Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Episodic Journalism"

It's time to take stock, reflect on why things have gone astray and begin a process which will ultimately lead to a more accountable democracy, that truly serves the people in a responsible manner. Oh, you thought I was talking about the Liberals, didn't you?

Lawrence Martin's piece is important because it demonstrates serious reflection on the role of the media, but it's also striking in it's singularity. Martin's piece is really the only substantive review of the state of the media in the election aftermath, and I find that both curious and disappointing to be honest. It makes one wonder if the medium can truly police itself, always a challenge because you are sort of poking yourself in the eye. The only reaction I can find, that even acknowledges the column, comes from Chris Selley who thinks Martin "very unfair, we think, to the reporters working hard under those circumstances". An interesting defence I suppose, but 99% of the critical subject matter that journalists cover also work extremely hard under the circumstances, so is that really relevant to the thesis? I mean, MP's work their asses off everyday, but people still find the time to scrutinize their failings, right?

Perhaps Martin offers a blanket assessment, which doesn't quite capture the excellent work of many journalists, the great insights and principled perspectives of certain columnists, but beyond generalizations, he makes an almost self evident point which deserves further reflection:
But today there appears to be less independence in the media, less sense of outrage at abuses of power. Journalists of the baby boomer generation who were anti-establishment back then are old and more passive now, co-opted if you like. And the business has changed. In the 24-hour news cycle, the pressure is to move on to the next story without due diligence on the one that just happened.

Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.

The key term for me is "episodic journalism", which entirely captures the present media state. Part of it is circumstance, part of it is dwindling resources, but the final product is really an attention span challenged media, that is now EASILY manipulated by shrewd political strategies. During the election, there was nothing more bizarre that listening to journalists express surprise that stories like the AG report didn't have legs, when it was really a testament to the fact the same journalists voluntarily moved on. Again, part of this reality isn't the medium's fault, consumers also have little attention span, we get bored quickly, we demand constant stimulation and rather than focus we multi-task. The media landscape is a fractured and instant affair, how that developed very much a chicken and the egg scenario.

Martin uses the words "passive" and "co-opted", which again may seem harsh, but in totality seems an apt description. You can discount observations as simply partisan, but I've watched Harper manipulate the media with amazement for years. Maybe it's a subconscious reverence for power, maybe it's sheer proximity and familiarity, a coziness, I have no idea, but with rare exceptions, any "attack" on the government is temporary and then countered. The idea of "balance" has caused the passivity, because every issue is reduced to equal time, no matter the absurdity or illogical assertions, all views are presented and the electorate is left with confused contradictions. It is here where the true manipulations can occur, you oppose any story with counter noise and leave a muddled mess, offering no clarity on anything. I will submit the F-35 story as the perfect example, absolutely NO credible counter to the cost issues raised, and yet most stories come with government defences and little "calling out", because that somehow denotes a "bias". The government was misleading Canadians on the cost of the F-35 planes, that is a fact and the FACT Canadians never quite got a clear airing on the issue, extremely disappointing and symptomatic of a larger problem.

The Liberals aren't they only entity that require some introspection and self analysis...


Tof KW said...

Again, part of this reality isn't the medium's fault, consumers also have little attention span, we get bored quickly

I'll counter that this is 100% the media's fault. Was it human nature that changed, or the news providers?

Up until the early 1980's, the news was considered a public service and it was understood by the networks that it lost money. The media companies had pride in their work, and took their roll as the 4th estate seriously. But then it became 'entertainment', and journalism has been in a downwards spiral ever since.

The focus on celebrity over real news (for example the top story today is Oprah - not the MO/OK/KS tornadoes or Syria), media convergence, and the overall degradation thanks to the 24-hour news cycle have all done their job in gutting the 4th estate.

Though there are still a few good journalists out there, over all the profession is sliding in order to conform to the company's bottom line.

I agree with Mr Martin, if a Watergate was happening again, we'd never know. It would be initially and briefly reported (as top story #15) for a day or two, discussed for maybe a week by partisans to be 'fair and balanced' leaving the public confused, and then totally forgotten.

A Eliz. said...

