Tag Archives: jounalism ethics

Media won’t cooperate with Habs riot investigation

Mere hours after demanding that police ruthlessly prosecute anyone involved in the Great Habs Riot and some even printing photos of suspects and asking people to identify them to police, local media are now refusing to participate in the investigation by handing over photos and video of the rioters. They are now in the process of fighting search warrants while evidence sits sealed under police custody.

The media have a legitimate interest in fighting such invasions. If they were seen to be agents of the police, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs properly. Perhaps more worrisome, in situations like this the media itself could become a target.

But can you really pretend to take the moral high ground and a tough law-and-order stance, asking people to get involved and cooperate with police, when you refuse to do so yourself?

None of these rioters received promises of confidentiality, and none could have been stupid enough to think photos and video of them smashing police cars and store windows wouldn’t eventually get in the hands of police.

UPDATE: The Gazette’s Andrew Phillips responds on his blog, using the “slippery slope” argument. The Gazette’s article presents both sides of the issue, and Thursday’s paper has an editorial explaining the decision. The Journal’s Benoit Aubin also responds, giving mostly philosophical arguments about how the media shouldn’t act as deputies to the police.

Meanwhile, Richard Martineau, always ready to disagree with everyone, asks the question: Aren’t journalists citizens first? Should they not report when they witness crimes?

UPDATE (April 26): The court date is set for June 17. Can you feel the overwhelming speed of our justice system?

UPDATE (April 29): A letter-writer calls cooperating with police “doing one’s civic duty,” journalist or not.

Tremblay breaks the law

Here’s one of those you-be-the-editor moments.

On Saturday, mayor Gérald Tremblay went out for a photo op to show off the city’s new pothole-fixing technique. Basically, it involves repaving a thin layer of asphalt across a large surface instead of just filling the hole itself. It’s supposed to last four years and make everyone happy.

The photo op involved Tremblay sitting atop a repaving machine and driving it for a couple of feet while journalists take pictures.

In jest, reporter Max Harrold apparently asked Tremblay if he had a license to operate a heavy vehicle like this. Tremblay, with a basic Class 5 license, does not. So technically, he was driving illegally.

That little bit didn’t make it into the story published on Sunday next to the photo.

Should it have? Is it an important piece of information, or is it just pointless trivia that won’t make any difference in anyone’s life?

Media critic, criticize thyself

Yet another example of a photojournalist fudging the truth out of laziness and manufacturing an award-winning photo of an event that never occurred.

What amuses me is the blog this was posted on, of the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade:

Greenslade blog

You’ll notice two identical photos of him, which appear to be part of a template for article pages on the blog.

You’ll also notice that one of the photos is flipped horizontally. Last time I checked that was a journalistic no-no, even if one is under the delusion that human faces are symmetrical and it doesn’t matter.

I guess some photo manipulation is more acceptable than others.

News should learn from Krista Erickson


CBC announced today that reporter Krista Erickson has been punished for breaking journalistic ethics in the most horrible way possible: They’re sending her to Toronto.

In what Jonathan Kay calls Pablogate, and Mario Asselin calls CBCgate, and is really not a gate at all, Erickson fed questions to Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez about Brian Mulroney’s connection to the current Conservative Party, which Rodriguez asked Mulroney during the Mulroney/Schreiber inquiry over the Airbus affair.

Through this story there’s been a lot of outrage but not much analysis of what exactly went wrong here. The CBC says there was no partisan or unethical intent, and I believe them. It was an unconventional method of getting answers to tricky political questions.

What this story is more indicative of, however, is the amount of informality in beat reporting. It’s nothing new. Reporters and the people they report on have been chummy for decades. That’s how they get the scoops, how they know what’s going on, how they get access to important people.

But the downside is that there can be a perception of partiality when there’s the slightest hint of cooperation between the two. It’s a real problem, and it needs to be tackled in a realistic way by news organizations rather than arbitrarily decided on a case-by-case basis when someone complains.

News organizations should learn from this incident, and update their codes of ethics to cover the problems inherent in beat reporting. The paragraphs the CBC quoted in their statement are far too vague. At the very least, add this situation as an example of what not to do.

