Jonathan Crowe

I’m a blogger and writer from Shawville, Quebec. I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis. More about me.

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ Journalism

Ethics in Opera Reviewing

A relevant screencap from Citizen Kane

The latest contretemps concerning ethics in reviewing comes not from science fiction or computer games, but opera.

Earlier this month, the National Post pulled their review of a Canadian Opera Company performance of Rossini’s Maometto II after a COC public relations manager, Jennifer Pugsley, wrote the Post to complain about a couple of points in the review. Rather than standing by their reviewer, freelancer Arthur Kapitainis, or making the corrections requested, features producer Dustin Parkes apologized and pulled the review.

Kapitainis quit (inasmuch as a freelancer can do so); his review was reprinted at Musical Toronto before being restored, sans an offending sentence, at its original location.

In the email exchange between Pugsley and Parkes (reprinted here), Parkes noted that performing arts reviews “simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” (He went on to ask about getting tickets. Ahem.)

As for the news coverage of this incident, the Washington Post focuses on the role, and importance, of arts criticism in journalism, whereas Maclean’s piece looks at the economics of arts reviews in leaner, meaner times: reviewing the performing arts in mainstream publications has never been viable; it’s just that newspapers used to have money enough to subsidize it.

As I see it, critical integrity is beside the point in cases like these. I suspect that performing arts coverage has always been filed under civic boosterism (the tickets are part and parcel): covering the event, rather than critiquing it, is what’s important. No one, after all, wants to read that the local orchestra can’t play worth a damn — what good would that do?

The Fall of Postmedia

At the National Observer, Bruce Livesey documents the fall of the Postmedia newspaper empire.

Postmedia is a national media giant with nearly 200 papers, magazines and websites. Its dailies reach 6.3 million Canadian readers every week, with some of its best-known papers including the National Post, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Winnipeg Sun, The London Free Press, Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette.

But Postmedia is also a ship taking on water, due to both self-inflicted and industry-wide wounds.

Crushing debt and falling revenues to cutbacks and a diminished editorial product, which in turn is compromised by the dictates of an intensely partisan CEO and advertising no longer held at arm’s length, which in turn gives readers far less reason to buy the paper. It’s a vicious circle, and not a happy story at all for the chain that owns most English-language newspapers in this country — and especially not for the people who work at them.

CBC Ottawa and Medical Quackery

This morning, CBC Ottawa posted a story about how mistletoe extract helped a woman with stage four colon cancer, backed up with quotes from a naturopath, with only the most perfunctorily added disclaimer from the American Cancer Society that such claims are unsupported. The story bothered me so much that I filed the following complaint with the CBC’s Ombudsman:

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The Pontiac Journal Gets a Website

For a quarter century our region has had two newspapers, but you’d never know it from the Internet. But the Pontiac Journal, a bilingual, biweekly newspaper based in Fort-Coulonge, has finally gotten itself a website. Yes, this is 2013. The other local newspaper, The Equity (mainly English, weekly and based in Shawville), has been online for more than a decade but is now mostly behind a paywall. The Journal isn’t likely to follow that route, because it’s delivered free to every address here. Which means that the Pontiac region’s online news coverage is almost certainly going to increase in quantity (if not necessarily in quality).

‘What You Read in the Media Is Never the Full Story’

In December 2003, when she was 12 years old, Laura Nicholson’s father shot her mother to death, then killed himself. Now a journalism student at Carleton University, she explains in a long article published in Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen how the media’s coverage of her parents’ murder-suicide got so much wrong and did so much wrong — and what she will do differently as a journalist when the time comes for her to report on a story like her family’s. An astonishing read from a singular perspective.

Snowed Under by a Simple Question

The Ottawa Citizen was curious about the National Research Council’s joint study with NASA on snowfall measurement. They asked a NASA scientist about it and got useful answers in a 15-minute phone call. It sounded like a fun story. Then they contacted the NRC. Oh boy. The bureaucratic second-guessing and overthinking that ensued, now revealed for all to see thanks to an access to information request, is just baffling — I mean, come on, it was just for an interesting little story. But not necessarily surprising. Are most government communications units this clumsy, inefficient and tone-deaf?

Pointless Banter

“CTV seems to be relying more on pointless, time-wasting banter that just wastes viewers’ time,” says Fagstein about the CTV News Channel’s afternoon program, Express. I haven’t seen it; I haven’t seen the CTV News Channel in years because my cable company doesn’t carry it (and I just cancelled cable TV two weeks ago). But I do know something about the pointless banter, because the CBC News Network (n� CBC Newsworld) is absolutely rife with it too. It’s as though someone decided that anchors and journalists gabbing informally about a story and taking an eternity to do so is somehow an improvement over a straightforward presentation of the news; Fagstein notes that a 30-second news item took CTV nearly five minutes to work its way through. Who came up with this nonsense?

On Science Journalism

A couple of items on science journalism and the quality thereof: this Nature editorial examines some shortcomings of reporting about science, from driving stories to fit a particular agenda rather than the facts to torquing stories in the service of sensationalism; Brian Switek complains about the press’s inability to call out scientific bullshit — that science journalists aren’t necessarily able to probe and challenge controversial claims.

Previously: Churnalism: PR as News.

That Liberal Media

Writing for the rather-conservative Toronto Sun, Liberal spinmeister Warren Kinsella argues that Conservatives who complain about the media are full of it: “the media in Canada are overwhelmingly small- or large-C conservative. Period.” Whenever I’ve seen a Canadian conservative complain about the liberal media, they usually mean the CBC and the Toronto Star; I recall reading Claire Hoy in the Hill Times complaining week after week about liberal media bias, and every single example he gave came from the Star.

I guess it plays well to conservative resentment to rail against the elite — or at least that portion of the elite that isn’t already conservative (i.e., academe, the arts sector, and the unbought portion of the news media). Thank goodness one or two unconservative media outlets remain to fundraise against. See also: the special role played by NPR and the New York Times in American conservative rhetoric.

Churnalism: PR as News

Churnalism is a new website launched by the UK’s Media Standards Trust: it’s a search engine in which you paste in text from a press release, which it then compares to its database of news articles — the idea being to show just how much news is actually generated by press release. This isn’t really news, at least not to me: I’ve long known that press releases sometimes end up being published more or less verbatim — why do you think they’re written the way they are? This is especially true, I think, for community papers, who have to fill column-inches with a skeleton crew.

But, as the Guardian’s Paul Lewis points out, not only are major news organizations publishing press releases word-for-word as news, they’re not always bothering to verify that they’re accurate — a number of fake, planted stories ended up being covered. His colleague Dan Sabbagh writes that what Churnalism should explose “is the journalism of the margins: the news items that might once have just made the in-brief columns, lifted and unchecked from a press release or from another news source. Except now, that sort of instant, ‘filler’ journalism has drifted a little closer to the mainstream.”

Small-Town Journalism Jobs

In last week’s Ottawa Citizen, Algonquin College journalism professor Joe Banks argued that a job as a reporter is pretty much guaranteed for journalism students — provided that they’re willing to leave Ottawa and work at a small-town newspaper for, ahem, “starting” wages. I think he meant to reassure and to provide a reality check for students who worry that there won’t be any reporting jobs waiting for them when they graduate. But what I took away from the piece was something a little different — that small-town newspapers survive by paying low wages to novice reporters.

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