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:
My Correct Views on Everything
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).
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.
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?
“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 (né 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?
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.
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 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.”
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.