The Problem with B-Roll

My shoe suddenly comes loose in the hallway. I leave it – turning back would only slow me down. I swerve right to avoid an oncoming tape cart but trip over my now-exposed loose sock and fall face-first into an opening door. I gather myself and amidst calls of, “Are you okay?” and “Oh my Lord!”, and scramble to pick up the dropped tapes. I hobble like the wind up a metal staircase, round two corners and burst into the “tape pit” (a.k.a control room).

Twenty seconds later those tapes played live on air. I had done my job; I had delivered the b-roll on time, and my work that day was done. I pulled up my sock and picked up my rogue shoe as I made my way back to my edit suite. This was just one episode in one day among many similar days, when I regretted not wearing running shoes. Hush Puppies do not breathe well.

For two months in the summer of 2006 I worked as a tape producer for the now-defunct CBC News: Tonight, which ran on Newsworld as a summer replacement for The Hour.

I will always have affection for my time at Tonight. It was a small show with a small staff and a small budget. It was there that I was introduced to the art of producing b-roll, which I soon learned was more of a physical test of endurance than a skill-craft. Most of my days were spent trolling the hallways between the tape library, the satellite feed room, and my edit suite in search of footage that could be cobbled together as b-roll.

From the time the show’s lineup is more or less finalized and b-roll requests are made to tape producers, to the time when the b-roll finally goes to air, it is a mad dash to find tapes, pick shots, cut together b-roll, output the b-roll to a tape, fill out information in a computer database and deliver the tape to the control room. Each of these steps must be followed for every piece of b-roll that’s produced, whether it is fifteen seconds of visuals for a quick voice-over or multiple tapes worth of b-roll for a long interview that covers many topics.

JAYSON GO is in the final year of his Masters of Journalism degree at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Cebu City, the Philippines, Go has worked for CBC as an associate producer and has also interned as a researcher for Global National with Kevin Newman. In 2006 he was one of eight student journalists chosen from across Canada for the Joan Donaldson Newsworld Scholarship. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from UBC. His academic papers have been published in the UBC Journal of Political Studies and the Southern Maine Review.

While many may dismiss the production of b-roll as straightforward busywork, there’s more to it. Production of b-roll and the choices tape producers are forced to make can get dicey when time runs out.

(Full disclosure: my work with CBC Newsworld inspired the argument that I present. However, it should in no way reflect on any of CBC Newsworld’s programs or employees.)

Defining B-Roll

For the uninitiated, b-roll, or cover footage, refers to secondary images that appear onscreen during interviews, voice-over segments, “coming-up” bumpers, and the like. When Larry King interviews Bill Clinton, and footage appears of Clinton playing the saxophone on Asenio Hall in 1992, that is b-roll. When Peter Mansbridge says that “Stephen Harper met with George Bush at the Whitehouse today,” and footage of the event is played over the voice track, that is b-roll. When a news anchor says, “After the break we’ll take a look at Toronto’s new smoking ban,” while smokers appear on your screen – you got it, b-roll.

B-roll is all about making what’s being presented visually interesting.

I like to think that there are two types of b-roll that news networks use for live television: let’s call one “objective b-roll” and the other “subjective b-roll.” The difference between the two boils down to whether the tape producer has a choice over the footage sought.

Objective b-roll is time-sensitive, specific footage. When the story is, “Hugo Chavez visits an ailing Fidel Castro,” the b-roll shows the specific event. No other encounter between the two can be shown. Objective b-roll is often quite critical in telling the story. It isn’t enough to simply say that, “John Mark Carr arrived in Boulder, Colorado today.” News shows have to show him walking down the jetway, escorted by guards and surrounded by photographers.

Objective b-roll is harder to procure. Usually sent in through satellite feeds, it can often only be found on one tape and is highly sought after within a network. This is especially the case at a place like CBC Newsworld, where the network is divided up into separate and distinct “fiefdoms.” When footage for a leading story comes in, it’s first-come-first-served.

Subjective b-roll is different. It isn’t tied to any specific footage, so the tape producer has a choice in what to edit together as b-roll. For example, a story about the oppression of women in Iran could have footage of Iranian women hanging laundry, or being arrested for having her face exposed, or even young girls covered from head-to-toe in black. With this type of b-roll, the tape producer must be subjective and, to an extent, make ethical judgments about how particular images fit within a story.

Objective b-roll isn’t always new footage. In August when former hockey agent David Frost was charged with sexual exploitation, almost every CBC News show scrambled for the one tape with footage of Frost: a mere 15-second clip and a mug shot. But it was a necessary accompaniment to the story.

That August day I ran around the CBC building chasing the tape until I finally tracked it down. As soon as I had it, calls started coming in from people asking whether they could have it once I was done.

This happened a lot when I worked at Newsworld, due in large measure to the fact that three major programs – CBC News: Tonight, CBC News: The National, and CBC News Morning, which produced their b-roll at night – all needed b-roll at about the same time. I suspect that any network that has a stable of news programs faces similar problems.

Poorly produced or poorly chosen b-roll is almost always an indication that the tape producer was rushed.

The Problem with B-Roll

Two types of malfeasance can occur as a result of rushing b-roll, the first done unwittingly due to oversight, and the second done deliberately and ethically irresponsibly.

An example of oversight is misinterpreting a b-roll request or interview question. When discussing “the comeback of nuclear industry” you might run b-roll of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when in fact you should have found stock footage of nuclear power plants. These accidental mistakes are the most noticeable but also the most forgivable.

