Journalism is evolving rapidly in a “mixed media” of traditional newspapers and broadcast stations combined with a “new media” of on-line journalists.
These developments in journalism are driven by vast economic and technological changes. Some of these trends have profound ethical import for journalism. This section provides a brief description of some trends that impact on journalism ethics.
Proliferation of news media
First came cable television. Then satellite. Soon online versions of newspapers augmented the news media scene. Now millions of bloggers, countless web sites, web broadcasts, and “podcasts” have become mainstream. All make up the “body” of today’s news media, and there is no visible end to this proliferation. The main ethical implications are threefold: increased competition has effected the quality of news reports, the public has heightened its demand for transparency, and the news world’s understanding of copyright has ceased to suffice.
Newsmakers face increasing competition to cover all the pertinent stories and reach sources before their competitors. CNN and website news have resorted to wall-to-wall, 24 hour coverage to ensure that they can provide the story to their readers/viewers as soon as it occurs. The danger is that speed will prevail over accuracy, and journalists will exchange their ethical motives as fact-checking truth-seekers for the love of breaking a story — any story.
However, an increase in competition also has led some news organizations to distinguish themselves from less responsible outlets by being more transparent about how they do their work. Journalists who want to set their articles apart as truthful and comprehensive have begun giving the public access to their sources. Studies are equipped with margins of error, assertions are backed by supporting web links, and anonymity granted to sources is thoroughly explained.
While some journalists turn to transparency to justify the claims in their reports, others have resorted to a much more careless form of writing, dubbed “journalism of assertion.” Many blogs and independent e-zines, lacking an engrained sense of duty to the truth or to readers, have developed a journalistic style of unsubstantiated opinion. Ideas are accrued and then restated, without regard to their origin or factuality.
The fact that information can be so easily accessed and then redistributed on the internet has lent itself to yet another trend: questioning the value of copyright. According to Piers Fawkes, co-creator of PSFK, a collaborative trend-reporting site, copyright has lost its value. “A blogger’s job is to spread ideas,” proclaims Fawkes. “They may be our ideas or the great ideas of others – but blogging gives an unparalleled way of passing those ideas on to others . . . the reason we write is not to control our ideas, not to look clever. We write to add our ideas to the global discussion.”
Changes in news media audiences
The proliferation of news outlets means that audiences can read and watch their news on various channels and web sites. In other words, media audiences have fragmented. No longer does an overwhelming majority of Canadians sit down in the evening to watch one or two major TV newscasts. People get their news updated throughout the day, when they want it. They surf the web to find the stories that interest them. Some describe these niche audiences as impatient, “remote control” audiences, who want the information they’re seeking without delay and without additional, unsought news.
In response, more and more news outlets cater to smaller and smaller demographics or “niches.” The risk is that journalists will no longer seek to provide the public with comprehensive accounts of the day’s top stories from many areas of life, but will focus narrowly on “niche news” that is of interest to narrow sectors of the population. An additional danger is that the public will no longer come together, through the news media, to deliberate over common issues. Instead, the public will fragment into many special-interest audiences.
Convergence of media
The fragmentation of the news audience has prompted some major news organizations to attempt to “re-assemble” a large news audience by providing news across many media platforms. Major organizations such as CNN in the United States and CanWest in Canada seek to own and provide news via a convergence of their newspapers, television stations and web sites. Meanwhile, journalists are urged to embrace multi-media reporting — the ability to report for print, broadcast and the internet.
As newsrooms become small parts of large corporations, there is a danger that profit-seeking and economic imperatives may cause newsrooms to compromise their ethical standards. Business values, such as the need to meet the demand of investors and advertisers, may trump journalistic integrity. Since many news companies are publicly financed corporations, newsroom owners or their senior staff may feel the pressure of investor-friendly quarterly reports. Inside the newsrooms, journalists may find themselves in conflicts of interest — reporting on economic and other issues that may have a direct affect on interests of their news corporation.
Some of the positive and negative effects:
Far-reaching change usually has positive and negative effects. The same is true of recent trends in journalism.
Some positive effects of change:
• Interactivity: Increased ability of the public to actively search for their own information and to interact online with news web sites
• Increased public access to different forms and types of media; access to a greater diversity of content
• Reduced “gatekeeping” powers of major news organizations; less power to set the news agenda or manipulate the public’s understanding of events
• New and powerful story-telling methods through multi-media technology
• Convergence in news may mean more resources to probe issues
Some negative effects of change:
• Rise in “journalism of assertion”: unsubstantiated opinion and rumor which harms journalistic credibility; lack of restraint among online writers
• Pressure to lower ethical standards and sensationalize stories
• Public complaints about how a “ubiquitous” media violate personal privacy
• Confusion about who is a journalist, when anyone can publish
• Ethical “vertigo” regarding news values, newsworthiness, credibility. What standards are appropriate for this new “mixed media”?
In the hours following the Virginia Tech shootings in April, people caught up in the tragedy turned to social networking sites, blogs, e-mails and other digital technologies to express themselves. On one particular site, Facebook, pages were transformed into impromptu memorials to the victims of the shootings.
Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become the place online for students to hook up with friends, chat and share photos. Originally set up as a site for students at Harvard University, it quickly expanded to other colleges and later high schools. Last September, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everyone and it now has 23 million members worldwide, 10% of them in Canada. But this also meant that what had once been the sole preserve of students was now available to anyone with an e-mail address.
The site was buzzing with activity on the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. Traffic increased five-fold in the space of 24 hours. The circumstances were particularly suited to a world of new media in which anyone can publish and disseminate information. The Blacksburg campus was full of young students equipped with laptops and cell phones. Once police had locked down the area, the students turned to the tools they were familiar with to find out what was happening.
