Tag Archives: sensationalism

Journal does it again

The Journal de Montréal has a … let’s call it a talent, for creating news with its investigations. Usually it involves a reporter going undercover, tricking a group of people into doing something they shouldn’t and then proudly writing an exposé about the whole topic.

And it gets everyone talking. People chat about it on the bus (as I heard this week), other newspapers comment on it and run follow-ups, and politicians react with promises to deal with the situation somehow.

The latest one involves a young reporter going out and pretending to be a unilingual anglophone while applying for jobs. Despite telling them she speaks no usable French, about 15% of them agree to hire her. Rather than focus on the 85% who thought that not knowing enough French was reason enough not to hire someone with experience during the busy Christmas rush, they proclaim that anglophones have it easy here, even in such predominantly French areas as the Plateau. (Really? The Plateau?)

There’s also a video with the journalist in question which basically has her explain what she did and what the legal implications are (apparently, none). Though she proclaims to be able to speak English without a noticeable accent, she didn’t give an example during the video, which would have been nice.

Like most of these pieces, there is a certain amount of legitimate public interest and a certain amount of needless sensationalism involved here. You really don’t need to know that much in either language to work at a coffee shop, especially in Montreal where most people are bilingual. The Gazette points out that the 85% who denied her employment because of her language is more interesting, while denouncing the whole idea as the kind of journalism “we do not need.”

At the same time, I think a lot of the criticism comes from people who compete with or just don’t like the Journal. Had La Presse done the same experiment and treated it with less sensationalism, their reactions would probably have been different. The ability of people to be served in their own language is a legitimate public concern, even if it seems nobody actually ran into problems here.
Either way, now the issue is out of the hands of the media and in the hands of the hot-button reactionary provincial politicians who would bathe in giant buckets of horse manure if they thought it would win them votes in swing ridings.

Let’s hope they don’t go overboard on a minor issue like this.

UPDATE (Jan. 17): Affiliation Quebec says they’re filing a complaint with the Quebec Press Council:

That the Journal de Montreal, in it’s (sic) front page expose on January 14, 2008, intended to inflame the already tender sensibilities of Quebec’s political and social balance, by acting as an “agent provocateur”, in its worst sense.

As a leading daily newspaper, Journal de Montreal has acted in an irresponsible and reckless manner by featuring an article of questionable news value, placed in a position where the editors knew a maelstrom would ensue.

Further, the story’s headline is quite unrelated to the subject of the material, and fails, in any way, to prove that customers are unable to be served in French.

Gosh, to think the Journal would be so bold as to print an article that provokes public debate on a controversial topic. Those bastards.

Everyone’s to blame for the state of media

According to Le Devoir, the FPJQ (Quebec’s professional journalists association) polled its members about the state of the media, and overwhelmingly they said that quality is deteriorating and sensationalism is replacing proper news judgment.

Naturally, management at the media outlets disagreed. Even the Journal de Montréal’s George Kalogerakis says with a straight face that they don’t sensationalize or exaggerate the news (full-disclosure trivia: He hired me for my first job at The Gazette, then promptly left the city editor position for a big-money offer at the Journal)

Patrick Lagacé, for his part, blames us, the readers. He says that with the Internet giving us access to so many points of view, we have no excuse not to be well informed about the news.

I think all three parties are at fault:

  • Journalists are increasingly lazy. The Internet brings all the information to you. You can rip off blogs, rewrite press releases, write about what you see on TV, or just rewrite what a politician tells you on the phone. Investigative journalism is the first casualty of a journalist’s busy schedule, and so local news tends to the tired old no-effort categories: he-said-she-said political battles, rewrite-what-the-police-PR-guy-told-me crime reporting, traffic accidents (also courtesy of the police PR guy), 100-year-old grandmas who want to see their photos in print, and of course the weather.
  • Managers are concerned not with promoting news stories that will change the world, but by making front pages that will get picked up at the newstand, or leading newscasts with ratings-rich attention grabbers. They’re editors but they’re also money people, and they know what people will pay for. Which brings us to:
  • Readers and viewers say they want more investigative journalism and hard news, but when nobody’s looking they’ll pay more attention to that Paris Hilton story than the 3,000-word feature on Sudan. Crap works because you buy it. You can’t turn around and blame these people for giving you what you want.

So how is this going to change? The Internet is one big step in the right direction, if only because it encourages the growth of niche communications. Major local media try to be all things to all people, and that worked in the past because there was no alternative. But now people with specific interests are finding others with similar interests, and those publishers who dare to be different are thriving.

The flip side to that is that when you get all your news from these niche sources, you lose the overall picture. Those world news stories you only pretend to care about go from I-just-scanned-the-headline to I-had-no-idea-that-happened. You end up knowing the most minute detail about the latest Battlestar Galactica episode but absolutely nothing about the political situation in Pakistan.

Time will tell us whether this new information access will increase or decrease our overall exposure to news.