Because objective b-roll is often tied to lead stories, (1) footage is highly sought after within a network, and (2) it must be finished on time at the risk of ruining, postponing, or worst, dropping, a top story.

It is precisely because subjective b-roll is given a lower priority that it is subject to error. With objective b-roll there’s an iron-clad understanding of what’s needed, so rushing it isn’t much of a concern. Subjective b-roll, on the other hand, requires judgments and reasoning, so logically it shouldn’t be done last or at the last-minute. Rushing subjective b-roll can create problems due to human discretion.

In these situations, viewers may be seeing inaccurate b-roll. Locations, for example, are not often distinguishable. Streets in one city look like other street in other cities. Mountains in one country look like mountains in other countries. When time runs out and there needs to be b-roll for “Summer fun on the West Coast,” a producer might be tempted to use footage of a beach in Toronto, if the tape is handy and there’s little chance he’ll be found out. If he decides to do this, when that tape is archived, it will forever bear the tag “Vancouver beach,” and anyone who uses it to produce b-roll in the future will have no reason to assume it isn’t.

The process of producing b-roll is not amenable to deep, contemplative thought or sober, deliberative reasoning. There are no codes of conduct or principled guidelines to follow, because thinking on your feet means thinking with your gut. The problem with b-roll, as it relates to live news programming, is that it can so easily lead to breaches of ethical conduct and ethical principles of truth-telling, accurate representation and honesty.

In an environment where b-roll is thought to be absolutely essential to a live news broadcast, tape producers must deliver (often literally; a la Joan Cusack in Broadcast News) their orders on time every time. Faced with this pressure, tape producers are often forced to make snap ethical decisions that hedge the line between doing the job “right” and getting the job done. “Getting the job done” is often intimately tied to how one is perceived as a worker or even whether one stays as worker. In the end, it’s much more impressive to look like a miracle worker.

Q&A with Mark Latham

This year at the University of British Columbia, student elections were advertised and covered by the voter-funded media (VFM) initiative, billed as ‘the first of its kind in the world.’ Participants in the contest promoted the election, sought to improve the quality of media coverage, and, by extension, to imporve the quality of the democratic process.

The driving force behind VFM was Mark Latham, who was an economist and businessman until his retirement in 1995. For ten years Latham, the founder of Votermedia.org, tried to sell his idea of a voter-funded media to the corporate world. They didn’t buy.

In 2006, Latham applied his idea to democratic institutions instead. He gave $8000 to the Alma Mater Society election coordinators to distribute among “winners” of media coverage. The cash, said Latham, was an incentive for media to fight voter apathy in the student elections, and, in larger future elections, corruption.

Thirteen participants entered the contest this past January to win one of Latham’s prizes. While some participants relied on comedy and popularity to attract voters, others offered serious coverage.

The competition successfully increased coverage for the AMS elections, but it caused controversy as well. UBC’s campus publication, The Ubyssey, published several articles addressing concerns about conflicts of interest within VFM and criticizing some of its rules. The Ubyssey faced increased competition for readership during Latham’s project.

In an election-time interview, Latham talked about the logic behind his project and some of its most important aspects.

Your expertise is mostly in business. How did you become interested in the media?

I’m a media consumer and an economist. I looked at voting and information in corporate societies, starting off with voting of shares, so I have studied the media and gone to a lot of conferences where people talked about representation in the media. My knowledge of the media comes from there. I also read quite a few books about the media, including Journalism in the New Millennium (edited by former UBC Journalism School director Donna Logan).

How would you describe the VFM initiative?

It’s a way of informing the voters and encouraging the government to do a better job on behalf of the voters. It informs the voters better by letting them allocate money to the media. It gives the media a better incentive than they have now to serve the voter’s interests, especially their interest in voting and knowing who they vote for. In this case, I donated $8000. In the long run, the voters themselves should fund it. For a journalist, a voter-funded budget could mean having budget for more in-depth stories.

Might it lead to people voting for a media they already know – usually a media that is already doing well?

In the short run, yes. In the long run, it encourages new media to come in and build a reputation. If it runs again and again, it will build strength, because it creates a new funding source. It creates a new incentive to provide something more. Here, even some individuals who have a reputation on campus for having a particular insight might be advantaged.

A student election seems different than a municipal or federal election. Why have you chosen UBC?

I feel UBC is perfect. It’s big enough, but small enough. It has a lot of the problems of a democracy; students are disconnected, for instance, which is exactly the problem I’m trying to solve. It’s also small enough so I can afford it, and it’s a community with a wide range of views. You have a school of journalism, so there’s a pool of journalists, and there’s also an academic interest in there. The other really big advantage is the age of the voters. People in their twenties want to change the world. I found there was quite an openness to this new idea. No, I can’t really think of a better place.

In an essay you published about the VFM, you wrote the economic structure of the media was a cause of voter apathy. Could you develop that thought for me?

Voters don’t have an incentive to pay the media. Even though, as a group, we vote for better information, as an individual, I would personally not pay money from my pocket to buy information, because I would be helping the community, not myself. The media tend to serve more sensationalism, fashion, etc. than information, because they get funding from advertising and commercials. A lot of subjects that require a lot of time and energy won’t attract a lot of viewers or readers. To caricature me [as a representative of the public] – I want to spend most of my year looking at Britney Spears. Before an election, I want to spend 15 minutes that are boring to make sure I can cast my vote, because I know that it matters. We really need this information that is totally boring, but we only want to spend 15 minutes looking at it. I want to increase that coverage.

