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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wise Words for the Newsroom (especially Radio and especially these days)

This is from a friend and wise colleague from my NPR days - Jonathan Kern.  Posted here with permission.

I recently found a 10-year-old email I wrote to the producer of All Things Considered, who had solicited some management advice. (I had been the Supervising Editor and Executive Producer of the show.) Since it falls in the category of Stuff I Wish Someone Had Told me, I'm passing on the bullet points from the note. I hope this may be helpful to pubmedia folks who are new to managing -- but of course, just ignore it if it isn't:
* Articulate your vision for the program. Give people the big picture, and remind them of it often, so they see how their daily work fits into what you see as the main goals of the team.
* A corollary to the above: Encourage people to give you suggestions, and really hear them out. You can't be responsible for generating all the good ideas; two heads (or five or ten) really can be better than one.
* A corollary to that corollary: Once you've made a decision, tell people why. This helps the people who thought you should do something else understand your rationale. In some cases, you may want to explain your decision to people one-on-one. Often you can enlist the help of a potential opponent just by asking for it. ("I know you had a different idea of what we should be doing, but I need your support now.")
* Give praise publicly and criticism privately.
* Give oral or written feedback often. It's best to set aside a time each day for reviewing what people have done and writing or sending feedback notes. Remember to comment on people's attitudes, as well as their work. Someone who volunteers to train a new employee may be as valuable as someone who is a fast tape cutter. (I know it's not really tape.)
* When you criticize someone's work, be as specific as possible about how they can improve. For instance, it's much better to tell someone, "I really need you to be bringing story ideas to the meeting every day, and getting at least one of them on the air each week" than to say, "You never seem to have any story ideas."
* Follow-up all personnel discussions (such as the one above) with emails that begin, "I just want to go over a couple of things we discussed today." This is necessary because people will hear what they want to hear when you're talking to them; they may even zone out and be thinking, "He never cares about my ideas...He plays favorites...He's just scared of what the hosts will do..." and as a result not hear ANYTHING you're saying. In extreme cases -- if someone is put on probation -- you'll be glad you have a paper trail. (I create a folder in Outlook for each person I supervise, and put relevant emails in that folder. You may want to keep hard copies, or even BCC your HOME email address, so the copies are off-site.)
* Don't allow conspiracies to develop. If you get wind that people are whispering behind your back, confront the employee -- in a positive way. "I'm getting a vibe that you and Jonathan aren't happy with the way things are going. Be honest with me: what do you think I'm doing wrong?" There is this phenomenon of the "echo chamber," where employees tell each other something (i.e., "He doesn't want any humor in the show" or "The only way to get a piece on this show is to be an independent producer") and it reverberates and gets louder and louder, even if it is untrue. This is the chance to challenge those assumptions -- and prove them wrong.
* Try not to take things personally. If someone leaves [your show] for another program [or station], it doesn't mean they don't like you; and even if it does, that's irrelevant to your job. Just start looking for a solution. Which reminds me:
* When a staff member brings you a problem, try to enlist him or her in solving it. For instance, if a producer says, "I think this rollover schedule is completely unfair," you might ask, "What would you do to make it fairer?" If someone threatens to quit because she thinks the work she's doing is beneath her, ask her how else she thinks she could contribute to the program.
* Look for ways to build people's skills, especially by letting them trade off jobs occasionally; don't let someone's competence in one field make them so invaluable that you never want him or her to do anything else. You may not want your booker to be a substitute host no matter how talented she thinks she is, but you might be able to teach her how to cut a two-way, or use a flash recorder.
* Keep track of your own achievements. Your supervisors are much more likely to note when you make a mistake than when you succeed.
* Stand up to difficult personalities, whether they are on your staff or in other parts of NPR. I say this, even though I think it was one of my biggest failures. Don't get mad, or get in a fight: just explain why something needs to be done, and assume responsibility for the decision -- even if it turns out badly.
* Try to have a positive attitude, or at least present one to the staff. [Former ATC producer] Sean Collins often started the day by saying, "We have the best jobs in broadcasting!" Think about the things that made YOU want to come to work and try to provide them to your staff. (Beer is good.)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What Was In the Macron Emails? (Some) Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Emmanuel Macron
According to Reuters, the French government successfully kept a computer hack of frontrunner - now President-elect Emmanuel Macron's campaign emails from influencing the outcome of the presidential election. 

Curiously enough, there is an obscure Canadian connection to the hacking and disinformation, according to The Guardian. More on this later...

