Tag Archives: jounalism ethics

Senator Duffy?

Yeah, his head really is that big

Yeah, his head really is that big

Part of me still can’t quite believe it. Sure, journalists have been appointed to meaningless ceremonial posts by politicians before, but to poach English Canada’s biggest name in political journalism (well, political TV journalism anyway) and just make him a politician (from P.E.I.?) seems strange.

Sure, technically there’s nothing wrong with a journalist becoming a politician. It’s the other way around that’s a problem (except on RDI). But it just feels wrong.

For what it’s worth, the National Post explores the ethical issues in play here. There are questions about how Mike Duffy may have acted toward the Conservatives while mulling this appointment, even if he says he’s not a partisan.

I don’t think Duffy’s journalism was biased, and will probably for the most part stand the test of time. But I still think it was a mistake to accept a senate appointment. Just as it was for Jim Munson or Joan Fraser or any of the other journalists who went to the senate thinking it would raise their profile and whose names have been forgotten by average Canadians.

Then again, this Margaret Wente column alone almost makes the appointment worth it. Not to mention the fact that there’s so little news otherwise this time of year.

CBC Ombudsman clears reporter Erickson

The CBC’s Ombudsman released his report on Friday concerning Krista Erickson, a reporter who was accused of “planting” questions with the opposition to use during Question Period in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party found out about this and complained to the CBC, and CBC management disciplined her by deciding to transfer her from Ottawa to Toronto.

Erickson successfully fought the disciplinary measure and had it reversed in a mediated settlement in June. She has resumed reporting from Ottawa (she never was transferred), and has already filed some political pieces.

The report from Vince Carlin largely clears Erickson of intentional wrongdoing, and places blame on the CBC for having an inexperienced reporter assigned to Parliament Hill.

Among the specific points in the report (PDF):

  • The CBC does not have a direct written policy concerning this type of journalistic activity (prompting politicians to ask questions during Question Period, or feeding them information that could embarrass their opposition). The Ottawa bureau did, however, have an unwritten rule that this should be avoided. Carlin blames himself partially for not putting that rule in writing back when he was running the bureau and the CBC drafted its journalistic guidelines. He also notes that the Globe and Mail has a direct, written policy prohibiting this.
  • Before it was banned, this type of activity was commonplace. Carlin also hints that other networks may still engage in this practice, though that has no bearing on CBC policy.
  • Erickson is a good reporter and her motivation was journalistic zeal, not partisan strategy. No one has accused her of being inaccurate in her stories.
  • Beat reporters and their subjects have a “symbiotic” relationship which is necessarily informal. A “give and take” of information is normal in this relationship and helps journalists in their job.
  • Erickson joined the Ottawa bureau in 2006 having very little political reporting experience. Normally reporters assigned to Parliament Hill have experience covering local or provincial politics, where the subtleties of journalism ethics in dealing with politicians is learned.
  • Erickson came forward to her superiors when other journalists suggested that her providing direct questions to the opposition might have been unethical.

In short, Erickson did not violate policy, but she did cross the line. But she didn’t know she crossed the line, and that’s the CBC’s fault for not training her enough.

Erickson, who alerted me to the judgment via email, wouldn’t comment on her reaction to the report, on whether she agreed that this kind of thing should be unethical and whether she agreed that she was unqualified for a job on Parliament Hill. She referred questions to the Canadian Media Guild (the CBC’s union), which said it was “satisfied with the report”.

The Ombudsman’s report is clear, honest and makes a lot of sense (in fact, it sounds a lot like what I wrote in January). Little of it is surprising (except perhaps the part where this exact issue was discussed and decided upon by both the CBC and Globe long ago), and it makes clear that while Erickson made a mistake, her intentions were honourable.

Political activists will, of course, view the report through the filter of their partisanship, which will tell them before they read the report whether they approve or disapprove of it. But it’s hard to argue with the points made in it. And other journalists should take note of those points, to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

UPDATE (Dec. 9): The National Post’s Jonathan Kay posts thoughts about this as well, calling it a “quasi-exoneration.”

Conseil de presse outs TVA for journalistic plagiarism

The Conseil de presse du Québec has denied an appeal of a decision which blames TVA for stealing a story from the biweekly Courrier Laval that studied the condition of water around Montreal.