Are you afraid of conflicts of interests on the VFM? [Some of the VFM contestants were also involved in the AMS council.]

I designed the basic idea, but I don’t set the rules. I thought a lot about that – the VFM is all about conflicts of interest and reducing them. I think VFM will police itself. People digging up conflicts of interest are about the best protection we have. Therefore, my design says even electoral candidates can have their own media outlet. I do care about conflicts of interest, but the best protection is having other media monitor it.

So more coverage is better coverage?

If you have well-motivated candidates, yes. It would be a better protection than having the government control the media.

How would you feel if a joke candidate wins?

Of course I’d like my donated money to go for something that helped the voters. But even if some money is wasted that way, I think it will be a success if there’s a substantial amount of positive, successful coverage and a small amount of that joke stuff. If all the money were going to joke media, I would consider it a failure. I forecast that they would vote for helpful media, but I might be wrong. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, that’s why it’s so interesting. My hope is that it’s going to be successful and people will say that this was useful for UBC voters. But overall, I think it is working, we have got a better coverage than we’ve ever had so far.

Climate Change and the Media

Although the North American mainstream media has recently jumped on the green bandwagon, its coverage of climate change has been lambasted for contributing to a culture of doubt and debate by covering an issue of fact as one of opinion.

Journalists often covered climate change stories using a traditional notion of objectivity – by giving equal weight to the views of the contrarians and the believers. But this practice meant that journalists continued to tell both sides of the story, even when there was no legitimate scientific “other side” to tell.

During UBC’s Celebrate Research week, the UBC School of Journalism and the DeSmogBlog.com hosted a panel discussion on media treatment of the climate-change issue entitled “The State of the Media on Climate Change.”

The panel was comprised of some of the best-known journalists, editors, academics and activists following the issue.

Panelists included Hadi Dowlatabadi, UBC Professor Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability; Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and author of The New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science; Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize winning editor and author of the groundbreaking book The Heat is On; Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun; and Jim Hoggan, president of James Hoggan & Associates and founder of DeSmogBlog.com

Throughout the presenters’ five-minute presentations and the discussion afterward, a consensus emerged – that journalists have contributed, willingly or unwillingly, to fogging and fueling the debate on climate change.

Jim Hoggan, a self-proclaimed “PR guy” explained to the audience the function of PR and spin. He told the story of S. Fred Singer, who some might remember from his previous efforts to allay public fears about the dangers of secondhand smoke, who became a spokesperson for big oil and climate change contrarians. Singer’s ability to get his views published and cast doubt on climate change, he said, is a perfect example of how the journalistic commitment to balance can be manipulated by spinsters, despite their pursuit of balance.

Ross Gelbspan highlighted the differences in the climate change coverage between the mainstream media and scientific journals. “Why is it that in a study of over 1,000 peer reviewed articles on climate change, not one refuted its occurrence or that humans contributed to it, yet the mainstream media still presents the issue as if it is contested,” he asked.

SUNNY FREEMAN

HADI DOWLATABADI

CHRIS MOONEY

ROSS GELBSPAN

Hadi Dowlatabadi founded offsetters.ca to provide travelers with a way to pay to offset their carbon emissions. Dowlatabadi, like many of the other panelists, highlighted the sensationalist nature of the mainstream media by referencing the exorbitant amount of coverage of Britney Spears shaving her head and the controversy over Anna Nicole Smith’s death.

“What are the media’s priorities? Like scientists, it is to turn a profit, meaning that neither the scientists nor the media are completely objective in their self-interested pursuits,” he said.

Chris Moonely elaborated on the sensationalist drive in the media.

“During the week the IPCC report was released, it was one of the top issues in the media, according to Pew’s statistics. However, the week after it had fallen off the agenda, replaced with coverage of the Super Bowl and Anna Nicole Smith’s death,” he said.

This sensationalist drive produces a drive in journalism toward covering conflict and controversy because they get ratings and coverage of more long-term issues suffers as a result.

Kirk LaPointe anticipated being the “human piñata,” because he was the only representative of mainstream media in the panel group. And that is exactly how the audience treated him. Although he acknowledged that the media had done the issue a disservice in its previous coverage, he expressed his hope that the media have a renewed opportunity to earn respect for its coverage over the coming decades.

“I think mainstream news organizations are finally starting to get it, thanks to a tipping point in 2006 fueled by coverage of extreme weather, Al Gore’s movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and the nomination of Stephane Dion,” he said.

While the panelists and the audience disagreed about certain aspects of the media’s role in the climate change debate, they agreed on one front – that the media’s commitment to balance has obfuscated their climate change coverage, and that the mainstream media need to play a more responsible role in covering climate change by asking tough questions and verifying the answers instead of clinging to the journalistic standard of balance.

When sorry seems to be the hardest word to print

The 21st century has heralded the advent of countless new journalism ethics societies, codes and vows. Ombudspersons have become fixtures in the newsroom; public apologies have become a mainstay in big papers that publish big errors. Or have they? A recent accountability failure by the New York Times requires concerned journalists to demand whether newsrooms are truly taking responsibility for all they print.