French government authorities warned that it may be a criminal offense to republish the data. In France as in other countries,  it is illegal to report -  even on breaking news, in the so-called "quiet period" in the few days leading up to an election, effectively forbidding politicians and journalists from commenting.

The election commission also warned social and traditional media not to publish the hacked emails. There is a fear that such information might influence the vote outcome. But in a digital world, it is difficult, if not impossible to enforce its  somewhat arcane analogue rules in an era where many of those doing the reporting are doing so anonymously. Presumably they are free to do so now.

Reuters reported that although the French media covered the hack in various ways before the vote, with left-leaning Liberation putting in on its website. TV stations decided not to mention it.

Some media such as Le Monde, said they could not release the information partly because there was so much information that there was not enough time to report on it properly. Le Monde added that because the leak had been published only 48 hours before the election it must have been done with the aim of affecting the vote.

This may be an instance where the French media and political establishment are also rallying around their preferred candidate, aka "one of us." Le Pen would be so destabilizing that the instinct to not cede any advantage to her, must be very strong.

Jeremy Thorpe
It reminds me of the strange case of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the British Liberal Party in the 1970s.

As his political star was rising, almost as quickly as the Tories and Labour stars were sinking, when a couple of plucky journalists discovered that Thorpe's past was not as charming as it appeared. 

In fact, Thorpe (who died in 2004) was in a homosexual affair with a young Irishman, who then attempted to blackmail the politician. Thorpe decided that in order to save his political career, tried to have his former lover murdered. The news of this squalid business was about to break out in Fleet Street.

I was a grad student in London in the 70s, working part time at the CBS News bureau when we were visited by a plainclothes policeman. He presented the bureau chief, Phil Lewis with a "D-notice." The order is an official request to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specific subjects for reasons of national security. It is a system still in place in the United Kingdom. As far as could be determine, there were no issues of national security. Only the British establishment protecting one of its own.

All news organizations, British or otherwise, received the D-Notice. 

All complied.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Should Academics Stay in the Ivory Tower?




Professor Eric Montpetit in his Globe and Mail op-ed of March 30 (“After Potter…”) made an assertion that as “universities seek to increase their presence in the media,…doing so comes with a risk as McGill found out last week.”

He was referring to an article in Maclean’s written by the now former head of the Institute for the study of Canada, Andrew Potter. This article came in for substantial criticism for its questionable assumptions about Quebec society’s allegedly missing qualities in the aftermath of a truly massive snowstorm.

As a former journalist, now in the somewhat sustaining groves of the academy (University of Toronto Scarborough Campus), I find Professor Montpetit has it exactly backwards. The increasingly thinned-out media have every reason to reach out to academics to provide the context that mainstream news organizations too often miss and their audiences deeply require.

Universities and colleges have the knowledge, the expertise and the communication skills to provide the background that is often ignored by news organizations in their  race to connect digitally with their readers, listeners and viewers.  Too often, media organizations rush to publish and drag their heels to run a correction.

One might blame Professor Potter and Maclean’s for contributing to this absence of  context. But to assume that one article with all its strongly expressed opinions, might contribute to the decline of high academic standards is curious on the face of it.

Universities, public and private, have an obligation to contribute to the quality of discourse in our society. But assuming that only the highest peer-reviewed academic standards must also apply to daily news shows a distinct lack of understanding of how the university culture is perceived. More to the point, Professor Montpetit seems to have little understanding or appreciation of how the news industry operates.

In my time as a journalist and news manager, I found that there was a distinct strain of snobbery in the academy when it came to media organizations and their request for a quick comment on a matter of passing importance.

And journalists get impatient with academics who would rather give a more thoughtful response, usually “in a few days” when the demands of teaching and other academic obligations are out of the way. That’s not unreasonable, but it plays hell with a reporter working on deadline!

In this digital environment, the fault also lies with a news culture that is being deformed by the economics of media: news organizations demand their journalists produce more and to do it in more media – it’s not enough to report the story; it has to be posted on Facebook, twitter, Instagram and whatever platform is seen as the best way to attract the audience. Reporters have always looked to professors to quickly confirm the assumption of a story line or an editorial position. But as the news has become more a creature of the “quick hit”, academics can feel ill-used by the ink-stained wretches who come calling, looking for a 10 second confirmation.