Students in their dorms turned to Facebook to check on friends, share snippets of news, talk about their experiences or mourn the 33 victims of the rampage. Reporters were quick to sign up for Facebook accounts to find people touched by the campus shootings. This digital door stepping provoked a wave of resentment from students, as if the reporters were eavesdropping on conversations between friends.
In the physical world, the campus was quickly swamped with journalists. CNN alone sent 100 staffers to Blacksburg. Students engulfed in the tragedy were uncomfortable with the intrusion into their grieving. Online, it was almost as if the reporters were not just camping outside the dorm, but barging into the rooms and leafing through personal journals.
“You have reporters that will create a Facebook identity just to get students’ contact information, or who will start an online memorial to get people posting for a story. It’s just inappropriate,” Virginia Tech student journalist Courtney Thomas told The Guardian newspaper.
The scramble for coverage online throws up many issues about journalism ethics in a digital age. It also raises questions about notions of privacy at a time when many young people are living their lives online. It might be naïve of the students at Blacksburg to consider their pages and comments on Facebook or other websites to be private. After all, the Internet is the most public of mediums. Information online is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.
But the problem is that many of the young people who sign up to sites like Facebook or MySpace do consider these bits of cyberspace as their own personal space. In a way, the Internet has become the place to hang out for teens. Instead of chatting in the playground, or going to the shopping mall, today’s youth go online.
University of California-Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd argues that as parents have tended to restrict the physical movements of their children, teens have turned to the Internet to escape from these physical limits. Social networking sites offer an arena for teens to do what teens do – express themselves, make friends and make sense of their place in the world. Profile pages are a place to say, “this is me,” which explains why some MySpace pages are a cacophony of design. They reflect a stereotypical teenager’s bedroom.
A teenager might consider this virtual bedroom as a private space, open only to friends. But it is part of a global network of information, where anything you publish will be archived, be discoverable through a search, and be easily copied and disseminated to anyone in the world. How could anyone then believe that anything they do online is private?
Boyd argues that most people who join social networking sites believe in the concept of “security through obscurity”. The idea here is that unless someone is of particular note, why would anyone be interested in their profile page or their comments?
This is a reasonable assumption, as millions of people have pages on Facebook, MySpace and other similar sites. But Virginia Tech showed that social networking sites are private spaces only as long as their users are not making the news themselves. The concept of privacy through obscurity breaks down people who hunt for information for a living take an interest, as happened following Virginia Tech. Students on the Blacksburg campus lost their shield of obscurity when the college was propelled into the headlines.
The instinct of reporters is to chase scoops and exclusive interviews. But the etiquette of digital door stepping is an untested area. Similar questions arise over the use of first-hand material culled from social networking sites. This content is both private and public at the same time. It is private in the sense that it was intended for a specific audience of friends. But it is also publicly available online. This is a new ethical area for journalists. Understanding how people use and relate to sites like Facebook or MySpace is a first step towards resolving these digital dilemmas.
We are going to discuss North Korea’s recent nuclear test, but first — there’s rarely time for history lessons in daily news, but North Korea’s recent past has relevance today. Can you offer a brief rundown on North Korea since it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty?
In the late 80s North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing to put all their facilities under safeguard and allowing the IAEA to inspect them all the time. It took the North Koreans four years. Once they finally worked out an agreement, the inspectors immediately discovered that the North Koreans had taken some of their spent fuel and extracted plutonium for bombs. This created the first nuclear crisis, which almost resulted in a war with the Clinton administration. Instead, talks resulted in an Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program. Under the Agreed Framework, North Koreans took all their spent fuel that they could potentially use to make plutonium [which was 8,000 canisters] and hid them underground under seal [scheduled to be removed from the country later].
But the Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002 before the [plutonium] was taken out of the country, which meant that North Korea could throw out the IAEA, take off the seals, pull the stuff out of the ground, and start processing it to create plutonium, which is what they did.
In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests this fall, you were approached by a lot of news people. What were the main questions you were asked on air?
DR. WADE L. HUNTLEY is the Program Director at the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, in the Liu Institute for Global Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Previously he was Associate Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Hiroshima, Japan, and Director of the Global Peace and Security Program at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California. He received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley Department of Political Science in 1993, has taught at several universities, and has published work on US strategic policies, East and South Asian regional security, and international relations theory.
I would say three things. Number one: ‘Was it really a nuclear test?’ — bearing in mind that in the aftermath that was unclear. Number two:, ‘Should we be worried?’ and number three: ‘What’s the solution?’
Were those the issues that most concerned you?
Yes and no. With respect to the first question, the only reason people suspected it wasn’t a test was because the yield was so small. What I thought was, if you’re going to simulate a nuclear test with a conventional bomb, why on earth would you simulate a failure? It’s not as though they don’t know how to pack enough explosives in a cave to make a big enough bomb. And now there’s no question.
Number two was ‘Should we be worried?’
That is the appropriate question in the larger sense, but I had an answer to that that people didn’t expect: The nuclear test didn’t make any difference whatsoever.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we have no more to fear about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities now than we did before the test. As a matter of fact, the nuclear test, to a certain degree, gives us a basis to be less worried – not only because it failed but because, and this is something that the media hasn’t really covered much, the test released a lot of forensic data as to the nature of the explosion: what materials went into it, how good it is, how efficient, how far along they are. That information will do one of two things: it will relieve them to learn that North Korea isn’t very far along, or it will confirm that they’re far along, which will at least provide a more solid basis to know what’s going on. So either way it improves the position of the West vis-à-vis North Korea, because North Korea benefits if they can keep the West in the dark.