On April 24, a panel of five Indonesian judges acquitted American gold producer Newmont Gold Corp. and its president director, Richard Ness, of charges regarding environmental degradation in an Indonesian bay. The verdict was decisive, and the judges minced no words in calling the prosecution’s case “weak” and their evidence “flawed because prosecutors had used conflicting evidence, gathered unscientifically. Much of it was provided by the NGO advocates who had begun pushing to have the mine closed even before it opened.

In its coverage, the New York Times quoted the judges, recognizing the law had spoken. The Times was less forthcoming with the verdict the paper itself had laid down a year and a half prior. Times reporter Jane Perlez wrote a damning series about the goldmine that ran on page one and swept the globe. Beginning on September 8, 2004 (the same day the World Health Organization issued a report declaring the bay in question clear of mercury pollution), Perlez asserted that fish had died off and villagers had been sick since the mine opened. Perlez’s medical sources were a visiting coral paleontologist and a public health lecturer.

She rejected several doctors’ accounts of villager health. The villagers she quoted had been traveling the world with anti-mining NGOs since 2002 and earlier. For most of her claims in the article’s top 15 paragraphs, she cited no one at all. As for Newmont’s representatives and scientists, she spoke with them but failed to quote them. The indisputable conclusion readers drew from her accounts was that an American colossus was ruining the lives and livelihoods of defenseless villagers.

The story is credited with urging Indonesian authorities to arrest five Newmont employees, holding them for 32 days, uncharged, while reports came pouring in from international organizations, local universities, and government scientists indicating that the bay was clean and the villagers were suffering from very basic symptoms of poor nutrition, bad hygiene, and allergies. These reports were occasionally covered by the Times, but never on A-1. The trial’s verdict made page A-8 last month.

So, the Times never came clean on its initial faulty reports about the Newmont case. But, surely Perlez herself was scolded. Perhaps a slap on the wrist?

To the contrary, Perlez was recently promoted to the New York Times London bureau, where she continues to write A-1 stories. On May 2, she scored a front-page slot for a story on an immigration “loophole” for Britons of Pakistani descent, citing American officials with concerns over the number of terror plots involving Britons of Pakistani descent. Because British people with Pakistani parents are, by law, British, they need no visa to enter the United States. But, Perlez does not explain how this is a loophole at all – by all accounts, this is not a loophole so much as a guarantee of equal citizenship rights for all British citizens, regardless of their descent.

I have not seen a public apology from the New York Times for quite some time. Not for the faulty Newmont story in 2004, and not for the racist “loophole” story from this week. If this is allowed in 21st century accountability, we need rework our definitions. Talk is cheap they say, but it comes with a high price when readers are held in such low regard that they don’t merit apologies for such slights.

The Death of the Reader

Somewhere out there, the people who thought up Craigslist are sitting pretty. It’s no secret that the independent, interactive online services site dealt a blow to the lucrative classified ads sections of many major daily newspapers, sending the business into a tailspin, scrambling to restructure and stay relevant.

This phenomenon has created a niche market for companies like The American Press Institute. The “old, monolithic newspaper model is in disruption,” they say, knowing that they are tapping into a psychography of businesses that are reacting to sustained losses of both revenue and readership, and are trying to figure out how to recover. The newspaper business is, after all, a business.

API has come up with a proposed solution called “Newspaper Next.” It’s a workshop led by Marketing Director Elaine Clisham that tours major urban beats and university campuses preaching a premise that would send chills down the spine of any journalist with a spark of creative fervour left.

AMANDA STUTT is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism. She completed a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. Her writing has appeared in the Ubyssey, The Seed and the Tyee. She specializes in investigative and human- interest journalism.
“Your vision needs to be: Connect local customers with local businesses…developing products for people who have decided, for whatever reason, not to read,” said Clisham told leading local editors at a recent seminar at the University of British Columbia co-hosted by the UBC School of Journalism.

Instead of figuring out why core readers aren’t reading anymore, API proposes a shift in the critical mindset: Don’t worry about the reader — focus instead on the consumer.

Other, more interactive forms of media such as Google, Wikipedia, Netflix, and the like are thriving, and have largely replaced hardcopy daily newspapers for advertising and reference materials. Clisham referred to these sites as ‘disruptive innovators’ to the old newspaper model, and offered tips on how to stay competitive.

The “new” way is that news is not enough; rather, “we need to be everything you need to live in this community…We used to be the dominant source of information in our community… and we aren’t reaching as many people anymore,” Clisham said.

API’s biggest success model is The Desert Sun, a 22,000 daily circulation paper in Palm Springs, California. Clisham called The Desert Sun a good case study “because they were focused on organizational structure…in terms of building new audience, they’ve figured out the whole database thing very well.”

Steve Silberman, executive editor of The Desert Sun spoke at the seminar via a videotaped interview. “I was thinking too much about the reader and not enough about the consumer,” he said, explaining how implementing Newspaper Next’s model of restructuring worked for his newspaper.

Any mention of how to address public scepticism that may have turned readers’ eyes in other directions was conspicuously absent, but the point was not lost on some audience members.

Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun said, “the core question for a lot of us still seems to be in the newsrooms, which we really refer to as the high-end quality of our business…Are we covering too much, and uncovering too little?”

LaPointe is concerned about dipping into a “finite talent pool” of investigative journalists, and the hazards of placing too much emphasis on feedback to a market.

“We will not have the resources to break ground and investigate matters that raise public awareness and mobilize their interest and passion…You can’t take your eye off the ball,” he said. “We are coming from a model where, it’s not that we didn’t ask people what they wanted, we thought that part of the beauty of journalism was that we could, in fact, create a market for something. That you could lead the public experience and raise their awareness”.

