|APTN||Aboriginal||English, French and Aboriginal languages||$0.25||$0.40||$0.31||Licence renewed|
|ARTV||Arts and culture||French||N/A||N/A||N/A||Service has access rights across Canada, but remains discretionary||Licence was renewed as part of larger CBC licence renewals|
|Avis de recherche||Police bulletins||French||$0.06||$0.08||$0.06||Service remains mandatory only in Quebec, only until Aug. 31, 2015||Licence renewed as non-mandatory service until 2020|
|Canadian Punjabi Network||Punjabi programs||Punjabi||N/A||$0||Denied||Had requested mandatory distribution only in areas with high Punjabi-speaking population. Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|Canal M||Audio reading service||French||$0.02 (F)||$0.04 (F)||$0.02 (F)||Licence renewed|
|CPAC||House of Commons and other public affairs programming||English and French||$0.11||$0.12||$0.12||Licence renewed|
|Described Video Guide||Audio service of described video programming information||English||N/A||$0.02 (E)||Denied||Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|Dolobox||User-generated content||English||N/A||$0.06 to $0.08||Denied||Service remains licenced but has yet to launch|
|EqualiTV||Programming about people with disabilities||English||N/A||$0.25||Denied||Service remains licenced but has yet to launch|
|FUSION||Youth/user-generated content||English||N/A||$0.32 (E), $0.16 (F)||Denied||Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|IDNR-TV||Natural resources||English/French||N/A||$0||Denied||Licence renewed as non-mandatory service|
|Legislative assemblies of Nunavut and NWT||Legislative hearings||English/other||N/A||$0||$0||Applies only to satellite services||Terrestrial distributors in the territories already carry these channels|
|Maximum Television||Video-on-demand||English||N/A||N/A||Denied||Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|Starlight||Canadian movies||English||N/A||$0.40||Denied||Licence denied as it was dependent on mandatory distribution|
|Sun News||Right-wing news||English||N/A||$0.18 (E), $0.09 (F)||Denied||The CRTC is looking at setting new rules about distribution of Canadian news channels. Will continue as non-mandatory service|
|TV5 and TV5 UNIS||Francophones outside Quebec||French||N/A||$0.30||$0.28 (F), $0.24 (E)||Both channels combined must produce at least 50% Canadian content; Order comes into effect only after TV5 UNIS’s launch||Dissenting opinion from Candice Molnar saying service does not qualify for distribution order. Licence renewed|
|Vision TV||Faith programming||English||N/A||$0.12||Denied||Licence renewed as non-mandatory service|
|TOTAL||$0.60 (E), $0.44 (F)||$2.72 (E), $2.47 (F)||$0.91 (E), $1.07 (F)||New distribution orders in effect until Aug. 31, 2018.|
(F) denotes fees in markets with a majority francophone population, and (E) denotes all other markets. For simplicity, I’ve included Quebec-only distribution orders as French-language markets, though the two definitions are not identical.
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of mandatory carriage channels. CBC News Network (in French-language markets), RDI (in English-language markets) and The Weather Network/MétéoMédia also have mandatory distribution at non-zero rates.
UPDATE: L’Express Ottawa speaks to the people behind ACCENTS, who say the CRTC’s decision was flawed and they don’t believe TV5 will properly fulfill the mandate of giving a voice to francophones outside of Quebec.
Today is the second anniversary of the Sun News Network.
Canada’s small-c conservative news channel launched on April 18, 2011, days before the royal wedding of the century, a historic federal election and the surprise death of Osama bin Laden. It promised to break stories that the other media wouldn’t cover, to give a voice to those it felt had been blacklisted by the other media, and to present ideas that were politically incorrect.
Even before it launched, it was attacked by the establishment and by left-wing activists. Combined with some reporting that failed to properly explain the issues at hand, this left many Canadians with an incomplete, biased or simply incorrect picture of what the news channel was about. I was skeptical about the quality of its journalism, but also encouraged that there would be a specialty channel out there that would create all of its own programming instead of relying on rebroadcasting U.S. specialty channels, airing reruns of TV series from decades past, or reshowing the same hit shows that have already aired on the broadcast networks.