But, in the larger sense, should we be worried?
Yes, because we should have been worried all along.
The third question was “What’s the solution?”
This is what average people want to know. Prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, policy debates essentially revolved around two positions, one favouring confrontation and the other favouring engagement. The most thoughtful people felt that a combination of both was absolutely necessary. It was referred to as “carrots and sticks.”
The difference between now and four years ago, caused by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, culminating in the nuclear test, is that North Korea is no longer a country with a potential to become a nuclear state – it is a nuclear weapons state. It has demonstrably got on [nuclear weapon], at least. The nuclear issue itself is no longer a discrete problem, and I now feel that even a clever combination of carrots and sticks will no longer be enough.
Now, the only way [of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear problem] is by understanding that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are embedded in a larger fabric of relations in the region that involve not just security but a lot of political, identity, and nation-building dimensions. And in that sense, what the Americans do doesn’t really matter, since we know what they’re going to do. What really matters is what China does.
What does China have to do with this?
They’re concerned about the long-term viability of a government whose legitimacy might easily be challenged in the future, a government whose stability is unclear, a government that is obviously not working by the standard metrics of economic performance -– feeding your people, things like this. And in particular the Chinese have long been annoyed that the North Koreans have not gone further down the road that they themselves have pioneered toward economic reform.
China cares because they don’t want this huge mess to spill over into their country, which has already happened as a matter of fact. There are estimates ranging between 50,000 and 500,000 refugees in Northeast China from North Korea, and this is already a big problem for them, but if the regime collapsed, refugees would flood across the Yalu [Amrok] River.
But if the regime collapses in the context of a war, the Chinese would have to worry about war spilling over their border. They’d have to worry about possibility intervening themselves, like they did in the first Korean War. They would have to worry about the possibility of coming into a military engagement with the United States, in a context in which the United States has thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at them.
North Korea only rarely makes headlines. When it does, do the stories appropriately address the situation there?
No. But I wouldn’t necessarily blame the media for this. North Korea is an incredibly closed society. They don’t let anybody in, so it’s extremely hard to get information about what’s going on in there. If there’s malnourishment in Africa, it usually strikes powerfully and dramatically, and you get babies with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, and you get cameras in there and it goes out to TV. In North Korea you never see it, in part because it’s not that kind of dramatic short-term thing. It’s a longer term malnourishment that has resulted in an entire generation of North Koreans stunted physically and mentally. The statistics, for example, in bodyweight and height between the North and the South now are dramatic. The statistics on IQ would be dramatic if we had them. We don’t. But the media itself feeds on its own drama, and if you don’t have the pictures, then you don’t make it at all in the popular media and the daily news.
What does end up in the media, if not the human rights crisis and the political complexities? I’m thinking particularly of Kim Jong Il’s media image.
Every time you see reported the information about how he is a movie buff and how he kidnapped a director from South Korea to make movies about himself and how he’s had this parade of young women – those stories create the notion that he’s this crazy, megalomaniacal throwback to a bygone era of royal self-indulgence. It creates a vast misconception of what’s going on in that government, particularly on two matters. One is Kim Jong Il’s character. He may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He’s very clever, in many ways more clever than the people he’s up against. And number two, the notion that he controls everything, which he does not.
North Korea has a complicated political system. It’s small, but it is really opaque, even to the people inside it. It has domestic politics, but by a completely different set of rules. There are people in power, and they’re machinating against each other, and Kim Jong Il sits on top of this volatile heap of backstabbing humanity, always concerned that somebody is going to come along and knock him off and take over the whole thing. One of his principle concerns is to stay in power himself. I would imagine he’s worried about that every day.
With all the history, how could the media boil it down for the public?
People disagree on how to reach the essence of what it all means, in a pithy concise way. If you talk to somebody in Washington they would point immediately to the nuclear issue and say these people with a nuclear bomb are dangerous. If you asked people in China, they would come up with a different set of criteria.
Would it be manageable to triangulate between China’s approach to North Korea and North America’s? Do media do it?
I did not see that in my personal experiences. These were one to three minute interviews where I was talking to folks in Saskatchewan eating dinner. They’re not going to sit there for an hour and listen to the inner machinations of the regime in Pyongyang. They just wanted to know if these guys were going to launch a missile at them. And I told them that they weren’t. And that was it. So it has to do in part with what the media is trying to do. Is it really their job to do that?
Who else’s job is it?
Let’s say, for example, our leaders. Lets say, for example, our government, which actually has the capacity to do something about it. Maybe they’re the ones that ought to be really thinking about it.
But what if the media is supposed to link the public to their leaders?
If that’s the case, then it is the responsibility of the media to tell its people that its government is failing to solve the problem. This is why the media comes to people like me, who aren’t on one side or the other but are trying to say something about the issue that transcends political debate. Does that go far enough to motivate the people to push their governments to do better? I don’t know.
An RCMP Emergency Response Teams swarmed the University of B.C. campus on Wednesday, January 31. With bulletproof vests and dogs, they spent the better part of the afternoon in the biological sciences building.
Neither the public nor people inside the building were told what the police were doing. The RCMP taped off the building and surrounding area and dispatched a helicopter to monitor from above. Students in the building reacted, as suggested by police, by locking themselves in classrooms and offices. They were reportedly not allowed to go to the bathroom or do anything else. They were told these measures were for their safety, and that was all they were told. All over campus, shocked students and faculty watched, waited and wondered what could be happening.