But Chisholm maintained that newspapers no longer have the ability to create a market. “For better or worse, those days are over,” she responded, reiterating that the newspaper business must focus instead on tapping into “what the consumer wants.”

“No journalist…can survive in this media environment without understanding how business works and how a journalism organization can make money,” said Clisham. “We’re focused on the future and how to pay for that journalism.”

She agreed there is a strong market for investigative journalism, but rather than addressing ways to get the reader engaged in that journalism she asked, “how do we engage people who might not pick up the paper but still need access to information?”

Chisholm advised newspapers to nuance and digitalize the local telephone directory, tapping into consumers’ unmet needs — such as late night pizza-cravings. She suggested an online service directory with entertainment options and advertisements for “low-end pizza restaurants.”

“Local information [that is] easily accessible is a huge resource for building local audiences,” she said. “We need to get out of the mindset of creating content, and into the mindset of creating a platform.”

Clisham emphasized focusing energy on putting out “light versions of daily newspapers.” Examples of this model in Vancouver are 24hrs and the youth-oriented online Dose. “Circulation” will become “distribution” said Clisham, referring to the guy who stands on the street corner handing out newspapers to passers-by.

At the end of the day, critical ethical questions resonate. What has happened to the readers? Spending the morning coffee or transit commute immersed in a hardcopy of the local daily is rapidly becoming a vanquished pastime. So why aren’t readers reading anymore?

These questions have broad societal implications that Newspaper Next failed to address. Should the dominant paradigm in journalism shift from a focus on conveying messages to the reader and creating a market for consciousness-raising to a model that focuses on advertising products and services to a consumer? It’s these questions that haunt the sparsely populated hallways of the world of investigative journalism, and that anyone concerned with the future of newspapers should be asking.

Journalism Ethics

Welcome to Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen, your one-stop source for tracking and analyzing ethical issues in your city or around the world. This is the public face of the new Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen will keep you updated on ethical issues in the news, while providing informed analysis on issues, as well as book reviews and interviews with leading figures in journalism. You will access a host of resources, from background discussions on the nature and history of journalism ethics to codes of practice and links to ethics experts.

The aim of the site is to support the mission of the Center for Journalism Ethics – to advance the ethical standards and practices of democratic journalism through discussion, research, teaching, professional outreach, and newsroom partnerships. The center is a voice for journalistic integrity, a forum for informed debate, and an incubator for new ideas and practices.

This site is the main vehicle for the center’s first annual ethics conference, “The Future of Ethical Journalism,” April 30-May 1, 2009. Information on the conference, registration, and logistics are provided on this home page. For those who can’t attend, the conference will be streamed live to this site on May 1. Conference coverage will include live blogs of the sessions and post-conference analysis.

Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen seeks to be truly global, inviting reports and analysis from around the world. The ViSalus center is interested in collaborations and partnerships with other groups within and without the United States. For example, “Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen” will become the ethics web site for The Canadian Journalism Project, a cross-Canada initiative to support quality journalism, on its portal at www.j-source.ca/english_new/

The center and its web site encourages other schools of journalism, and its students, to collaborate on projects and to contribute material. For example, this site is linked to the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, at www.journalism.ubc.ca

I invite you to enjoy and use the site for your media courses, your journalistic work, or for your own information as a member of the public. There has never been a more impotent time for all citizens to examine and debate the ethics of journalism, locally, nationally and globally.

Journalists who retell violence relive trauma, too

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.”

The Media’s Failure in Rwanda

Interview with Allan Thompson, professor of journalism at Carleton University and editor of the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

The 1994 Rwanda genocide is undeniably one of the most atrocious events in recent history. But during the most tragic, deadly days in the small African nation in 1994, most media organizations failed to report on the events. Even worse, Rwanda’s own RTLM radio station actually incited people to commit mass killings.

In The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, scholars, journalists, and lawyers – including retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the UNAMIR mission – present their own perspectives on the media and the events. Allan Thompson is the editor of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

Francis Plourde met with him during his stay in Vancouver, where he spoke about the media’s responsibility in the genocide. Thompson worked for 17 years for the Toronto Star and now teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is also the founder of the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership with the National University of Rwanda.

You had a long career as a journalist at the Toronto Star before taking an academic turn and focusing on Rwanda. How did you become interested in Rwanda in the first place?

I was not in Rwanda in 1994. At the time, I was at the foreign affairs bureau in Ottawa for the Toronto Star. It should have been my job to go there, but I didn’t. I was not engaged, the story didn’t capture my attention. Since then, I think I have been trying to make amends for not having been there in 1994. I went for the first time in 1996, to report on the repatriation of Hutu refugees. Back in Canada in 1996, I made it my mission to know more about Roméo Dallaire and to write about him.

You’re here to promote your book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. What are the main lessons readers should take from this book?

People were made familiar with the [Rwandan] media’s responsibility in the genocide through the “media trial” [against RTLM], but not enough attention was drawn to the role of the western media in 1994. They are part of the equation. The international community missed the most important story that year, even though there was compelling evidence of what was going on. In the US, we were covering the OJ Simpson trial and Tonia Harding’s story. In South Africa, it was the end of the Apartheid. There was still a war in the Balkans. When the media left [Rwanda] in April 1994, the killings intensified immediately. In physics, there’s the Heisenberg effect – a theory according to which the observer influences the behavior of his subject. I believe the media can have the same impact. In 1994, by not reporting the story, the international media contributed to the inverse. The perpetrators could act with impunity.