I finally gave the network a review after one year. Most of my worries turned out to be justified. Its production values are cheap, it preaches to the converted, its primetime hosts (all white men) are unrelatable mainly because of the size of their egos.
Not much has changed in the year since. Most of the personalities are the same, with the notable exception of Krista Erickson (what she’s up to now is a mystery – her website, blog and Facebook page haven’t been updated since November). The shows still look the same, still sound the same, still have the same strengths and weaknesses.
I find myself watching it less and less these days, except for the sweeps I do of all the news channels when there’s breaking or other live events happening. It doesn’t have a must-see program, and with PVRs there’s no reason to stumble on it when you’re bored during the day.
But still, in an era where specialty channels are doing their best to de-specialize and go after the cheapest and most profitable content, it’s nice that there’s one force out there that believes original programming can make a network work.
All that original programming is expensive. Thanks to the CRTC we know that it cost $14 million in 2012. Added to overhead expenses, Sun News costs $22 million a year to run. But it made only $5.7 million in subscription fees and advertising. And subscription fees, under 10 cents a month per subscriber, make up the bulk of that. The network draws only $3,750 a day in advertising revenue. Business News Network draws more than six times that.
Sun blames this low revenue on lack of subscriptions, which it in turn blames on the big cable and satellite companies not packaging it attractively. The channel has 4.9 million subscribers, which is less than half of the 11 million subscriptions to CBC News Network, but puts it on par with channels like Lifetime, OLN and Showcase Action, and well ahead of some other more niche channels, not to mention every French-language specialty channel in Quebec that isn’t forced on subscribers.
So it is coming to the CRTC, asking that it issue an order requiring all cable and satellite providers to not only carry the channel (some like Telus and MTS still don’t have it at all), but to add it to all their customers’ basic cable packages, and even force it onto analog cable as well.
Once again, there has been some spin on both sides about this application. Sun argues it wants a fair shot in this hyper-regulated environment, while its enemies say it’s grossly hypocritical for a group that advocates choice and freedom to be asking the government to force people to pay for something they don’t want.
The hearing into Sun News and all the other applications for mandatory carriage begins next week in Gatineau. I’ve written a story for J-Source outlining the case and Sun News’s chances of getting what it wants.
People ask me a lot how I think the CRTC will rule on a controversial application, and the truth is I don’t know. I can point to precedent, but applicants and intervenors find creative ways to argue why precedent shouldn’t apply. The CRTC’s decisions wouldn’t be controversial if they were easy, and the hard ones are hard to predict.
Still, we can look at a few clues that might hint at which way the commission will go. The biggest one is that it has already deregulated mainstream news channels somewhat, opening them up so they can compete directly with each other. This presupposes that the channels are similar in nature, which would seem to go against one of the main criteria for granting this status, that a service be exceptional. Similarly, granting this request would set its own precedent, encouraging every other new news network to do the same. Global and Rogers have new regional news networks, and would probably be next in line for mandatory carriage.
Sun also makes a less than solid case that it needs this status because it can’t reach subscribers. There are channels out there that would love to have 4.5 million subscribers. And the CRTC is unlikely to feel this is the proper solution to a dispute over packaging. Sun makes a good point that it’s not accessible on analog cable, but neither are CityNews, Global BC1 and every other channel that has launched in the past decade. It’s an argument to rethink policy about analog cable, but not to force Sun News on consumers.
So my instinct is that Sun News will be denied mandatory carriage, along with most of the other applicants that come in front of the CRTC in this two-week hearing. But I’ve been surprised before.
And if the CRTC does say no, how long will Quebecor keep financing it before it realizes that market forces are just not on Sun News’s side?
Do you believe in fairness? Do you believe in freedom? Do you believe in Canada? Do you believe in puppies?
Both Sun News Network and its (primarily left-wing) opponents are debating the network’s application for mandatory carriage on cable and satellite systems, which was published on Monday and will be the subject of a CRTC hearing on April 23. Each has prepared talking points to further their causes for and against. Unfortunately, a lot of them are based on incorrect information or oversimplifications of complex issues.