Before long, clues and rumours abounded. Students became citizen journalists as they blogged reports from inside the biosciences building. The citizen journalism website Nowpublic.com published reports that a suicidal assailant was loose in the building, threatening people’s lives. One blogger said that, “According to an email released to faculty and graduate students working in the building, a suicidal student has been displaying threatening behavior.” As part of that same update, the blogger said a witness outside called him saying that the “assailant might have a gun.” That quickly turned the onlookers’ thoughts away from a bomb threat and toward a suicidal gunman. However, at that point the police had still confirmed nothing about the nature of the threat. The only verifiable story was the police presence. Attempts by JournalismEthics.ca to contact the blogger about the accuracy of the statements have yielded no response.
JORDAN CHITTLEY is in his second year of a master of journalism degree at UBC. He completed a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver where he was the editor of his school newspaper. He is now the sports editor and multimedia coordinator for the Ubyssey newspaper and freelances for various outlets in print, online and television. He helped shoot, produce and edit a piece for Dan Rather Reports and is currently helping with a piece for Business Nation on CNBC.
It was not until March 3 that the public got any substantial information about the crisis when police announced the arrest of 19-year-old UBC student Hwi Lee on charges of uttering threats and mischief. Police said the decision to stay mum was key to their investigation. But they’re still not saying anything about the nature of the threat because the case is now before the courts.
On January 31, local media outlets published stories on their websites that a police incident was occurring and a building had been locked down. All over campus – not just in the locked-down building – staff and students were told to stay where they were. Games of telephone tag yielded rumours that included a bomb threat, the aforementioned suicide gunman and even a drill.
Since I work for the student newspaper, students inside the building and outside were calling me with questions saying that media were reporting these rumours. My girlfriend received a call from her parents telling her that there was a bomb threat. Scared I was in danger, she called me while I was on the scene.
Parents from around the country frantically called their children, haunted by images from Virginia Tech and terrified of imminent violence. At about 4 p.m., mass emails circulated, stating the situation was ‘resolved’ for the rest of campus. Police began slowly releasing trapped students and faculty and by 8 p.m. the building was cleared. The actual danger wasn’t known at the end of the day, and is still not known. The police were tight-lipped. The less they said, the more rumors soared.
We often talk about how changes in technology are changing the way media operates. It is changing everything from the immediacy of spot news to citizen journalism. From Virginia Tech to the London bombings, ordinary people have begun documenting extraordinary events with the help of their cell phone cameras and blogs. However, the chaos at UBC last month is a perfect place to examine how these new tools can be used prematurely and mishandled.
Is citizen journalism really a benefit to citizens? Citizens were not informed by last month’s citizen journalism, they were merely terrified by it. And the rigid police silence fueled the fire.
There are many instances where citizen journalism adds to the available information and takes the gatekeeper element out of news. Recently, when a fast food restaurant was blown up overnight on a main street in Vancouver, the damage and location were quickly reported by citizen journalists. Viewers could see the damage and know to avoid that area during their rush hour commute. News agencies only have so many reporters and can only be in so many locations, but with sites like Nowpublic.com, reporters can be everywhere.
However, in an event like the UBC lockdown, citizen journalists were feeding the public unsubstantiated rumours. RCMP Cst. Annie Linteau and UBC spokesman Scott Macrae told me, along with a horde of other journalists, that nothing could be confirmed. All they said was that the building was being locked down for the student’s safety. We did not hear how the police received the threat, the nature of the threat or how many people were affected.
First and foremost, it was the lack of information and the complete silence out of the RCMP that were a root cause of the numerous rumours. This case serves to show that in our age of communication, police need to provide more information. They can no longer keep their mouths shut and expect people to think the best. They may claim that their silence was critical to their investigation, but from where I stood, their silence was not in the public interest: it led to public panic. Almost 30 officers, a helicopter, ERT and a K-9 unit can no longer just show up at a school without an explanation.
The police silence led to a situation where the press wanted and needed to report something, but had nothing to report other than that there was a threat made and there was a police presence. Members of the media looked to what students were saying and looked to citizen journalists and the Internet. Some mentioned what bloggers were saying. Technically, as long as media reports cited bloggers, they were accurate, but readers must remember to read such sources with extreme skepticism.
Luckily nothing happened on January 31 and all the students and faculty inside the building were safe. But events like this will force people to reconsider any trust they may have had in bloggers. With the elimination of the gatekeeper function traditionally held by journalists and editors, people must spend more time deciphering the news to find what is accurate. While citizen journalism is oft-hailed – and rightly so – as a boon to freedom of expression and democratization of media, we can’t forget that it’s no replacement for good old fashioned accuracy.
Award-winning Toronto Star investigative journalist Rob Cribb called on the Canadian public to demand greater government transparency at a lecture at UBC’s Robson Square campus last week.
“The public must demand greater openness and transparency from public officials,” he said. “Without this, we remain in the dark.”
Cribb, who is also the Canwest visiting professor at the UBC School of Journalism, is responsible for groundbreaking investigative reports that pry open the bureaucratic vault of secrecy on key public safety issues – exposing problems with daycare, airline maintenance and restaurant regulations.
While journalists act on behalf of the public as a watchdog on government, Cribb argued that a culture of secrecy and silence at all levels of government has frustrated journalists’ attempts to find out the truth.
Information laws at both the federal and provincial levels establish the rights to public access to government-held documents, a 30-day deadline for response and an appeal procedure if access is denied and also detail limits to these rights.
But public records that should be easily attainable through freedom of information legislation are kept hidden through destroying records, delays and flat denials.
Even when a request is granted, Cribb said, bureaucrats assign exorbitant fees for accessing information. In one case Cribb relayed, the government told him it would cost $1200 to transfer data onto a disc.
Academic research, including one published by the Campaign for Open Government, shows that Canadian institutions are taking longer to process requests and are less likely to release information.
A black hole of information results when public bodies are not adequately covered by access to information legislation.