The media seem to share a great deal of the criticism…

Some journalists could do a good job, but the media at large failed to make it the big story of the day. In April and early May, there was no coverage. But in April 1994, 8,000 to 10,000 people were killed every day! Later, in July, hundreds of news organizations covered what was going on in Rwanda to some degree – the elections in South Africa were over then — but they were covering the story of the refugees. The problem is that people think it was the story of the genocide. It wasn’t. We have to go back and look more closely at the process of selecting what is news and what is not, because it was not always logical.

You also say that the media misunderstood the nature of the killings in Rwanda. They portrayed it an instance of tribal warfare rather than a genocide. What’s the difference?

In the news coverage, there was a sense of two ethnic groups killing each other indiscriminately. But it was a fairly organized massacre of one group by another one. It’s still a massacre, but it’s different. Mark Doyle [the east Africa correspondent in 1993-1994 for the BBC, who wrote a chapter in Thompson’s book] states that there were clear references to government-backed massacres in the first couple of days of the killings. [Doyle] was one of the first to use the word genocide, at the end of April, but he started reporting it initially as chaos and indiscriminate killings. The recognition of the genocide gave it a sense of morality.

You also refer to RTLM – its leaders were convicted in 2003 – to explain how media failed. How can we set rules to avoid another RTLM?

RTLM is probably the most extreme case of media failure. It was a radio station that was specifically created to spark the genocide. They had good music, they were different from Radio Rwanda, and they incited the population to hate the Tutsis and commit murders. Roméo Dallaire was aware of the impact of RTLM, but for some reason his mission had no media capacity. Now, most of the UN missions have their own radio stations to counter the effects of these messages. I’m reluctant to suggest that we regulate the media, but we have to try to build a professional media, so the extreme media are marginalized. I’d rather add something than take something away; it’s easier and it’s less problematic.

Carleton University created the Rwanda Initiative in 2004. Can you describe its main objectives?

In 2003, I went to Rwanda as a freelancer, and I organized a conference at Carleton University. I invited someone from Rwanda [to talk about the state of journalism in Rwanda]. We agreed that we should continue to work on something after the conference. He said there weren’t enough teachers to teach journalism in Rwanda. It’s how the Rwanda Initiative started. We sent 12 journalists and 12 journalism students last year. And we intend to do the same this year.

You went to Rwanda to help train media in 2006. How was the experience?

It’s still fragile. The media will report about the ministers and the policies, but they won’t criticize the president [Paul Kagamé – who was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994] directly. Despite the self-censorship and lack of professors, though, I have hope that things can get better. There are good students, and I hope they do good journalism.

With movies being filmed and books getting published, the Rwanda genocide is getting a momentum, but the media seem less likely to point out the events in Darfur. Are we repeating the same mistakes?

We have not fully absorbed the lessons from the genocide yet. At the technological level, we are in a much better position for Darfur than for Rwanda. In 1994, we didn’t have a phone network, and we didn’t have the Internet. But there are still the same problems. There are no journalists there, it’s far away, the resources for international reporting in the newsroom have decreased. There are only four or five Canadian journalists covering Africa: the Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, Radio-Canada, and that’s about it. There is no other full-time journalism devoted to Africa.

How can we, as journalists, prevent another event like the Rwanda genocide?

With the 24-hour news trend, it’s becoming harder and harder to bring an issue onto the news agenda, but I think that individual journalists have to be more influential. They have to try to make a difference themselves. They have to fight for their stories rather than being passive players.

Morals and the Media Black, White and Grey: Ethics in South African Journalism Review

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to the development of a global journalism ethic is the inherent complexity of the concept. Two recently published texts in journalism ethics, one written by Canadian Nick Russell and the other by South African journalist Franz Kruger, underline this problem. The goals of the authors are similar, but their approaches diverge tremendously.

Russell, writing primarily for journalism students in this second edition of his well-used textbook, uses an interrogative style to focus his readers’ attention on the practical issues of the day. Ethical philosophy is generally absent, ousted by more practical musings on untrusting (and hard-to-please) publics, demanding advertisers, and the looming “bottom line.”

Kruger’s text is written for the practicing journalists of a newly liberated South African press. Free expression is so novel that the central theme in Black, White and Grey is outlining the (possibly idealistic) truth-spreading, myth-busting responsibilities of free-press journalists. The commodification of news that dominates Russell’s text is minimized. Instead, Kruger addresses journalistic ethics in terms of the duties inherent in the profession, rather than the decisions journalists are forced to make by the practicalities of the industry. As a South African, he writes from a background of longstanding civil unrest and decade of racial hatred. His book “attempts to measure the traditional standards of journalism against the demands of a changing society.” It was born of a debate over national transformation, and he sees journalism’s role as vital in that social and national task.

Despite the great differences in style and tone, Russell and Kruger adhere to the same basic principles and standards of media ethics, but they disagree on how and to what degree these standards can be attained. Both Kruger, a university professor, and Russell, a former professor, have distinguished histories as journalists, and they have spent a great deal of time immersed in discussions over journalistic integrity. Kruger certainly believes in a global journalistic ethic that would link South African journalism to Europe and North America, and Russell embraces the idea that as more voices participate in news more news will be successfully transmitted. Fundamentally, both authors aspire to a journalism unbiased by monetary enticements, racial, social, or religious prejudices, or government interest.