This is primarily the fault of the CRTC, which has a very complex regulatory system governing television distribution (and in particular specialty channels), one that is constantly changing.
To help clear up some of this, I’ll offer some perspective on the claims made so far in this debate so you can form a better opinion (or, more likely, use them against your opponents in your Twitter flame wars).
For the claims from Sun News, I’ll primarily refer to tweets from “Canadian TV First”, its marketing campaign to support this application.
Sun News Network wants to take away your freedom to not pay for Sun News Network.
That’s spin, of course, but it happens to be true. Quebecor’s freedom-loving, CBC-criticizing network is one of 22 existing and yet-to-be-launched cable channels that are applying to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission asking for it to require all Canadian cable, satellite and IPTV providers to put their channels in their basic packages and require all subscribers to pay for them whether they want them or not.
On Monday, the commission announced a hearing April 23 in Gatineau to consider applications related to mandatory carriage, as well as licence renewals for independent television stations and specialty services.
Different specialty channels have different categories that have different rights and responsibilities. Most new channels are what’s called Category B. Channels in those categories come with no requirement for cable or satellite companies to carry them. They have to negotiate carriage with each cable and satellite company, and agree on things like wholesale rates and packaging. Older specialty channels are Category A, which have genre protection, meaning that new channels can’t compete directly with them. They also must be made available on all digital cable systems, but can be made discretionary (meaning the subscribers decide whether they want to pay for them). Mainstream news and sports channels are Category C, which are designed to maximize competition and remove genre-related protections.
What’s important here is that some channels have more rights than others. But a few channels have the ultimate regulatory gift: an order requiring all television distributors to put the channel in their basic packages and charge for them at a rate set by the commission. These include:
Adding these together, it comes to $0.85 per month or $10.20 a year in French markets and $0.78 per month or $9.36 a year in English markets that goes on cable bills for mandatory channels.
The commission doesn’t make this status easy to get. There has to be a compelling reason why all Canadians must have access to these services. Existing ones qualify because they provide essential news and information to minority-language communities (CBCNN, RDI and TVA), target underserved, disadvantaged minority communities (APTN, AMI, M), provide essential information on a non-profit basis (Avis de recherche and CPAC) or offer an essential service (The Weather Network/MétéoMédia, which got the status with a promise to become a national emergency broadcaster).
The official criteria for getting this status are more vague:
The key points here are that it has to be exceptional, and it has to be exceptionally Canadian. It will be up to the CRTC to decide if the new proposed services meet those criteria.
I’m going to tell you a secret about journalism. Some of the most thoroughly-researched reports, the ones splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines and given top billing in newscasts, take a gamble on the truth.
It’s not just the sensationalist media like Sun News or the Journal de Montréal, it’s La Presse, The Gazette, Le Devoir, CTV, Global, CBC. It’s almost everyone (I’m hedging my bets here – I don’t know of any media that outlaws this practice by policy).
It happens almost every time journalists or their editors use the word “exclusive”.
Now, it’s very rare that they get this wrong. It’s like betting that Université Laval wins the Quebec football championship (says the frustrated Stingers fan). And when it does go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Nobody gets sued, nobody loses their job, it’s just a bit embarrassing when someone points it out.
Take this story. It happened a year ago. La Presse finds out that Bixi is expanding to Longueuil, and presents it as an exclusive. But Le Devoir also found out, and published its own story that same day. Le Devoir didn’t use the “exclusive” label, but did write “a appris Le Devoir”, which is, of course, correct.
I tweeted about it, and there were some giggles, but that was it. No scandal here.
So how does this happen?
For most journalism, particularly for the mainstream media, the source of stories is easy to figure out. Some stories come from the police media spokespeople, reporting on the car crashes and crimes and other events that required emergency services. Some stories come through press releases or other ways that companies push the media to talk about them in a good light. Some stories come out of things said publicly by politicians or published by government bodies. Some come at prearranged sporting events, or special screenings given to journalists. Some stories are stolen from other media (“matched” is the term – crediting the other media only when the story has facts that can not be confirmed).