Some governmental bodies that are not held accountable to the public, because they are exempt from access legislation, include Airport Authorities, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Foundation Genome Canada, Canadian Blood Services, NAV Canada, and others.
Cribb also reported that “more than half” of requests for court record documents are routinely denied. The greatest indictments against the public interest are committed through these information black holes.
When information is uncovered, it can have enormous public interest. Through his digging, Cribb found that the College of Physicians was dealing with 99 per cent of patient complaints and reports of malpractice in secret, and doctors with complaints filed against them were often given light reprimands, in private, with no transparency.
He said there are also “attempts to silence whistleblowers”, and “economic pressures to avoid delays overruling safety issues” that much of the public may be unaware of.
Cribb said that former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein had denied journalists access to public records, a “strategic way of undermining the public interest”, and that Stephen Harper’s staff attempt to manage news conferences by “picking which journalists get to ask questions.”
“We are dealing with the most hostile government in recent history,” he said of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with the Ottawa press corps.”
The chill on communication is achieved through gag orders on Ministers. Requests to speak to the media must be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office and information on “sensitive issues” must be approved by the PMO, which adds to the backlog of access to information requests.
In addition, requests from journalists are often flagged and automatically deemed sensitive, restricting debates surrounding important information from entering the public sphere.
Cribb is frustrated that this culture of secrecy is a “sleeper issue in Canadian society”.
He said journalists, acting on behalf of the public, are “dealing with…antiquated legislation and [a] cultural problem. The only way things change is through public pressure…but [it’s] rarely on the public agenda”, he said.
Cribb called for amendments to Freedom of Information legislation, judicial appreciation for journalists’ relationships with confidential sources, and adequate whistleblower protection.
The first BC Information Summit on September 29, 2006 will bring together academics, legal experts, journalists, elected officials and experienced Freedom of Information requesters to explore the challenges and solutions of creating an open government and a free flow of information to the public.
Carolynne Burkholder spoke to organiser Darrell Evans about the Summit and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s new Campaign for Open Government.
What are the challenges to the free flow of information today?
The challenges are that governments want to control the information that the public can have–or essentially anyone who might be a critic of government policy. To control information is to control the agenda and the social discourse to a great degree. Although the government may see it in its short-term interest to block access to certain kinds of information, it’s very unhealthy in the long-term for the society.
What’s the history of the BC Freedom of Information Act?
It was passed in 1992, proclaimed in 1993, and the first four years were the glory days when the government was really on board, with the Glen Clark administration.
[During] the second four years things started to gradually fall apart, and, in effect, they started to slow down the access to information. [It] became…more expensive and less timely.
It accelerated even further under the Liberals so that it’s gotten extremely expensive, extremely slow and there are many barriers. It’s declined drastically in its usefulness as a tool, and many people are abandoning their requests because it takes so long and they give up in frustration.
Do you think this trend will continue?
The history of these things is the pattern they always follow is some government passes an FOI act or approves an FOI act in order to clear the air from a previous government.
The most recent case is Stephen Harper who came into office promising this accountability act and one of the main parts of that was to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Those are the opportunities you get to strengthen it.
Absent that, it’s a downward slide because governments gradually learn how to resist requests and they reassert their strong desire…to retake control of the information. It’s just automatic; it’s just the way things are with our competitive democratic system.
So we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done without a major disaster, which is to reverse the government’s thinking and stop that downward slide.
What’s the main goal of your campaign?
Reform of the Act itself because it needs to be brought into the 21st century with access to electronic information and just more routine release of information. Also we want the government to reform [the] terrible way it manages and handles requests for information.
How are you going to accomplish this?
We’re going to put pressure on [the government] through various means. We will do the usual things like letter writing and petitions, but we’re going to release focused reports on specific aspects of freedom of information and how the government’s doing all along the campaign.
“It was a cool Tuesday in December 2005 and I almost got on board a C-130 plane, which was bound for a war-game zone on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf,” remembers 38-year-old Iranian TV journalist, Behrouz Tashakkor.
He was almost at the airport when the newsroom decided to replace him with another reporter. As Tashakkor was going to the scene of another news event, he saw the same plane crash into a residential complex near Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, and he was the only journalist at the scene who could report live on the incident. To be more precise, he was the only journalist left alive at the airport – the 64 other journalists were on board that plane to cover the war-game.
“I had reported on plane crashes before, but this time I had to report on the deaths of my own colleagues,” says the war journalist who, more than two years after the tragedy, is still suffering from that “never-ending nightmare.”
“I think recalling those harsh moments is natural, because it was one-of-a-kind. That incident aside I feel unaffected by the other tragedies I have reported on. I think of each story as being separate,” says Tashakkor.
Putting feelings into compartments
Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Roger Simpson, challenges those who repress such feelings. “Journalists often talk about compartmentalizing the experience. The experience happens and then as soon as they are away from it and the story is reported, the walls of the compartments close and then they’re onto something else and try to forget it. That’s a false explanation,” he says.
“I do not call into question journalists’ reasons for adopting personal coping strategies,” he says. “If you’re going to continue in a challenging, risky job like this, you have to survive.” He emphasizes, however, that some of the strategies that journalists adopt, like compartmentalizing memories or repressing emotions, might not favour them in the long run.
Of such strategies, repressing emotions is apparently more popular among journalists. According to Charles Figley, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Many journalists tend to repress their emotions in times of trauma and they do that by detaching themselves from the tragic event they are reporting on to the extent that they go some place psychologically in which they can be objective and focus.”