But beyond this basic understanding, the ethics of the two authors – and perhaps the two nations – part ways. The economic interests that sometimes seem to blind Russell’s ethics are conversely a blind spot for Kruger. In this divergence, the authors lay bare the shortfalls of each other’s conception of the ethical ideal. Russell’s audience is a public sphere that encompasses diverse interests, all of which must be considered in order to maintain circulation levels. Kruger’s audience is charged with regrouping and rejecting biases, regardless of public resistance or financial hardship.

“Money dominates journalism,” Morals and the Media proclaims. This fairly narrow view dominates Russell’s assessment of media ethics. News organizations compete for audiences, are owned by large corporations, and subsist on funds from advertisers. Russell notes that this may be problematic, but it remains questionable as to how journalists can maintain the ethical high ground if, as Russell notes, newsrooms must divide their loyalty between the public and the paycheck writers.

Given its economic pessimism, Russell’s Morals is extremely useful as a depiction of the issues that face Canadian journalists. It addresses – at least cursorily – almost every ethical obstacle from sexual bias to public distrust to financial woes. Russell emphasizes the public’s response more than the journalist’s duties. Morals is less about the ethical decisions involved in news-making than it is about news-making decisions in light of public ethics. He is pessimistic about the financial pressures on journalists and news organizations, and he believes that public money decides the news agenda more authoritatively than reporters and editors do. He councils his readers to be sensitive to what the public is ready to see, in terms of gender issues, race issues, and violence. Economics, emotion, and media-public relations are at the heart of his text.

In light of that economic pressure, Russell’s ethics reflect a public sense of propriety, because papers that displease the community won’t sell. His chapter title sums up his position concisely: “Bitch, bitch, bitch: news consumer’s prime complaints.” The complaints primarily address accuracy, fairness, sensationalism, and sensitivity. Russell, perhaps wishing to stay detached from his subject, does not let on that he finds these complaints reasonable. Instead, he notes that journalists can never “get it right” for everyone, and someone will always be disappointed with coverage of an event.

Russell promotes the idea of community involvement to fill the gap between the public and the news media. Civic journalism, empowering the public to make news, is among the options (and the option he favoured in the book’s 1994 first edition). Also recommended are peer condemnation, codes, and journalism reviews. Traditional journalism cannot stand alone; there must be a multimedia response. This, Russell claims, will help mitigate the public’s distrust for news media. It was surprising that Russell does not address the other possible effect of civic journalism: elevating the level of debate on important social issues.

Kruger’s approach to journalism stems from the opposite standpoint. The purpose of journalism ethics in Black, White and Grey is to edify a socially and financially stratified nation that has only a burgeoning understanding of democratic principles. He addresses journalism ethics in terms of public needs rather than public desires. Kruger stresses the journalist’s ethical duty to help remedy race issues, combat misogyny, and disperse dangerous rumors. When the press plays such a proactive role in society, it changes the basis for ethical decisions. He exemplifies this in his explanation of film footage aired as apartheid was breathing its last. The footage showed “rebels” shooting two AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, South Africa’s white supremacist right-wing political group) members at point-blank-range when their car, affixed with the Nazi-like flag, was stopped by the Defense Force. Despite the harm to the men’s families, “the significance of the incident was such as to make it unthinkable to withhold the footage. The hapless AWB men were caught up in a historic moment, and their tragedy was no longer private.” This type of coverage seems to run counter to Russell’s ‘saying’: “If in doubt, leave it out.” The ethical issue is not a matter distasteful imagery but of a hateful regime overthrown.

Death is a reality to any South African old enough to remember apartheid, so squeamishness is ethically important for Kruger. When he addresses AIDS, he addresses the responsibility of a journalist with a sniffle to cancel an interview with an HIV positive patient. This is not the sensitivity of semantics, but the sensitivity of humanity. When Russell addresses AIDS, he breezes over the semantics of copy (the section starts with the journalistic history of the word “condom” and goes little further). In Russell’s chapter on dishonesty, he includes April Fools pranks. Kruger’s discussion of lying includes toddlers being raped after rumors spread that sex with a virgin could cure AIDS. Russell’s gender issues tends to center around bikini clad bunnies and lexicons of misogyny. Kruger’s confronts sexist laws, chauvinistic judicial rulings, and the marginalizing of black female reporters.

This is not to trivialize the ethical dilemmas that Russell presents, but to note that the ethical dilemmas facing journalists might be deeper than he implies and that his public might need more reality than they are presently “prepared” for. Canadian children are raped and murdered; Canadian citizen groups are marginalized; AIDS – while obviously less rampant than in South Africa – is a problem in Canada. Russell vividly depicts the media landscape from Canada where economics play a key role in any function of a capitalistic, democratic society. But that should not relegate the ethics of reporting to second place, behind business.

Testing the Limits and Consequences of Free Speech on University Campuses

The new editor-in-chief at the The University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, Canada’s oldest student newspaper, is starting the school year equipped with a clean slate of ethics and a fresh approach to campus journalism.

The paper, founded in 1906 at the London, Ontario campus, learned a grueling lesson on the limits of satire and free speech on university campuses after it published a contentious article in its April Fool’s Day spoof edition earlier this year.