But then there’s the rest. The stories that require real work. The ones that require months of investigation through talking to sources and filing access to information requests. That ones that come because a journalist is the only one paying attention to a story when it breaks. And the ones that are handed to journalists on silver platters by people who may or may not have personal agendas wanting to see secrets exposed.
When these stories are published, the question comes up: Is this an exclusive? Does some other journalist have this? Could anyone else also possibly be reporting on this?
For long investigations, the answer is almost always no. I mean, what are the chances that another journalist has also been working for days, weeks or even months on this same story and is going to publish it the same day? Virtually impossible.
For stories based on polls, exclusivity is contractual. Exclusive polls are paid, with the understanding that the company or companies that pay for it get first dibs at reporting its results. And even if another poll comes out that reports the same thing, a newspaper can still say that their particular poll is exclusive to them.
Stories that are leaked to journalists, however, are more likely to suffer the embarrassment of being proved wrong. After all, if someone wants to leak something, they might tell more than one journalist about it. In these cases, journalists are extra careful, relying on how much they trust the source when that source says that he or she hasn’t told any other journalist about this story.
“Exclusive”, at its very basic, is the statement that “no other media is reporting this story”. But it’s impossible to prove this kind of negative. Even if you could poll every single news outlet that might have an interest in a story (and there are a lot of them out there), they’re not going to tell their competitors about a major investigative story they’re working on.
So it’s a gamble. The journalist asks “what are the chances that someone else has this?” and if the answer is “infinitecimally small”, then the “EXCLUSIVE” label is slapped on. And fingers are crossed that the infinitecimally-likely doesn’t become true.
This week, there was a less ambiguous abuse of this term by Sun Media. It published a story on Thursday afternoon reporting “exclusively” about comments Justin Trudeau made about Albertans running the country.
They knew about the comments because Trudeau made them two years ago on an episode of Les Francs-Tireurs, a current affairs series on Télé-Québec. They just haven’t been reported much in English until now (though the segment’s end, with Trudeau demonstrating how to fall down stairs, did go a bit viral).
The Sun story (which was also referred to as “breaking” in the hours after it came out) was uniquely about Trudeau’s comments. It had no new exclusive information. So was it an exclusive? Can publicly-available information be considered exclusive if you’re the first to report on it in your language? Arguments could be made either way.
It’s one thing to argue that information contained in a publicly-accessible government database, compiled by a reporter, could be considered “exclusive” even though others could have just as easily found that information. But that’s a far cry from re-reporting information contained in a publicly-broadcast television interview.
What’s worst about this is that public mocking of the Sun News “exclusive” hype detracted from the story, which is perfectly fair game. Trudeau’s comments are newsworthy, and seem to fit the narrative of a politician pandering to Quebec by demonizing another part of the country. Trudeau predictably walked the comments back and apologized for them, and the situation rightly got coverage in mainstream media. But none of that required Sun News to call the story an “exclusive.”
It’s particularly sad that the story is by David Akin, one of the more respectable figures associated with Sun News Network. I’m hoping that the decision to play this as an exclusive wasn’t his but an editor’s, and his loyalty to his employer is preventing him from contradicting them on it.
I’m not sure how Akin and Sun found this story, either. Did a Conservative opposition researcher leak it to him because the Tories were worried about losing Monday’s by-election in Alberta? Or was Trudeau’s past researched in light of his decision to enter the federal Liberal leadership campaign? Or do Sun Media journalists just spend their downtime looking through Télé-Québec video archives?
Explaining process is important in journalism, because transparency builds trust. But too often, these kinds of stories don’t explain process. They don’t explain what turned a journalist onto a story, even if that might be very revealing. And they don’t explain why they think a story is exclusive to them, because often they can’t explain it.
So next time you see someone say a story is an “exclusive”, ask yourself how they know that. Chances are, it’s just a (really good) guess.
And I’m telling you that exclusively.
By now, you probably know about Nate Silver, the guy behind the New York Times’s Five Thirty Eight blog whose in-depth analysis of opinion polling data produced an electoral map that has correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential race in 49 of 50 states, and likely Florida as well if Obama maintains his slim lead there.