The professoriat is fulfilling an important role precisely because news organizations are being increasingly hollowed-out editorially.  Massive layoffs in newspapers and broadcasters offer thinner gruel to the public. That may be why, in one day alone (March 30, 2017), the University of Toronto single-handedly provided a professorial quote to 82 media organizations in Canada and abroad!  Universities are not cloisters. They have an obligation to serve and inform the public, and not just to their own students and faculties.

For Professor Montpetit to state that just being in the media goes against the purpose of the university as a “knowledge institution” is short sighted, in my opinion.

The public would be ill-served if the ivory tower (funded by taxpayers) were to pull up the drawbridge , even if Professor Potter’s article appears to have embarrassed a few tender sensibilities in the faculty club.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Can Digital Culture Be Ethical? Some Positive Signs

I was invited to speak to a group of Ontario elected officials and civil servants about the future of reliable information in the environment of "fake news." On the panel with me were two very thoughtful digerati: Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman
 and Tessa Sproule who runs an impressive website called Vubble. https://www.vubblepop.com/
 
Both Craig and Tessa are powerful proponents for finding a way in which digital culture can co-exist and thrive in the present media environments. That is difficult as media organizations still cling to digital as a solution, when instead the technology is still in my opinion, just another tool and not a replacement culture.

Still I was encouraged to hear how Craig and Tessa are confronting the issue of dis- and misinformation directly. In my remarks (see below) to the group, I expressed a certain skepticism. Thanks to Tessa and Craig, I may have to rethink some of that.




Why Newsrooms Have Become the Digital Sweatshops

Media managers are wondering what went wrong. They are asking why journalism doesn't pay any more. If the solutions are hard to discern, they have only to look at the technology they so eagerly embrace.

It's the digital technology. Digital emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s. It has spread throughout many industries including journalism, like a virus. As ratings and circulation declined, media organizations, pressured by shareholders and desperate to find a way to return to the great profit margins, seized on digital as the silver bullet of transformations. But if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture. It has enlarged our possibilities while offering up cat videos, celebrity sightings and listicles. It is driving journalistic deviance downward, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Yet media organizations cling to digital like a torpedoed sailor clings to a raft, hoping that the submarine won't hit them again.

Recently in Toronto, at a gathering sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, three prominent newspaper publishers discussed the future of the business. To a person, they were all bullish on the future. And that future for newspapers, they said, is digital, digital and more digital. I think that’s code for “more layoffs coming soon!”

We live in strange times.
  • We have a lodging system called Air BnB. It doesn't own any actual hotels.
  • There's a food delivery service called Foodora. It doesn't own any restaurants.
  • There's a video service called Youtube. It doesn't own movie or TV companies.
  • There's a taxi company called Uber. It doesn't own any cars.

All of those businesses - and many others - have been transformed by digital. While customers have benefited from the ease, cost-effectiveness and simplicity of digital, there is also a powerful downside: wages for workers in those industries have plummeted, working conditions for journalism are often worse (turning newsrooms into the equivalents of digital sweatshops) and company morale, in many instances is still dropping and not yet hit rock bottom. 

At the same time, profit margins in many industries, have never been greater.

Journalism is also being Uber-ized.  Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and usually more labour-intensive) content. Freelancers are being hired while experienced, older journalists are laid off. In the rush to return to the once rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Instead, news consultants are hired to telling their news clients that weather, traffic and crime (WTC) are what most audiences prefer.  

Not co-incidentally, WTC also happens to be the cheapest and most readily available content. And all three bits of low-hanging journalistic fruit, happen to originate from government sources. So much for independent journalistic inquiry. 

Worse yet, media organizations, especially broadcasters, try to entice their audiences through “clickbait.” This is defined as "an eyecatching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser ("Paid" click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks."

It's rarely newsworthy, but it does attract eyeballs. The assumption seems to be that audiences will stay for the "serious" content after gorging on the fluff. The CBC's website seems to be particularly smitten with "clickbait" even though their own journalists complain and the public resents this waste of the public broadcaster's journalistic efforts and reputation.

No technological change can ever be reversed. Occasionally, it can be slowed, even questioned. Can the effects of the digital culture be made to work on behalf of the culture, rather than against it? If journalism in Canada (and elsewhere) is to survive, then it has to resist digital's worst qualities (listicles, cat videos and celebrity sightings) in order to let the digital culture offer what's best on behalf of the public.

One of the best qualities of a journalist is skepticism. But when it comes to digital, skepticism has been replaced with unquestioning enthusiasm. And the information-starved public is being left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why Allegations of "Fake News" are Strangely Comforting

Much anxiety these days among mainstream media journalists about the proliferation of so-called "fake news." The concept has been around for a while, but seemed to gain more traction during the recent US presidential election.