The Iranian Radio and Television’s Bureau Chief in Turkey, Hassan Mirbaha, remembers how he struggled to put a lid on his own emotions when he arrived in the northern Iranian city of Manjil on June 20, 1990, two hours after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake leveled the city and killed 40,000 people. “Everyone was either trying to rescue family members trapped under the debris or was screaming in grief. I wasn’t prepared for this. Then I told myself that I was not there to mourn. I told myself that I had come all that way to report and inform others of what had happened there, what the survivors desperately needed.”
Naeemeh Namjoo, an Iranian journalist who covered another killer quake in the central Iranian city of Zarand in February 2005, says, “In those terrible conditions you should learn how to circumvent the impacts of the tragedy by not recounting the traumatic moments you have gone through during the day.”
And still others come up with different tactics of confronting the trauma they report on. Ensiyeh Sameni, the first female TV journalist to arrive in the southeastern Iranian city of Bam after it was shaken by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake on December 26, 2003, explains how she got around the problem: “Before arriving at the scene I was only focused on how to handle the job professionally but once we landed in the area and were exposed to the tragedy, I fell apart emotionally.” With only two hours before her first live report from the destroyed city, she knew that she had to overcome the emotional part and prepare for the professional part. “I had spent almost all of the two hours crying, hugging surviving kids, and sympathizing with bereaved families, and then all of a sudden it was the airing time,” she says.
One chief editor at the Iranian television’s satellite channel for which she was reporting refers to that first report as “absolutely amazing,” saying that, “She clearly had the impression of grief on her face, and even nearly choked on the air but that made it all the more natural. She kept doing the job perfectly, for more than 10 minutes.” While this journalist had not been able to avert the immediate emotional effects of the trauma on her own spirit, she had managed to survive professionally by immersing herself in the tragedy.
But is surviving professionally equal to surviving the impacts of trauma? Simpson answers, “No. We as journalists do have the means to repress the emotions associated with awful events for a time, but if we don’t adequately deal with the problem, the likelihood is that those repressed emotions surface to trouble us sometimes. So you might experience something terrible today and the compartmentalization factor comes in. But six months from now something will trigger those memories of the experience and it’ll be a very unpleasant recollection.”
Figley also believes that trauma memories can hardly be circumvented. The trauma psychologist compares concealing those memories to trying to store food in a container “which is not airtight.” He argues, “If it’s not airtight then it’s not going to be effective in storing the food. It’s the same way with these memories.”
Many journalists might be carrying disorders from as early as their first traumatizing assignment without even being aware of them. Many even go into denial. A documentary about reporters titled Deadline Iraq: The Uncensored Stories of the War shows how, in their early accounts of reporting on the war, the journalists interviewed deny the impacts of trauma with one of them, a grizzled veteran, even speaking of how absolutely emotionless he was as he witnessed deaths and destruction from close range.
But as Figley puts it, “Whether or not journalists deny that such a thing as trauma [among journalists] exists does not change the fact of the matter; it’s really how they go about conceiving or processing the experience that is the most important thing.”
When trauma overrides journalists
The C-130 plane crash and how it was reported on is still talked about by many Iranian journalists who are grappling with the effects of trauma on themselves. Behzad Tahmasbi, the Iranian News Network’s trauma reporter, comments, “There is no way that I can detach myself from that incident. We were all close friends. And what worsens things is that there is no positive side to it. When reporting on an earthquake you speak of survivors or reconstruction; here you become speechless. It’s a disaster all over.”
Figley explains that the strong difference in impact is because deaths of the people we work with as journalists might change our perception of the profession. “When you are a journalist, there is a certain degree of separation from the people that have been affected,” he says. “There is this veneer, this thin layer between yourself and the people that you are reporting on.” Based on his logic, when we hear or see the death of a colleague, that thin layer disappears all of a sudden. There is more of a sense of our own mortality because “it reminds us more dramatically of how vulnerable we are to death.”
Simpson, however, believes that fear of death or self-mortality might not be the sole reason for journalists’ different view of colleagues’ death as compared to other fatalities. “Each of us has a sense of what the world is like,” he says. “So if I’m a journalist, I have an understanding of what journalists face, what I face. And those other journalists are also a part of my life. When I witness a journalist’s death my sense of my mortality has changed, not because I’ve been intact but because people I’ve counted on being in my world are no longer there.”
Despite extensive research on trauma and its impacts on various working communities, it seems that journalism has not yet received enough attention from the trauma experts and even the news organizations. Studies by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma show that while emergency workers have recognized the need for self-care and organizational safeguards, particularly in the last decade, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.
Major news networks such as Reuters, BBC and AP have begun holding trauma training programs and counseling sessions for their journalists, but the trend is far from common at the international level. As Stephen Ward, professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia says, “The myth still exists that journalists shouldn’t need trauma programs because journalists are supposed to be ‘tough as nails.’”
Nevertheless, it seems that it is journalists themselves who can take that most important first step in reducing the adverse effects of trauma on them by increasing their level of awareness of the disorder. They will be better prepared once they know the psychological hazards of the job. And once they know them they can handle them much more easily than before, sometimes as easily as talking about the effects that covering violence and other traumatic events has had on them.
But if they do not have a knowledge of the impact trauma can have, coupled with a supportive environment to deal with its effects, it will be difficult to begin to address their emotional challenges.
When he was sent to cover the war ravaging Sierra Leone, reporter Ian Stewart had little knowledge or interest in the conflict – until he saw it unfold before his eyes.
On November 10, 1999 a child soldier shot Stewart in the head.
The bullet left him with paralysis and some brain damage. It was then that Stewart, former West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, realized that journalists are not passive observers. They are active participants who impact their surroundings and whose surroundings impact them.
In February, the University of Western Ontario hosted the Canadian Journalism Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World.