UPDATE (Jan. 23): The CBC News Editors Blog discusses the subject without mentioning Erickson’s name (what are we, idiots?). Though it talks briefly about the problems of becoming part of the story and the need to be “inside” while still staying objective, it fails to go into depth about the familiarity problem other than to deny it exists.

Meanwhile (via the Tea Makers) Facebook groups supporting and against Erickson have popped up. Do I even have to point out that the pro-Erickson group was started by a Liberal Party activist and the anti-Erickson group by a Mike Huckabee-supporting Tory?

Quebecor the big loser in journalistic ethics rulings

Raymond Viger, in his 2007 look back, decides to evaluate local media based on decisions rendered against them by the Quebec Press Council. An interesting quantitative measure if there ever was one. Quebecor’s various properties, led by the Journal de Montréal (unsurprisingly), get top “honours.”

I think it’s also worth looking at who’s not on that list:

Advertiser pressure on the media is subtle

The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of Jeff Gerstmann, who was fired from GameSpot after a negative review of an advertiser’s video game. The company that owns GameSpot insists that this was not the reason for his firing, but neither side will comment on the real reason, hiding behind laws that apparently prevent that.

Closer to home, La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte paid a visit to Francs-Tireurs this week (Part 1 of the interview deals with his views on sovereignty in case you’re interested). In it, he says there’s no “red phone” from the bosses to tell him what to write. However, the paper has an editorial viewpoint, and its opinions follow that.

Over the years, Big Media learned that it’s in their best interest to separate advertising from editorial content. Otherwise, readers wouldn’t trust them and would move on to competing papers.

But while many still follow that mantra officially, various methods have come up for advertisers to influence the editorial process that news media have accepted don’t cross the line:

  • Advertising features: Popular in newspapers, these are advertisements that have layouts that make them look like real newspaper articles. Headlines, bylines, photo captions. Only the tiny word “advertisement” (or in some cases confusing terms like “marketing feature” or “sponsored feature” or “advertising section”) at the top tells you that the content has been paid for. Some newspapers require that such sections use fonts that are clearly different from the editorial content, others don’t.
  • Press releases as news: Media outlets subscribe to press releases from Canada NewsWire and others as if they were wire services. In many cases, that’s how they find out about stories. When you read about that new medical breakthrough, or that survey, or damning statement from a lobby group, chances are the news outlet got that information through a press release. Because groups have to pay to have their releases distributed, it gives an air of authority to the statement. It also discriminates against poor, less organized groups to find your news in this fashion. Issues that people don’t want to (or can’t) pay hundreds of dollars to get in the hands of journalists don’t get reported.
  • Sponsored, but “hands off” coverage: This is what special sections are all about. Companies offer to place advertisements around articles about a specific subject. They make no demands concerning the content of those articles. This is why you see special sections on big-budget things like home renovation, travel, cars, business issues, fashion, but no special sections on world hunger. In smaller publications, this quid pro quo can cross the line even further. Many small businesses actually think they can demand articles be written about them in exchange for advertising.
  • Free gifts: Actual gifts are supposed to be strictly limited. But all sorts of exceptions exist: Free copies of books are much more likely to be evaluated, underpaid journalists are likely to accept a bribe of free food in exchange for attending a press conference or corporate event, and then much more likely to write about them.
  • Self-censorship: There don’t have to be official policies against pissing off big advertisers or owners, but journalists aren’t stupid. Many won’t take the chance if they can avoid it. They write good stories and gloss over bad ones. Meanwhile, behind the scenes they rant about how horrible the company is to fellow journalists, in a way they would never do in print or in public.
  • Finding an excuse: GameSpot said their firing decision was based on an internal review and not on a game company/advertiser’s complaints. That actually sounds entirely plausible. Nobody’s a model employee, and it’s usually fairly easy to find something about an undesirable that’s grounds for dismissal. Unless they’re part of a powerful union, you can fire them and have a ready-made excuse for their lawyer or the media. It also has the advantage of keeping other employees in line (see “self-censorship” above).
  • Buddy-buddy at the top levels: As Big Media get huge, and their advertisers too, big corporate bosses find themselves meeting socially often. Threats turn into favours, and bribes turn into unwritten mutual agreements.
  • Yes men: Middle-management quickly learn that in order to succeed they have to agree with everything their higher-ups tell them. Self-criticism is shunned. Original ideas are ignored or stolen. Advancement is more about ass-kissing than talent and experience. Not rocking the boat is paramount.
  • Cross-promotion: Media properties do stories about other properties belonging to the same owner. A Gazette article about a Global TV show, a TVA documentary about the Journal de Montréal. The coverage itself may not be biased, but the reason behind it is.