The story made the Courrier Laval, which then ended up in La Presse, and was picked up by Patrick Lagacé, which is how I found it.

The TVA report repeated the conclusions of the investigation without attributing the source, which royally pissed off the journalist who spent months working on the story. Their argument was that the information from the newspaper was in the “public domain” and that no copyright could be attached to an idea.

Of course, the argument isn’t over copyright, it’s over journalistic integrity. Journalists can’t simply repeat what they’ve heard without saying where they heard it from. Without proper attribution, errors and misinformation can spread quickly. And no journalist should simply trust what another says is correct.

As Lagacé points out, though, this kind of thing happens all the time, especially with morning radio just reading the news out of the newspaper. The evening TV news is less underhanded about it. They’ll spend a day re-interviewing the same people and producing a story of their own, but it’s just as annoying when they won’t say where the idea came from and who reported it first.

Newspapers themselves aren’t completely without fault here either. They’ll re-report stories they found with the competition or what they saw on TV news the night before, sometimes using purposely vague attribution like “a Montreal newspaper” or “reports said.” But it’s not nearly as bad as what you see in broadcasting.

TVA’s transgression was particularly bad, but let’s hope this decision acts as a wakeup call for those journalists who think they can cut corners by re-reporting stories and are too shameless to give credit where it’s due.

Are cash journalism awards unethical?

Crazy lefties are up in arms about a $2,500 award given to Le Devoir journalist Alec Castonguay by the Conference of Defence Associations, a military lobbying group. J-Source has some more details about the controversy.

The argument is that this award, which is given to journalists who write about military issues, is essentially a bribe for providing the industry with good coverage. The association is hardly going to award journalistic work it considers biased against it, after all. Knowing this, journalists might be tempted to skew their reporting in favour of the industry to boost their chances of getting the award.

Though the motives of the lobbyist group may be honourable, strict ethical standards should force respectable journalists to reject the award and especially any cash associated with it.

But what’s not mentioned is that the CDA’s award is hardly the only cash prize given to journalists by non-journalism industry associations for a specific type of coverage. A quick Google search gives me these:

Should we look down upon journalists who receive these awards as well?

My knee-jerk answer is yes. Journalists should be honoured to be recognized for their achievements when judged by their peers. They should be thankful for recognition from industry. But they shouldn’t accept money from non-journalism groups – even non-profit ones – when they present a clear conflict of interest.

But then I’ve never received such an award, and probably won’t any time soon, so it’s easy for me to sit here and judge.

Can you bribe with charity?

The Globe and Mail, never one to hesitate to point out even the slightest lapse on the part of Canwest-owned media properties, has a story about Global Television giving $5,000 to charity in exchange for an interview.

Normally, (respectable) journalists refuse to pay for interviews because doing so would encourage people to make up stories for money.

In this case, though, the money went to a charity, and not to the person being interviewed.

Does that make it ethical? I don’t know. But I’m sure this will become a discussion at a journalism class somewhere.

Journalism, politics sink together to a new low

I was busy dealing with real news tonight, so I completely missed the broohaha over this incident with Stéphane Dion and ATV News.

For those who haven’t heard of it, you’re lucky to have limited exposure to the echo chamber of political gossip reporting. Here’s the deal: ATV (an Atlantic TV network owned by CTV and rebranded CTV Atlantic) had Stéphane Dion on for an on-camera but pre-taped interview. Host Steve Murphy asked Dion a question about what he’d do about the economy if he was prime minister today, and Dion started answering before realizing he didn’t quite understand the question. It was an awkward exchange with a few false starts.

Dion asked if they could re-start the interview, and Murphy agreed. Murphy also, according to CTV, “indicated” that the bad part of the interview would not be aired.

Except later, after the interview, people at the network huddled and decided to go back on their word and air the outtakes, deeming them to have some news value.