He’s being heralded as a wizard by Democratic supporters after being vilified as a left-wing hack by Republicans in the weeks before the election because he predicted a strong possibility of Obama winning enough swing states to take the election.
Silver is a very smart man, and his model has shown to be correct in multiple elections now. He’s no wizard, just someone who took in a lot of data and applied a formula to it (using yet more data) that made projections with it that turned out to be correct. Few things are polled as much as U.S. presidential elections, and Silver had a lot of data to work with, particularly in those swing states. Simply averaging all those polls together would have given a pretty good, and other projections based on multiple polls produced nearly identical maps. Silver’s model was more complex, counting for pollsters’ biases by looking at their accuracy in previous elections.
Silver got some things wrong. He called the North Dakota senate race “safe Republican”, but it went to the Democrat in a squeaker. Silver could easily blame the lack of polling in that state – only one published poll in the final two weeks of the election campaign. In next-door Montana, where Democrat Jon Tester (first elected during the Democratic wave of 2006) was widely expected to lose his seat, Silver’s model ignored the fact that polls consistently showed Tester in the lead, and instead used “state fundamentals” numbers (i.e. that the state is very red) to push the race in the “lean Republican” category. No doubt he’ll take a look at that when revising the model.
(I’ll give you a moment to note the irony that where Silver was wrong, it was that he leaned too far toward Republicans.)
And Silver got maybe a bit too defensive when people criticized his work, leading to a poorly-thought-out bet with Joe Scarborough that got him into trouble with the Times.
But what’s important here is that Silver has shown that in general, elections with a high amount of public polling from different sources can get a very accurate view of how people are going to vote. Biases, like the inability to reach people with cellphones, or the type of people who respond to pollsters, or the strength of get-out-the-vote efforts, can be counted for quantitatively and compensated.
Silver’s critics acted, it seemed, not because they disagreed with his methodology, but because they disagreed with its results. Projecting a 90% chance of an Obama win didn’t fit in with people’s gut feelings that the race was too close to call. Even though it didn’t take an expert to see that Romney’s path to 270 electoral votes was much more difficult than Obama’s for what were generally agreed to be the swing states up for grabs, pundits refused to accept that the race was all but over.
So many on the conservative side made their own predictions.
There was George Will predicting a huge electoral college victory for Romney. There was The Weekly Standard predicting a Romney win mainly because it felt Republican voters were more motivated than Democratic ones. There was that guy behind the website Unskewed Polls that said Silver is “extremely biased” toward Democrats and had to eat crow when not only did the expected big Romney win not arrive, but those projections he attacked turned out to be right.
There were more reasoned criticisms of the models used by Silver and others. This piece in the National Review complained about the weights Silver gave polls, suggesting they were entirely subjective (they weren’t), and probably deserves better than me pointing out that the same writer called Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin for Romney, and all seven of those states (if we assume Florida doesn’t flip) went to Obama.
And there was Karl Rove famously questioning the Fox News election desk after it declared Obama the winner, saying the vote in Ohio wasn’t clear yet, leading to Megyn Kelly confronting their supernerds and getting them to explain why they made their call, and plenty of mockery of the news network for going through the five stages of grief.
Even though it was clear by about 11pm that Obama was going to win the election, and networks started calling it around 11:15, there was defiance of yet more math by Romney’s supporters. Even Romney’s staff had apparently deluded themselves. Romney himself refused to concede at first, the story went, and didn’t prepare a concession speech, resulting in a delay before he gave it.
While this was happening, I thought back to 2004. The election counting went well into the night, but eventually George Bush was declared the winner after taking the state of Ohio by about 120,000 votes. His Democratic opponent, John Kerry, wouldn’t concede until the next day, and many hard-core Democrats still believe Kerry should have won that state and some secret trickery prevented it. To many Democrats, Bush’s unpopularity was so obvious, so widespread that a landslide Kerry win was simply inevitable.
This reminded me of that year because it wasn’t just a question of right-wingers being disconnected from reality. It was about how everyone seems to have constructed their own reality based on facts they choose to listen to.