The conference welcomed reporters, producers, news managers, media analysts, journalism instructors, students, and mental health professionals. They discussed the impact of violence and emotional trauma on journalists and their audience.
“It is emotionally taxing to relive violence through our notebook, our lens or our darkroom,” says Stewart.
Stewart faced violence every day he reported in Africa. He says he felt a sense of failure as he wrote stories about rebels who killed and raped innocent people daily, while his articles were never picked up by any of the 1600 North American newspapers that subscribed to the Associated Press wire service at the time.
He read from a journal entry he wrote while in Sierra Leone, “Why should God care if we don’t?” he asked. It was not until Stewart was shot that the world paid attention to the stories. This added to his sadness and distress.
Stewart was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, rates of PTSD among reporters are 25 to 28 percent compared to the general population who experiences PTSD at rates closer to four or five percent.
Feinstein explained that for many years there was a “culture of silence” about how covering crime, war, and accidents impacts journalists.
“Journalism is not a profession that is governed by a professional body or code like the medical profession,” says Cliff Lonsdale conference co-organizer and television journalism instructor at UWO. As a result, questions on how to deal with traumatized journalists have flown below the radar and, subsequently, journalists have often been left to fend for themselves.
“For years we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what these violent situations were doing to our journalists short of getting them killed. Similarly, we haven’t paid much attention to how we extract these stories from victims who have survived traumatic situations,” Lonsdale says.
Documentary filmmaker, Giselle Portenier agrees. She shared her views on the ethics of interviewing the victims of social cleansing, rape and violent regimes. She emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward victims during the interview process and ensuring that they will not become more vulnerable as a result of speaking publicly about their story.
She followed death around the world, producing documentaries about violence against women in Guatemala, social cleansing in Colombia and honour killings in Pakistan but Portenier says she is most haunted by her memories of the survivors.
The conference served as an illuminating experience for journalism students who may find themselves in similar situations one day soon.
“I think that the awareness factor has been left out of the equation for many years,” says Anna Drahovzal, journalism student at Western. “We got to understand the impact of trauma first-hand. You can see it in them, on their faces, in their stories,” she says. Awareness that journalists need to look out for themselves and their colleagues is something Drahovzal believes students learned from the conference.
Unlike soldiers and first response teams, journalists are not formally schooled in dealing with the violence they may witness or endure. As such, journalists who have been traumatized often ignore or hide how much they have been impacted by what they have seen.
CBC cameraman Brian Kelly shared the story of how his co-worker Clark Todd was wounded and killed during heavy crossfire in Lebanon in 1983. Kelly and the rest of the crew had to leave Todd behind.
For a long time, Kelly thought he was fine and continued with his life and his career. One day in an edit suite, moments before he was set to shoot an interview, Kelly broke down and cried for hours. It was then that he realized the profound impacts of all that he had witnessed. For a long time he could not utter a word about Lebanon without crying.
Kelly recently went back to Lebanon to the scene of the incident for the first time since Todd’s death. The trip he said, did not offer him closure.
“Closure implies that it ends,” says Kelly. “But you never leave it behind.”
Now, Kelly participates in various simulation exercises with other journalists to prepare them for the field and the possibility of a traumatic or dangerous situation.
Since he was shot in 1999, Stewart left his job as a reporter for the Associated Press. He is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan where he studies the impacts of trauma on journalists.
“It’s time we do something to make people realize how our jobs impact us,” says Stewart.
As a result of the conference, the Canadian Journalism Forum plans to expand its reach, making it capable of gathering resources for news managers, journalism instructors and journalists. Conference co-organizer, Lonsdale plans to establish a board of trustees to ensure that the forum remains sustainable.
“I think there is a responsibility for the leaders in the profession to take an interest in what we do and encourage more responsible practices surrounding the impact of violence and trauma on journalists,” says Lonsdale.
“We especially have a responsibility to the younger generation to make things better in our profession.”
Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide was co-written by four award-winning journalists who also teach journalism. Between reporting and teaching, clearly they grasped how insufficient American investigative reporting guides are for students north of the 49th Parallel. Digging Deeper is the first and only investigative reporting guide written with Canadian systems, policies and infrastructure in mind. That alone should guarantee its success across the country, but it’s not just the only Canadian investigative guide — it’s also a very good one.
Authors Cribb, Jobb, McKie and Vallance-Jones touch on all the bases for good reporting in the first half of the text, then they shift their focus in the second half to the very specific tools and techniques that will help journalists break through bureaucratic barriers and organizational holdups.
The general information — including a review of different primary and secondary sources and a summary of “twelve keys,” like tenacity, skepticism, and curiosity, to give a journalist the mentality for success — resembled many how-to journalism texts that preceded Digging Deeper. While law, interviewing techniques and information gathering are necessary elements to any report (and hence any reporting text), the information is sometimes too general to be valuable and too cursory to be informative. ‘Public records,’ for example, occupies almost 30 pages, but it needs triple that space to actually address the dozens of types of records mentioned and URLs listed. Young B.C. journalists scrolling through web address lists might be disappointed to learn that BC Online, listed as a great resource for land titles, is a pricey, subscription-only tool. And reporters looking for in-depth information about labour disputes will find that Ontario’s Ministry of Labour offers frequent online updates, whereas B.C.’s Labour Ministry only posts about one report a year. Digging Deeper’s authors all live and work east of the Canadian Rockies, and their oversight of B.C.-oriented issues is notable.
The media law section also suffers from a wealth of information condensed into a recap. The reader is introduced to the justice system, not shown how to approach it. The chapter’s concluding anecdote is a microcosm of the chapter itself, rehashing a 1992 Montreal Gazette story on judicial scandal without mentioning how the investigation was accomplished.