Thanks to Stephen Harper’s decision to devote a whole press conference to this “gaffe,” it’s been analyzed from all angles:

I don’t have much to add, so I’ll keep it brief:

  • CTV’s transgression was not a breach of journalistic ethics. There was no promise of confidentiality, no pre-agreement, and no information was gained through deception. Murphy did, however, go back on his word by airing the outtakes after he “indicated” he wouldn’t.
  • Dion’s campaign is right when they say the purpose of airing this was to embarrass Dion. It’s a secret every journalist keeps, even to the point of deceiving ourselves. Political campaigns so ruthlessly control the narrative, that latching on to something they don’t want you to talk about gives us a thrill. It’s not that CTV is biased against Dion. It’s simply biased against politicians and in favour of scandal.
  • CTV wasted minutes of airtime putting this interview out there. This time could have been spent on news, and the interview outtakes posted to a blog somewhere. Had that happened, we would not be discussing journalistic ethics here, but the clip would have gotten just as much traction online.
  • The clip has little news value. It shows that Dion is a logical thinker, perhaps to a fault, in trying to wrap himself around the exact hypothetical situation. But that’s not why CTV chose to air it. The fact that they did not specify what news value it contained is a good indication that there was none.
  • Some have mentioned that Dion has a hearing problem and that may be related. It’s not. The question was clear and the room was quiet. It was a logical comprehension question, mixed in with some grammar issues.

Conclusion: Steve Murphy and his cohorts at ATV are douches, and Stéphane Dion a human francophone who can be annoyingly professorial at times. And it’s just a matter of time before someone unearths an interview outtake of Stephen Harper that makes him look bad.

Now can we get back to the issues?

UPDATE (Oct. 24): J-Source looks back on this story with some interesting background on what happened at ATV and CTV News offices.

When is under-cover journalism an invasion of privacy?

Every now and then, a journalist will feel guilty about having a proper salary, union-negotiated benefits, ergonomic chairs and all the other stuff that another class of people could only dream of. So, in a bid to absolve them of this guilt, sell a few newspapers and hopefully scrounge up an award or two, a reporter will be sent “under cover” to work in a minimum-wage job, live in the slums and otherwise experience life as a member of the lower classes.

La Presse’s Michèle Ouimet did that, and articles about her work in a minimum-wage job and living in a slum with prostitutes and drug addicts appeared this week. The names in her articles are changed “to preserve anonymity.”

That doesn’t always work, though. Back in 2006, Globe and Mail journalist Jan Wong did something similar, living in a slum and working as a maid at less than minimum wage. She described her daily life, and changed names so that nobody would be embarrassed (or decide to sue her).

Unfortunately, a couple described in the story had enough “private information” revealed that friends recognized them, and they say that caused them personal embarrassment. So rather than admit that they treat hired help like crap and there are parts of their lives that could use some improvement, they sued Wong and the Globe for invasion of privacy.

This week, an Ontario court ruled against a motion from the Globe to dismiss the case.

Ironically, the lawsuits (one from the couple, another from the maid service) names the parties in question, which now makes them Googlable where they were not before. I personally don’t see how this more public humiliation (they’re not challenging the accuracy of anything said about them) is worth a chance to take on a paper for $50,000.

On one hand, this kind of journalism wouldn’t be possible without some deception.

On the other hand, how would you feel if embarrassing information about you appeared in a newspaper, and everyone who knew you could recognize you from the details given?

Perhaps a simple answer to all this is that journalists should take better care at anonymizing information, especially when they’re setting a scene with lots of detail.

Media win battle over riot footage

Quebec Superior Court has sided with the media in a legal battle with police over notes, video and photos from the April 21 Habs riot. The material, which was seized by search warrant after the event, will be returned – unopened – to the media outlets they came from.

When I first wrote about the battle in April, I was unsure of my position, but leaning toward the idea that because journalists did not make any promises of anonymity to their subjects, there should be no reason why they can’t co-operate with police.

But after the more recent riot in Montreal North, where a La Presse photographer was attacked, I’m leaning more toward the idea that journalists can’t do their jobs properly if they can be forced to act as an arm of law enforcement (especially when that law enforcement sits blocks away waiting for backup while the journalists enter the war zone).

I won’t for a moment defend rioters, but I take some comfort in the legal precedent that journalists won’t be seen as cops. Of course, anything they end up publishing can still be used by police, so it’s still a good idea to avoid journalists, or not riot in the first place.