To see unfettered journalism go to YouTube and type in: Pierre Trudeau, "just watch me"
I cannot see Harper doing this! Nor the journalists

Anonymous said...

I can't either, A Eliz, but then again, that video is shocking in PET's ability to handle direct questioning with grace. At one point, the reporter apologizes for badly wording a phrase!!! Are you kidding me? That skill in particular is what made PET impressive, among others. It's also something Harper does not have. For all the talk about how he hates the media and likes to control them through not meeting them, the obvious reason he does not confront them is that after all these years, he still cannot engage them and win. He is afraid.

Jennifer said...

While I think much of what you say in terms of media bias is blather, I believe Martin nailed it in blaming the 24 hour news cycle as the root of the problem.

Editors of traditional media, who were caught flat-footed when the internet became a major news source, have spent the last 5+ years over-correcting. Now, there is this huge emphasis on FAST, and that's co-opted a real need for complete accuracy and fulsome reporting. Stories are not followed up because editors constanty want to feed the beast that is the internet. Readers want everything right now, they reason. But somewhere along the lines, they have forgotten that readers also want it right and they want it fully researched and reported. They have not learned to use the internet properly as a delivery tool, and essentially, we are watching newspaper and magazine coverage go the way of TV and radio news coverage --- quick hits, no follow, done.

This, in large part, is why I left the industry.

Several times, on Twitter, I asked Greg Weston whether there would be further follow-up to the G20 report story, and I was ignored. That's the type of story that DEMANDS significant follow-up, with a reporter assigned to it for WEEKS after it breaks. That's not what happens anymore, though. Like I say, a quick hit and it's over, as far as editors are concerned.

Readers should demand more. They shouldn't just bitch on Twitter or the blogosphere. They should be writing to editors-in-chief, and to publishers. It's the only way the message will get through.

Jennifer said...

I wanted to add that, the more I think about it, the more this phenomenon could appear, under current circumstances, to be an indicator of bias, though I continue to contend it is not that at all.

What I think it is, is a matter of the things Harper has gotten away with being impossible to fully explain in the quick hits reporters are currently being allowed, so much of the electorate isn't getting the full story and can't see the whole picture. Much of what it appears the Liberals have been lambasted for -- go back, even, to the Green Shift -- also cannot be properly explained in quick hits, so people hear "will cost you money," but don't get any explanation beyond that. It's not bias --- it's that important issues aren't getting complete coverage, and right now, because many of them would, under a better microscope, be injurious to Harper et al, it appears as bias.

I do not believe the typical reporter covering the poticial beat is unfair (and I think using the word "unbiased" where reporters are concerned is ever so much baloney --- everyone has bias. What matters in terms of a reporter is that they be fair.) But I think it can appear that way under the new, crappier methods of reporting being forced by editors who want more, more, more, but not better, better, better.

Steve V said...

I've written many times to the source and/or the publication. As for bias, when McGill shows the same trend 4 elections in a row, I'd say one has a very credible case.

Jennifer said...

You can make any study say anything you want. It's even got a name. Confirmation bias.

Steve V said...

That's a cop out, rather than dealing with the objective substance. Go look at the studies, it really isn't slight of hand, it's blue sky stuff. Just the facts please.

Tof KW said...

"That's the type of story that DEMANDS significant follow-up, with a reporter assigned to it for WEEKS after it breaks. That's not what happens anymore, though."

But Jennifer, who wants to hear about all this boring government stuff that only the insiders, bloggers & political-geeks talk about. There are way more important issues for the media to report, like...

- Oprah,
- the Canucks!
- Hines Ward winning Dancing with the Stars,
- and the ongoing troubles between Maria and Arrhnoold.

This exemplifies the sad state of today's media.

Steve V said...

I'd also add, it isn't me saying a bias exists, it's this disguised journalist.

Jennifer said...

It's not a cop out, any more than is your "blame-the-media" stance.

Think about it: if what I said is true, the McGill study (thanks; I've read it. It wasn't passed along exclusively to you) would indeed show more negative media for the Liberal party. But that isn't necessarily confirmation of media bias. It could as very easily be confirmation that what the Liberals did didn't play well in the media and with the electorate. And go figure --- the electorate response bears that out.