When Pratte says there’s no red phone by his desk, I believe him. Big Media publishers and owners are simply too busy making money to care about micromanaging the day-to-day news decisions of their media properties. They have other people hired to do that. It’s very rare that an order comes from the very top that seriously affects journalistic integrity. And when it does, there’s usually a backlash.

So pressures become much more subtle. Advertising is the biggest source of revenue for almost any media operation. They know that it’s hard to exist without it. And so they justify the blurring of the line between editorial and advertising as a necessary evil to stay alive.

Some even call it “innovative.”

Was Paul Pritchard a freelance journalist?

Via J-Source comes this blog post from Frank Moher complaining that the big TV outlets paid big money to Paul Pritchard, the guy who shot the video of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being Tasered at the Vancouver airport. Dziekanski later died from injuries he sustained during the incident, and that has prompted an investigation into Taser use by police.

Normally, paying for news is outright prohibited by journalistic ethics codes. The reason is simple: It encourages people to make news for profit rather than report on events for altruistic reasons.

The media’s response is that Pritchard was a freelance journalist, who sold his footage just like any freelance reporter would sell a story to a newspaper or magazine. He wasn’t directly involved in the incident, and he had no ulterior motive other than to expose what happened.

The ever-growing field of freelance journalism, where regular people are contracted and paid for individual stories rather than employed as a part-time or full-time journalist, provides for a certain loophole in these areas. Instead of paying a source for an interview, you can pay a “contributor” to discuss a topic with a news anchor, or pay a “columnist” for insights into insider politics or whatever else they might specialize in.

How do we separate the ethical from the unethical payola? And which side does Paul Pritchard fall on?

Political punditry is not journalism

Radio-Canada turns the lens on political has-beens turning to “journalism” by becoming TV pundits:

Coulisses Du Pouvoir Ex Politicien A LaTelevision
Uploaded by mediawatchqc

To their credit, my good friend Laflaque makes fun of the issue better than I could:

Laflaque Le Club Des EX
Uploaded by mediawatchqc

Sheila Copps, Liza Frulla, Michel Gauthier and their ilk say they provide a valuable service, they aren’t attached formally to their parties anymore and can speak their minds, and they can provide unique analysis as former insiders.

But political punditry is the most pathetic form of journalism ever created. It fills airtime with people shouting at each other, debating along party lines, defending their friends and attacking their enemies. Even if they feel they’re free to speak their minds, they’re untrustworthy on their face (especially now that they admit they had to lie while in office).

Another problem, that nobody talks about, is that there’s an assumption among journalists that just because they have ex-members from each of the major parties that they’re fair and balanced. But what about the parties who aren’t represented in the legislature? What about special-interest groups with views that differ from the major parties? They’re unrepresented.

What we need are more political journalists uncovering stories, not political losers killing time yelling at each other about inside politics that nobody cares about.

Honesty is the best journalistic policy

La Presse’s Paul Journet has a story on a journalist for TVA, Karine Champagne, whose three sons attend École Horizon-Soleil. That’s where a 12-year-old boy with a congenital heart defect died after being shoved on the schoolyard by an 11-year-old girl.

Champagne acted first as a mother, giving interviews to journalists complaining about the school’s response to the incident. The next day, she talked about the incident on TV as a journalist.

The article presents this as a journalistic faux-pas, but I’m not so sure. Is it wrong for a journalist to report on something merely because they’ve expressed an opinion about it?