A research guide can only be so long, though, and elaborating on courts and records could easily have spun the compact 260-page book into a 1000-page tome.
Digging Deeper really shines when it moves away from the basics of good reporting and hones in on specific techniques. The text’s coverage of Freedom of Information, Computer-Assisted Reporting, and financial reporting make it truly invaluable.
Aptly, the authors note that journalists shy away from numbers. Then, they take the reader step by step through sample finance reports, excel spreadsheets and database managers, highlighting the most vital tools and info that each provides. The text offers tips, including what numbers should catch a journalist’s eye on a 10-K and what steps are necessary to sort spreadsheet data into chronological order.
The FOI section provides clear and encompassing guidance for facing reticent Information Officers who use fees and delays to waylay an information request. Digging Deeper’s links to sites like CAIRS — for past Access to Information requests — and provincial and federal ATI sites also make the FOI process more accessible to starting journalists.
Probably the most useful section of the book begins after the text ends. Appendices A, B, and C are guides to spreadsheets, databases and financial information, respectively. With bullet points, diagrams, and web links, book lays plain all the basics of three extremely valuable, rarely used tools that new journalists should embrace. The explanations are so methodical that following them is astoundingly easy.
A guide to Canadian investigative reporting and researching has been much-needed for years now, and Digging Deeper fills the void extremely well.
The idea of a handbook that combines the challenges of reporting on gender and conflict and how the two intersect was conceived during the planning for the UNESCO-Nepal Press Institute’s first Roundtable on The Gender Perspective in Conflict Reporting in 2004.
Although neither of the authors is from South Asia – the main focus of the handbook – both have extensive backgrounds in conflict journalism. Fiona Lloyd is a South African journalist who is the co-founder of Reporting for Peace, an organization that teaches journalists how to report effectively on conflicts. Ross Howard is a Vancouver-based journalist and consultant specializing in media development in conflict-stressed states and emerging democracies. He also teaches journalism at Langara College in Vancouver and is the president of Media & Democracy Group, a journalist development consortium.
The handbook, a short, yet comprehensive and practical guide connecting gender, conflict, and journalism, is divided into three sections. The first part of the handbook focuses on the current media environment and challenges facing journalists when reporting on gender and conflict. The second section provides practical strategies and skills for working journalists. The last part of the handbook recommends resources on gender and conflict reporting for further learning.
In discussing gender and conflict, Lloyd and Howard shun the “add women and stir formula” described as merely adding women to a story, getting women’s perspectives, and assigning female journalists to write “gender” stories. Instead they advocate redefining conflict from a gendered perspective – emphasizing balance, sensitivity to gender issues, and the inclusion of marginalized groups in reporting.
The authors believe the media has a role to play as mediators in conflicts and journalists should work to diffuse tension by promoting communication and understanding. A major question raised in the handbook is: “If we consciously try to write about conflict from a gender perspective, and consciously try to be conflict-sensitive, are we in danger of losing our neutrality as journalists?” Lloyd and Howard argue that thoroughly analyzing gender and conflict allows journalists to exercise more fairness and balance. Despite the discussion of fairness, balance, and objectivity, the view of the media as a mediator is prevalent throughout the text.
The first section also includes an interesting discussion of challenges facing journalists in their roles as reporter and activists, a look at the problems in media culture – including commercialization, commodification, and concentration – as well as a discussion of the challenges inherent in newsroom culture, including affirmative action and issues faced by female journalists.
The second section, skills and strategies for working journalists, provides practical strategies for journalists reporting on gender and conflict in South Asia. The section begins with a discussion of how journalists choose to frame conflict. Lloyd and Howard argue that journalists choose what they report on and what they leave out, which can lead to gender stereotyping and escalation in tensions.
The authors define “conflict sensitive” reporting, the approach they advocate, as having three main aspects: accuracy, balance, and responsibility. Accuracy is defined as more than just precision and fact-checking; it also includes context and differentiating propaganda from the truth. Balance also is more than merely giving equal coverage to each side. To Lloyd and Howard it includes fairness and impartiality. Responsibility is defined simply as “tell the truth and do no harm.”
The second section includes practical tips, such as how to determine the source of the conflict – lack of food and resources or xenophobia for example – how to mediate conflict through reporting, how to choose what to cover, and how to get away from the use of inappropriate language and labels in reporting.
Just one of the interesting examples the authors use to illustrate the necessity of conflict sensitive reporting is the analysis of the language used by journalists reporting on the first Gulf War who compare “us” westerners and “them,” the Iraqis. We have an army, while they have a war machine, we suppress, they destroy, we are brave, they are fanatical. This case study is one of the few examples of conflicts outside of South Asia in the handbook.
Lloyd and Howard give advice on how to gain access to women’s voices, official comments, and opinions of non-governmental organizations. The end of the section focuses on minimizing harm both for victims of trauma, and for journalists themselves, complete with case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
The third section is dedicated to resources for journalists. Each website, book, and other resource is described in detail by the authors.
The Gender, Conflict & Journalism handbook is a good resource for journalists reporting on conflict in South Asia. Section two with practical advice for working journalists and section three with descriptions of other resources are particularly useful.
The main weakness of the handbook is its narrow focus – its primary relevance is in South Asia, although some of the practical tips could be used elsewhere –and its neglect to adequately answer questions of neutrality and objectivity, though this is briefly discussed in both the first and second sections.
Overall, Lloyd and Howard’s handbook is a well-written, easily digested and yet thorough look at gender and conflict and how journalists should report on these issues. In the future, journalists in regions such as the Middle East and Africa could benefit by the development of similar handbooks.