I think of people like Ezra Levant, who despite billing himself as a free-thinking voice seemed to regurgitate just about every Republican talking point, even on election night. The things he retweeted on his Twitter account all went in the same direction: the polls are wrong because Romney will win. The day before the election, he discussed on his show how a CNN poll showing a dead heat was obviously biased toward Obama because it oversampled Democrats. He and his guest concluded that the number of Democrats who would vote in the election was overestimated based solely on their gut feeling that enthusiasm for Obama must be lower than it was in 2008.
Levant predicted “a big Romney win“, four years after having predicted “McCain will win“. Levant’s electoral map showed seven states – Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Florida – all going for Romney when they all went for Obama. Online polls on the Sun News website show that voters believed that Romney was more likely to win, by a huge margin.
When Levant turned out to be wrong, again, rather than take the Nate Silver approach and adjust his baseline, he went into an apparent on-air depression, saying America is now doomed and Canada should look to other countries to do trade with. He concluded that America has changed and that they’re all just freeloaders who want government handouts. When I pointed out how his prediction differed from those “biased” polls he complained about so much, he accused me of not having “courage” for not making a public prediction on TV, as if my lack of public prediction somehow made him less wrong.
What’s ironic about all this is that this is the exact same kind of stuff that Sun News itself accuses its competitors of: sitting in an echo chamber, listening only to people who agree with them, and putting out journalism that is biased toward their personal views because they block out people they don’t like. Levant and colleague Brian Lilley sometimes have a point when they criticize other journalists for their often liberal views about things, but they’re hardly setting an example when they go even further in the other direction, no matter how much they might pat themselves on the back for being honest about it.
The election result on Tuesday provided rare hard evidence that the echo chamber Levant and other conservatives choose to live in has led them to beliefs that are quantifiably wrong. Unfortunately, their response seems to have been to dismiss this like one would a failed bet on a hockey game, and move on without questioning what led them to incorrect conclusions.
Before this blog post gets passed around on Rabble.ca as if it’s the greatest thing in the world, I’ll point out once again that the echo chamber isn’t restricted to Republicans, or even Americans. A quick trip to Facebook and I saw plenty of anti-Republican ridiculousness passed around by people who should know better. Posts about how Romney’s slogan was taken from the KKK (it wasn’t). Exaggerations of a case where a single miscalibrated voting screen caused an input for Obama to be recorded as an input for Romney. In general, anything that made Romney and the Republicans look bad, or Obama and the Democrats look good, got lots of attention and very little verification.
We know that Obama would do well in Canada, and certainly in this part of it. But people with only friends in Montreal might be left with the impression that everyone loves Obama, and that only the really stupid and the truly evil support Romney and the “Rapepublicans”. That’s about as large a brush to paint on Romney supporters as Romney himself painted on the 47% of Americans he called freeloaders because they don’t pay federal income taxes.
And before you start thinking that left-wingers are just better at math and science than the right, I’ll remind you that when I tried to use a scientific approach to measure the size of a large protest over tuition, my numbers were challenged by people on the left. Why? Because the total number that came out of the process didn’t match their gut feeling of how large the crowd must have been.
The polling part is easy. Don’t overanalyze. People broke down polls and picked at the ones that didn’t show things the way they wanted. They adjusted the assumptions, convinced that the pollsters have some vested interest in being incorrect and that their amateur fiddling would correct their internal biases. Silver’s model doesn’t involve tinkering with individual polls, it simply adjusts for known quantifiable data (including things like how well those pollsters did in the last election). There is still plenty to disagree on or debate about polling methodology, but people on both sides have to acknowledge that when they start playing with the numbers themselves they tend to inject bias more than they remove it.
For the rest, it means being more critical of stuff you hear that you and your friends agree with, and being more receptive to those you don’t. It means, for those on the left, spending less time accepting at face value what’s said by people who worked on the NDP campaign in the last election, and more time listening to reasonable people whose political views you don’t like.
I’d say start watching Sun News, but it’s hard to take them seriously. Maybe start off with some light conservatism, like Andrew Coyne.
And to those on the right, well if the re-election of Barack Obama didn’t provide enough proof that your assumptions are wrong, I honestly don’t know what to say.