One question for the Journal de Montréal

Public security minister Jacques Dupuis has been seen on the television quite a bit, but for some reason the Journal de Montréal hasn’t been able to secure an interview. Rather than accepting that newspapers simply aren’t as cool as television, the Journal is whining about it, and has published a list of questions for the minister about Sunday’s riot and the relationship between police and citizens.

The questions are pretty standard reporter questions, but as a fellow journalist pointed out to me, and as I now ask the Journal:

Doesn’t publishing a list of questions in advance of an interview go against most newspapers’ journalistic policy?

Global Quebec’s fake local news

In October, you’ll recall Global TV announced a major overhaul of its local news outlets. As part of the plan, sets would be demolished, staff would be laid off and instead of a proper studio, local anchors would deliver the news in front of green screens to cameras controlled remotely out of Vancouver. Story packages would be shipped off electronically to a centralized news processing centre, and virtually all the production would be taken out of the hands of local workers. (The results, of course, left much to be desired)

At the time, Global reassured local viewers that their broadcasts would still be local:

News staff in each market will continue to generate local content. All content will be delivered to a Broadcast Centre and packaged into a program format for air. Local anchors will continue to deliver the news from their local stations.

Well, apparently that’s not quite the case anymore. Because being in front of a green screen means you can pretend to be almost anywhere, Global is exploiting this to make its news anchors pretend to be in places they’re not.

Hannah Thibedeau anchors Global Quebec's evening news from who knows where

Hannah Thibedeau anchors Global Quebec's evening news from who knows where

The three of you still tuning into Global Quebec’s evening local newscast might notice some unfamiliar faces on your screen. Hannah Boudreau Thibedeau is anchoring the 6pm newscast for what I’ll assume is a vacationing Jamie Orchard. Except Thibedeau isn’t part of the Global Quebec team, she’s Global’s Parliament Hill correspondent based out of Ottawa.

But that’s not conclusive proof. She could have driven into town to fill in, the local staff stretched too much as it is with summer vacations and all.

Anthony Farnell doing Global Quebec's local forecast

Anthony Farnell doing Global Quebec's local forecast

More conclusive is weatherman Anthony Farnell, since on the same day he appears on both Global Quebec’s local newscast (above) and Global Ontario’s local newscast (below).

Anthony Farnell does Global Ontario's local forecast

Anthony Farnell does Global Ontario's local forecast

Unless he has a special helicopter to shuttle him back and forth between Montreal and Toronto, he’s clearly doing both weathercasts from the same location, in front of the same green screen.

That in itself isn’t too much of an issue. I mean, any idiot can do the weather.

The problem is that he’s being dishonest about it. In both newscasts he uses the word “we,” as in “we are going to see heavy rain over the next couple of days.” For the Quebec newscast, he cut to clips of Montreal traffic. And yet nowhere is it mentioned that he’s doing this newscast from a green screen in Toronto.

Lying about your location goes well beyond the usual fakery we see on TV news. It’s dishonest an unacceptable from an organization that is supposed to be trustworthy about bringing the truth to its audience.

It’s hard being the No. 3 newscast for a community of only a few hundred thousands anglophones. The fact that nobody watches the newscast does justify cost-cutting (though that only continues the hopeless ratings death spiral). But you have to be honest about it. Level with your viewers, explain the reasons behind your decisions and even if they don’t like it, they’ll at least understand.

Saving money by lying to people is just one step above fraud.

Hi, I’m Chris Hansen…

Cara, a catering company at Trudeau airport, says it apprehended a journalist sneaking into a secure area passing himself off as an employee. It won’t name the journalist, or say which media outlet the journalist was from (*cough*), but it says it is handing the matter over to police.

For those of you wondering what happens when these journalist on security exposés actually get caught in the act, now you know.

Patrick Lagacé has some thoughts on the situation as well.

Where’s the line between union and journalist?

Last week, MédiaMatinQuébec, the Journal de Québec locked-out/striking workers paper that I’ve discussed here many times before, decided it would refuse ads from Quebec City’s administration, which is involved in its own labour issues. The city paid for ads in MMQ that explained its points in its negotiation with its union. But because that union supports MMQ, the paper decided it could no longer take advertisements that served to attack its allies.

Was a line crossed here? It’s one thing when MMQ refuses to take ads from Le Soleil, which has a vested interest in making the Journal conflict go on for as long as possible. But Quebec City has nothing to do with Quebecor.