As defined, "fake news" is a deliberate attempt to present false information for the purpose of sowing doubt in the mind of the public about issues and politicians.

A serious consequence of "fake news" has caused the public to distrust all media even more than before, and that is a real concern. It is an updated version of "Gresham's Law" which states that "bad money drives out good." Bad media can also drive out good media, it seems. These are times that are truly fraught.

While there is no doubt that the internet has allowed for a horrifying view into the murky workings of trolls and other anti-social elements, we are being driven to a dubious conclusion about the causes of "fake news" - in effect we may be overreacting to a phenomenon and deserves scrutiny but not panic.

A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review on "fake news" acknowledges that it exists. But it is very small compared to mainstream media consumption.

CJR notes that most disinformation is spread and reposted, largely by one source - Facebook. It also claims that most Americans overwhelmingly rely on mainstream media even as they may dip an occasional and curious toe into the murky pools of the internet.

I asked media observer Mathew Ingram for his take on this. In an email, he says,

        I think some of the panic surrounding it is definitely overblown -- fake news is a problem that   has been around for centuries, if not longer. I just wrote about how it was practiced by some of the founders of the American revolution, including John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin: -- and in there I also point out that while Facebook and the social web have exacerbated the spread of fake news, they have also made it easier to debunk.  

One of the reasons why (in my opinion) the issue is gaining so much traction is in part, because it serves a purpose for mainstream media organizations to distance themselves from their recent failures in covering the US election, as well as the Brexit referendum in the UK.  It is easier to blame the internet and the trolls than it is to deal with the limitations of modern media organizations. In both the US and the UK, news organizations made assumptions that proved to be dramatically wrong.

In both countries, news organizations contracted out their intellectual and journalistic obligations to pollsters and pundits instead of going out and doing the basic "shoe-leather" reporting. There were still examples of good - even great reporting.

But in the end, news organizations now look foolish and unprofessional as they struggle to get ahead of a news agenda that seems to be leaving them behind. A better outcome would have been to acknowledge that just like America's industrial heartland, news organizations have also been hollowed out.

Rather than admitting that the years of layoffs, downsizing and digital investments have brought them to this place, it seems they prefer to blame basement bloggers and the foolishness of the voters.







Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Connection from Comet Ping Pong to Buzzfeed

On Sunday December 4th, Edwin Welch drove to Washington DC from his home in North Carolina with a rifle. He had read a story on the Internet that a pizza parlour was the center of a child pornography ring being run by Hilary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta.

Welch walked into the restaurant which was filled with families having lunch. He demanded that the children "held prisoner" in the basement be released. Then he fired at least one shot into the ceiling before being arrested.

Welch later explained that he read about the restaurant on a number of websites including Reddit, 4chan and Twitter where conspiracy theorists who are Donald Trump supporters spread the notion of Clinton being involved. Welch said he came to Washington to "self-investigate" what he believed to be true, because he read it on the Internet.

Even after the story broke, hundreds of people flooded the Internet claiming that Welch was a so-called "false flag" - a dupe set up by the Democrats whose purpose was to discredit the anti-Clinton sentiments in the country.

Fast forward to this past week and the online site Buzzfeed published unverified and in its opinion, "credible" information from US intelligence sources. Buzzfeed said that the CIA had made Trump and Obama aware that Russia was deeply involved in the hacking of both political parties. More controversially, Buzzfeed claimed that the Russians had taken photos of the President-Elect cavorting with prostitutes in hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg five years ago.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations, blaming Buzzfeed (along with CNN which reported only what Buzzfeed said).

Other media outlets didn't hesitate to report the controversy while taking cover under the guise that this is all "unverifiable".  Buzzfeed had - without question - a big scoop. And many digital journalists supported Buzzfeed for its boldness. Mathew Ingram, writing in Fortune said that the public does have a right to know what is being talked about behind closed doors, even if the information can't quite be confirmed.

I regard Mathew as a friend and colleague who has spoken to my journalism students on a number of occasions. But I have to disagree with his argument because there is not a lot of difference between Edwin Welch and  Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed. They both acted on unverifiable rumour, the consequences of which could have been tragic in the first instance. As for the fallout from the Buzzfeed "scoop", we are still watching this play out in the days before PEOTUS is inaugurated and the Trump years begin.