For the past ten years, the legendary Gazette Spoof Issue has aimed to top the previous year’s edition by humouring and stupefying its readers with outrageously satirical articles.

“We had one or two controversial issues before but there has been nothing like this response,” said Allison Buchan-Terrell, who became editor-in-chief a month after the controversial article ran.

This year’s spoof edition made wild accusations about the university’s president Paul Davenport and other prominent staff, but an article called “Labia Majora Carnage” inspired an unprecedented degree of reader indignation.

The article portrayed a Take Back the Night march in which the actual London Police Chief Murray Faulkner rapes a fictional feminist.

“He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich’s wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson,” the unknown author writes.

At the time, the Gazette had not considered the shaky ethical and legal ground in was embarking on in using anonymous authors but naming real people — and calling them rapists.

Days after the article was published, critics accused the paper of fostering an unsafe environment for female students on campus and condoning rape. Protests broke out across the University of Western Ontario campus, petitions circulated, angry Facebook groups formed and a multitude of letters to the editor poured in to the Gazette.

The paper was walking a tenuous line, Buchan-Terrell admits, but she says it is often difficult to gauge whether readers will determine an article has crossed that line.

“This generation has a different kind of humour. It’s more dry and in your face, like Borat,” she told JournalismEthics.ca in a telephone interview from the Gazette office in London, Ontario.

Although reporters pitched and brainstormed ideas for the issue, said Buchan-Terrell, who was a reporter at the time, only three people oversee decisions to run final copy.

“The rest of us didn’t have a say. There was debate only among the deputy editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. And the possible angle was difficult to predict,” she said.

While an editorial board consisting of two male students and a female decided the paper’s fate on April Fool’s eve, the entire staff at the Gazette was painted with the same anti-feminist brush, said Buchan-Terrell. Despite the lack of consultation, the paper’s policy was to stand as a team, holding each staff member equally responsible.

The fact that the article was written by an anonymous reporter using the alias “Xavier” further blurred the ethical boundary.

Although there were calls to reveal the writer’s name, the paper’s editors considered it unsafe to do so because the paper was receiving threatening letters about the issue.

Nevertheless, Buchan-Terrell said she struggled with the decision to stand as a team.

“To be a woman and to be called a misogynist was tough. I’ve written articles on sexual assault and the lack of female faculty. It was hard because people were implying the paper was dominated by a jock culture, but there are a lot of smart women on the staff.”

Eventually, the national media picked up on the news at the restless campus.

Western’s president Paul Davenport accused the article of “attacking the safety of women.” The university’s administration was called in less than two weeks after the article ran to sanction the rogue paper.

At a town hall meeting on Apr.13, the Gazette staff and university administration agreed to a number of new initiatives to regulate the campus press including a new code of ethics and an advisory board comprised of journalism professors and professional journalists.

The Gazette’s new code of ethics, accessible on its website, gives the paper a unique status. Not only is it the oldest student newspaper and one of the only daily campus papers, but it is now one of the only university papers in Canada with an established ethical code.

The code, based on the Canadian Association of Journalists statement of principles, promises editorial independence and newsroom inclusiveness, in addition to staples like accuracy, balance and fairness.

However, the university was not satisfied with the motions passed by the University Students’ Council (USC). The Board of Governors (BoG) decided they needed more control to reign in the Gazette.

In May, the BoG passed a motion granting the university’s administration the power to withhold student fees to fund the paper.

It also recommended “that the distribution of the Gazette on campus be suspended, if they judge such suspension to be justified by an egregious violation of the Journalistic Code of Ethics.”

The BoG itself will decide whether any of the newspaper’s content violated journalism ethics, although there are no journalists on the board.

In the first issue of the Gazette’s 101st year, it announced it would comply with the university’s demands and more — its staff would also undergo formal equity training and the paper would launch a formal process for complaints.

The editorial staff admitted it had made a mistake. “We learned a hard lesson after the publication of the Spoof Issue about the power of the written word for good and bad and about the limits of good taste and free speech,” read an editorial in the newspaper. It promised that through practising responsible journalism the error in judgment would never happen again.

Buchan-Terrell says that doesn’t mean the paper will lose its independence or its edge. And she assures that neither the USC nor the BoG have any control over editorial content.

“We’re staying true to the tradition of the Gazette, we’re just improving it. We’ll tread carefully and make decisions based on our readership and based on good taste,” she said.

But the Gazette’s outgoing editor-in-chief Ian Van Den Hurk expressed concerns with the university’s reforms in an interview with the Queen’s Journal in April.

“I think it puts the paper in a tough situation. Does the Gazette feel afraid to run anything pushing the envelope now? What if the administration disapproves of something the student body has no qualms with?” he asked.

Neither editor, however, believes the incident has tarnished the reputation of the paper.

And the University of Western Ontario is doing everything in its power, including granting itself the unprecedented ability to withhold funding to the paper if independent attempts at ethics fail, to ensure the reputation of the preppy campus is unsullied in the scrutinizing eyes of the media, donors, alumni and potential students.

By Sunny Freeman

SUNNY FREEMAN is a contributing editor and writer for JournalismEthics.ca. While completing her Masters at the UBC School of Journalism, she freelances for the Tyee, the Thunderbird,The Ubyssey, the Metro News and the Feminist Media Project. She holds an honors BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario and a BA in English/Cultural Studies from McMaster University. Her passion for politics and writing drew her into journalism. She focuses her graduate studies on politics in media, and the politics of media.