It’s an issue I’m wrestling with, as I both comment on and write about stories that interest me. I try to keep an open mind, I welcome opposing viewpoints, and I like to learn new things. I believe in respecting conflicts of interest (so, for example, I won’t write about a family member’s business without disclosing the relationship), but does having an opinion represent a conflict in itself?

A Wired article explores journalists who blog, and a key sentence in it struck with me:

Reporters are people, too (really), and just because they express opinions doesn’t mean their reporting should be dismissed out of hand, as long as they arrive at their conclusions honestly, through rigorous reporting.

Honesty is something I think has been forgotten in all the talk of journalistic ethics. It means a lot of things:

  • Explaining how you come to your opinions instead of hiding them
  • Being honest to yourself by accepting the fact that you might be wrong
  • Not pledging allegiance to any one group or cause, surrendering your objectivity to the whims of their leaders
  • Not being afraid to disclose things about you that may affect how your reporting is perceived
  • Being self-critical, and being able to admit to yourself when your objectivity has been too tarnished by personal involvement in an issue that you can’t tackle it fairly as a journalist
  • Not being afraid to bite the hand that feeds you (a rule broken by many journalists who keep quiet about their employers for fear of being fired)
  • Allowing people who disagree with you to speak for themselves

I’m sure there are others.

I’m not one of those “objectivity doesn’t exist so don’t bother” people. I believe in fairness, and in not allowing your opinions to interfere with your journalism when you write about an issue. I believe in asking questions to learn instead of talking to people you already agree with. But I also believe that people can only believe what you tell them when they can trust you. And in order for them to trust you, you have to be honest.

The most important thing you have to be honest about as a journalist is how you think.

But enough of me. What do you think? Am I completely wrong about this?

When should business trump journalism?

Perhaps it’s unfair to prey on the defenceless student media, but there’s an issue brewing behind the scenes that’s just so interesting on a larger scale.

The Link and The Concordian, the two student-run newspapers at Concordia University, are mortal enemies and they are fiercely competitive (after a few years of one paper being clearly superior to the other). They compete over design, contributors, editors, money and anything else they can think of.

I bring it up because it makes me wonder what rules should exist in general for journalists when it comes to their competition. Some media flat-out refuse to refer to direct competitors by name, unless it’s to report bad news about them. Many have rules restricting staff (and in some cases even freelancers) from contributing to competing media. And, of course, there’s the whole problem of when media outlets report on themselves.

Blogs, for the most part, take a completely different position. They welcome competition, link to their posts, hang out together and exchange tips. The idea there is that becoming part of a community helps everyone in it.

Who’s right? Is the cooperation among blogs simply because they’re such small enterprises and they’re trying to get noticed? When big blogs become large, mainstream, corporate-owned companies instead of some guys in a basement, will they too try to actively shut out their competition?

At what point do we have to stop being journalists and start being businesspeople?

(Note: This post was edited at the request of The Link, who wish to keep their dirty laundry in their own hamper. The main point still stands.) 

Journal de Québec lockout: six months later

LCN has a report on the Journal de Québec strike/lockout, which is now 6 months old. Naturally, the union-says-this/employer-says-that news package doesn’t disclose the fact that TVA/LCN and the Journal are owned by the same company.

Meanwhile, workers on the picket lines were warmly received by union leaders across the country, and their strike paper MédiaMatinQuébec is still going strong with the help of enthusiastic advertising from local businesses.

UPDATE (Oct. 26): I totally missed this feature by The Gazette’s David Johnston on the lockout/strike, as well as an accompanying analysis piece on crossover reporting. Both concentrate on journalists being asked to take photos or video in addition to writing articles, which saves money but produces crappy quality of both.

As an editor, you apparently only have two choices

You Be The Editor, Peter Cooney’s favourite occasional series at the Gazette, has another edition today. Ten questions about journalistic ethics, and you have two diametrically opposed options on what to do with them.

The irony of the series is that the decisions are already made for you. The details of the Picton trial aren’t discussed, giving us no way to judge whether or not they’re appropriate. And an image of a woman’s naked breast appears only in its sanitized form, so we can’t tell whether the original is really pornographic or not.

That aside (plus the horrible formatting of the web page), some of the questions are quite tough, and they’re all based on events that actually happened. How would you decide?