Then again, the entire raison d’être of MMQ is as a union pressure tactic. Should we expect a union-produced newspaper to betray those who support it?

I guess it comes down to a simple question: Is MédiaMatinQuébec a newspaper, with a duty to be objective, or is it a union pressure tactic, whose content should further its ultimate goal?

MP’s ex is hot

In this Canadian Press photo, you see Julie Couillard, a woman once linked to a Hell’s Angels member, being escorted by an unidentified MP to an official function. We’ve decided not to identify the MP in question, since he hasn’t been charged with anything and we don’t want to sully his reputation.

Wait, you say? It’s stupid of me to disguise his identity since his name and photo have appeared in Quebec media all over the place?

Tell that to Quebecor/Sun Media.

Quebecor-owned outlets, including TVA/LCN and the Journal de Montréal, pretty notorious for exposing gossip, decided to blur this woman’s face and refrain from mentioning her name in their news reports (though apparently the word didn’t get out to all their bloggers, nor to the anglo Sun Media papers which are running CP stories with her name on their websites).

Both are in the news recently because of allegations that she, the ex-girlfriend of Maxime Bernier, was once married briefly to a member of the Hell’s Angels biker gang.

Of course, no evidence whatsoever has been brought to light suggesting that she did anything wrong, much less him. In fact, it seems the guy, Stéphane Sirois, actually grew out of favour with the Hell’s for marrying her.

Now while the Conservatives are pleading for privacy and the opposition is screaming OMG biker warz NATIONAL SECURITY!!!111, most of the media outside of Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s control are milking this story for all it’s worth. They want to give it maximum exposure, reveal as much as possible, put it out there for everyone to gawk at.

(I guess the Journal, for one, had a change of heart after that, and decided to un-anonymize her later this morning)

Fortunately, the rather obvious and curious actions have not been missed by the bloggerati. Patrick Lagacé, Martin Patriquin, Richard Therrien of Le Soleil, 321Blogue, Julie Bélanger, MédiaTrib and others have pointed this out with curious looks on their faces. Could there be some collusion between Bernier and Péladeau? Could Quebecor be afraid of the biker gangs? Surely their explanation of not wanting to sully the reputation of an innocent person can’t be taken at face value considering what we know of the Journal et al’s ethics.

As we ponder the conspiracy theories, let’s get back to the story.

And really, there’s a very important reason this story is getting so much attention: Look at her. She’s hot. We-stiff-on-hard-for-thee hot.

Imagine, if you will, taking sex out of the equation. If this were an unattractive male friend who had, say, an important business relationship with someone alleged to be linked with the mafia or other organized crime, would it have gotten attention from the news media, even if there was no evidence of anything wrong involving the minister?

Of course it would. But it would have been a 500-word story in the politics section. Not Page 1, and not more than a brief on TV.

So, in the end, Quebecor is at fault for nonsensically hiding information from the public. And the rest of the media is at fault for sensationalizing this issue just as an excuse for running file photos of her boobies.

UPDATE (May 11): According to LCN, the woman (who they’re still not identifying) told the Journal her life has been destroyed by this scandal. Note that the Journal identifies her. But the LCN story about the Journal story doesn’t. How weird.

Journalist, criticize thyself

This is why people don’t trust the media anymore: La Presse says TVA isn’t covering the Journal de Québec situation fairly, because both are owned by Quebecor.

There’s this thing with the media that’s always annoyed me:

  1. Journalists love to talk about their industry with other journalists
  2. People love reading about the media (within reason, of course)
  3. Journalists are hesitant to write about matters that are “in the family” (owned by the same company) or within the media outlet itself, whether because of paranoid self-censorship or orders from upper management not to pursue a story
  4. Journalists and their media outlets will never talk about their competition, unless it’s to report something bad about them, in which case they go all out.

La Presse isn’t immune to this. Neither is The Gazette (the paper I work for), nor any other media outlet I can think of. And the larger the corporate empire, the worse the problem gets.

Why can’t they be more honest about themselves? Giving a union boss criticizing a platform to criticize you makes you look bad, but denying that union boss a voice makes you look worse.

Remember: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.