If Buzzfeed had been able to give us more information as to where they got this story, who was circulating it, how the Russians have often resorted to blackmail, and other evidence that some real journalism had gone into this story, it might have given restored the public's trust.

But it would have taken a brave (or foolhardy) editor to say "we aren't touching this story until we know more."

We are entering John Le Carré territory here: Was this story was another example of Russian "dizinformatsiya" designed to discredit Trump? Or was it an American intelligence agent getting back at Trump for his open distrust of the CIA? Or what about a former British spy (now in hiding) who gathered this information for a client in the US who he won't identify?

We just don't know enough...yet. And if if the media don't know enough to inform us, they shouldn't publish.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Is There an Ethical Way to Fund Public Broadcasting in Canada?

                                                             (The Toronto Star)
With a new year almost upon us, there seems to be nervousness in the land among people who care about this issue.

As the federal government and the regulator are looking at what would constitute a reasonable annual subsidy for the CBC/Radio-Canada, lines are being drawn by supporters and detractors of the CBC.

The pro-CBC forces are in two camps: 1) restore full funding which would mean giving the public broadcaster about $2 billion a year in direct support from Parliament. And 2) maintain the present level of funding (about $1 billion) but with no additional revenue from advertising in radio, TV or online. Both camps insist that some form of private support for public broadcasting is un-Canadian.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am in the second camp. But only up to a point. The CBC needs to figure out its role in a digital environment: should it be all things to all Canadians? Or should the entire enterprise be more like CBC Radio - which is (mostly) about a form of non-commercial (some say, excellent) broadcasting.

More about this position later, but first...

The anti-CBC forces are also in two camps. Camp #1: get rid of it. The argument being that the private sector does a better job of delivering programming to a mass audience and it does it for less money.

Camp #2,  the CBC deforms the media landscape by being publicly subsidized. So in order for commercial media - both print and broadcasting - to survive, the CBC must be a much smaller, non-commercial and much less intrusive entity. More like TVO, the provincial public broadcaster in Ontario whose ratings are tiny and whose programming is often high-quality and frequently British.

Both the pro-CBC and to a lesser extent, the anti-CBC positions are united in their opposition to an American public broadcasting funding model.

The argument against is that the CBC should not become PBS/NPR North with its seemingly endless and annoying "beg-a-thons" where the public is solicited for a donation, three or four times a year.

But what would be an appropriate form of financial support that fulfills both the needs of a public broadcaster, and does it in a way that is seen as ethical?

I think it should be mixture of governmental support and public subscription. For many, this is tantamount to saying that we will accept a version of PBS/NPR North. I think that the arm's length relationship to the government could also be applied to corporations, foundations and charitable groups. But it would need to be made clear to all.

And the hundreds of CBC employees, now are required to find ads mostly for TV, might just as well be required to look to the audience not the commercial interests for support. It would likely change the tenor of the Corporation - and for the better.

For the sake of argument, let's consider this model and see if it might work.

One argument against public solicitation of funding for the CBC is that it is "un-Canadian." As if it's embarrassing for any public entity to be asking for support.

But the CBC 's unwillingness to plead its case has allowed for anti-CBC animus (that's you, MP Kelley Leitch) to define a future for public broadcasting in Canada. Those who would speak up for public broadcasting have been mostly half-hearted or even suspect as to motives.

Another argument against corporate philanthropic support for the CBC is that Canadians feel they are entitled to public services through their taxes. That's a strong tradition in Canada. There is the concern that somehow, corporate Canada will have "undue" influence on editorial matters.

Yet, no one inside the CBC worries that the government might have some influence over editorial independence. Mostly the CBC has a tradition of what's called the "arm's length" relationship with the government of the day. And mostly, that's the case. Yet there is a certain amount of self-censorship especially in political reporting. Always has been. It requires a clear statement of independence from senior management to embolden the journalistic ranks.

Still another argument claims that Canadians won't pony up to give to the CBC. Yet NPR/PBS border stations  in Vermont, New York and Washington State get as much as 40% of their funding from Canadians. So Canadians will give, if they are asked.

As the federal government looks at ways to support a public broadcaster, we need to be less defensive about asking for financial support from listeners and viewers. Having advertising has only made the CBC look and sound like it's more interested in placating commercial interests than in the public whose support is waning by the day.

A hybrid of support from government, balanced by financial support from "viewers like you" would be a strong indication that the public broadcaster is committed to serving its public as citizens, and not just as consumers.

And that may be the most ethical (and effectively political) way to support a public broadcaster with the cultural history that is the CBC.