You really can't stand for anyone to disagree with you in any way, can you? Sort of weird to put your opinions out there, in that case, don't you think?

Steve V said...

You can disagree all you want, but bring something to the table other than rants about things you can't stand to hear. I'm referring to academic studies, I'm referring to a very clear reading of who owns what media wise. I'm referring to editorials. All you're saying is "I know, it's bullshit". Pardon me for not being moved. There is a very clear media bias in this country, it's not every outlet or person, but overall, it's there and I stand by my perceptions.

Jennifer said...

I DID bring something to the table, Steve. I brought a very clear argument with regard to how an overall problem with how reporting is done since the advent of the need to feed the internet monster --- something that, having watched it from a newsroom for the last 10 years, I have some knowledge of. I'm saying that the perception of bias could be based on a problem of delivery method and a feeling that the new focus on getting it fast could be blamed for a lack of full reporting. That's not really much different from what the column you point to as gospel said.

I tend to agree with Ted --- there's all this reporting on crap baloney news and it over-shadows important political news. I can think of an instance in which a TV news producer was brought into a print newsroom I worked in with the exclusive intent of getting online page views up. Weather was like Viagra to him. He'd pull people off important political stories to have them out driving around getting reaction to the five flakes of snow we were getting. It was ridiculous, but symptomatic with the issue of the internet overshadowing the need to cover news fully. I believe that's much more the issue than actual bias in reporting. There's a bias toward being fast and first that is a result of this whacked need for more page views.

Really, we're arriving at a very similar conclusion, but saying the reasons for that conclusion are different.

Steve V said...

Sorry, who's Ted?

What I'm saying is the conservative movement has developed an entire media network, which plays by different rules than previously designed outlets. The lines between objective reporting and agenda based reporting are blurring. Beyond those examples, other outlets are controlled by corporate interests, you have reporters expousing views they really shouldn't be (an example, Bob Fife talking about free trade as a positive for Canada), journalism is morphing in my mind, not everywhere, but the trends are remarkable.

Here's the deal, I'm not into conspiracy theories, they drive me batshit crazy to be honest. I am honestly trying to see through my own bias to what is more objective reading. So, this isn't some kneejerk whining about the media because they aren't being nice to my Libs. I think part of your hostility here stems from that kind of criticism. I don't believe this perspective is "blather" as you call it, I believe I can weave a powerful thesis, that deserves honest debate.

Jennifer said...

Sorry --- misread user name. It was TofKW I was referring to.

And I think there are other factors at play beyond media ownership. I don't feel that's the root of the problem. I think, from a practical real-life in the newsroom perspective, day-to-day coverage is far more affected by editors' need to feed the website than it is by news outlet ownership. Ownership cares about page views and monitizing the new delivery method much more than they do about stance.That was certainly the case at all three of the newspapers I worked for. The publisher, not the owner, of the last paper I was at determined editorial stance, but it never rolled into reporting, only into editorials. I was as far politically as one could get from my publisher, but can say I never once had either a story or a column spiked because he disagreed (or, for that matter, for any other reason, in 12 years). And if you look at a lot of recent coverage -- say, the last few columns Christina Blizzard has written about Tim Hudak -- I think there's some proof of the day-to-day impacting coverage style, rather than the ownership demanding it fit its political stance.

I just don't think you can lay blame firmly at the feet of one thing. There's plenty to go around.

Tof KW said...

For what it's worth, my user ID TofKW stands for Tory of Keats Way, old family home where I was raised with the PC party. Parents have passed away and the house long since sold. I found it a sentimental alias yet maintains my anonymity, also difficult to mock.

Hey I've been called worse things - CanadianSense was stalking me and calling me Clyde for a while. Where she got that I'll never know.

Steve V said...

Ahh, I thought KW wa a reference to Kitchener Waterloo. You know what has to be the funniest thing on the internet, Canadian Sense using a chess set as an avatar. Bahahaha!!


I agree there is plenty of blame to go around, and I never meant to posit bias as root cause. I do think Libs need to find ways around traditional media to get their message across, but that is part of a much larger package.