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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, November 11, 2016

Polling and the Decline of Serious Political Journalism

I’m not being entirely facetious when I say that I blame the media.

Rust belt industries aren’t the only enterprises that have been hollowed out by free trade; so has North American journalism. The respective causes are only marginally different.

While our industrial strength has been transferred overseas, media organizations have adopted a similar model by doubling down on digital. The result has been that the number of media workers (aka journalists) in North America has declined by almost 50% since the turn of the century.

The French government did a study a few years ago which claimed (then) that the amount of content on the Internet increases by 10% annually. But the number of eyeballs (aka consumers) has remained relatively unchanged. This has forced news organizations that still think their main role is to deliver readers to advertisers, to look for new sources of revenue. But nothing seems to be working. Eyeballs are still going online. 

Increasingly for cat videos.

In desperation, news organizations are resorting to gimmicks including clickbait, more bloviating commentary and ultimately, less real reporting. The CBC is now encouraging some senior journalists to engage only in opinion commentary - mostly on the CBC website, as a potential source of audience growth. This seriously undervalues real reporting by giving the impression that the public broadcaster in Canada prefers opinion over fact-based reporting. 

New organizations are also contracting out their intellectual and journalistic property to pollsters who increasingly resemble modern day snake oil salespersons. It is in fact cheaper to pay a polling company than to double down on shoe-leather reporting. So editorial control of polling has been left in the hands of non-journalistic commercial interests.

This is one of the better explanations about how we were so deluded by the pollsters.

To be fair, pollsters are under similar economic pressures: they are also cutting corners by pandering to self-selecting, internet polling and avoiding the time-consuming aspects of serious polling, such as "return to sample" - calling back later if no one is at home when the pollster calls.

There is also the still unexamined aspect of "response bias" - a large percentage ofTrump supporters may have been less likely to admit their preference to a stranger cold calling.

Believing their own flawed results, a lot of polling simply stopped several days before the election, assuming the race was over (see above Dewey Defeats Truman*).

At NPR, I once suggested in a story meeting, that we stop reporting polls for the week before a mid-term election.

 “But what will we have to talk about?” said one anxious host.

Friday, August 19, 2016

When Media Organizations Say: "No Comment!"

NPR has joined the ranks of other media organizations in ending the ability of listeners (and others) to comment on its website.

"We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism," Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor of digital news, explained.

Most other journalists have said this is long overdue.

Chris Cillizza, writing in the Washington Post expressed the hope that other media organizations will follow NPR's lead.

On Facebook, NPR journalists commented in approval (perhaps not everyone appreciating the irony).

Some media managers have used comments to determine their own news agendas. If a story gets a lot of comments or "hits," editors have unfortunately used this as a rationalization to keep doing the same story. Over and over again. Eventually, it degenerates into clickbait.

While comments have become an all-too frequent swamp of racism, misogyny and general weirdness, dispensing with them may not be in the best interests of news organizations.

As I mentioned on Facebook:

There is a downside: even though trolls make up a sorry proportion of commentators, the fact that NPR now removes itself from giving access to listeners (legit ones, that is), makes the gap between the public and the media that much greater. Comments should be moderated by NPR, and not abandoned, imo. But of course, that costs money and fewer media orgs can afford it. Can they afford to ignore the audience entirely?

That was followed by a post by one John Pemble from Des Moines who opined:

Yes. We aren't a public forum. We never were.

Really John? I thought that the purpose of news organizations is to act as the intermediary between citizens and the issues.

Of course, the one ray of hope in all this is the role of the public editor - a position still important although as news organizations look for ways to monetize their product, an ombudsman/public editor can be viewed as an extravagance. 

Two problems and two solutions:

One, the digital culture has democratized media with its attendant problems of anonymity and the coarsening of public conversation. 

Two,  if citizens feel that the media is even more removed from their concerns, this will only strengthen the feelings of alienation and anger that we see the Trump (and the Bernie) people expressing.

As for solutions, media organizations need to pay attention to the web - even the nasty side of it. In my role of ombudsman at NPR, I had to deal with a lot of that. And I admit, it's become much nastier. 

But I also connected with people who had real concerns and passionately expressed. It was exhausting, but still the most interesting job of journalism one could have.

Secondly, media organizations need to find an effective way to triage the comments. Journalists make choices all the time. They need to find a way to connect with the best and most thoughtful ideas (even when they are harsh), and trash the rest.

Not all ideas deserve sunlight which pace Justice Brandeis who said: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

In these overcast days, we need more online electricity to brighten our way.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Dangers of Reporting Breaking News

From the excellent WNYC/NPR program On The Media - guidelines for journalists and media consumers about what to watch for when all hell is breaking loose:

1. Remember, in the immediate aftermath almost everyone will get it wrong. Terrorist attacks are designed to sow mayhem and confusion. Even using best practices, news outlets, witnesses, and governments need time to get the facts straight.
2. As always, local, non-anonymous, and verified sources offer better info. Most news sources will be operating off of second- and third-hand information. Wait for trustworthy, verified reports from those who actually know.
3. Amid all the contradictory statements, focus on consistent reports.
4. The more emotional the commentary, the less reliable the information. Rational thinking is essential in these moments, as well as remembering the lessons of history.
5. Really don’t pay attention to politicians. Incidents like these are uniquely suited to political manipulation, especially in a campaign year, and politicians of all stripes will be tempted to push their favorite agenda.
6. In fact, examine the credentials of all putative “experts.” Just because someone worked in government doesn’t make them a terrorism expert. Even a CIA background is no guarantee of expertise.
7. Pay attention to the language the media uses:
“Mastermind” … endows terrorists with more power than they have.
“Sophisticated” … overestimates crudely planned mayhem.
“Unprecedented” … there is little “new” in terrorist methods.
8. Inevitably, whole populations and religions are scapegoated. Ignore this.
9. Resist reflexive retweeting. Number of shares belies accuracy. Even well-intentioned social media users will get things wrong. Better to wait than to share an inaccurate meme that could have negative consequences. In fact, generally…

10. Be patient. No matter what, the unfolding of the story will take time and mistakes will be made. Allow the coverage to develop and let those who were affected recover and respond in their own way, on their own time.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ghomeshi and Duffy: The Shameful State of Court Reporting in Canada

Legal reporting in Canada has had two shameful episodes involving two high profile cases.

The first was Jian Ghomeshi, a now former CBC Radio host, accused and acquitted of one charge of "overcoming resistance by choking." He was also charged with four instances of sexual assault involving three women. All charges were dismissed even though the judge stated that he didn't deny that the events occurred. But he stated that the testimony of the three women who testified against Ghomeshi was "unreliable."

The media in Toronto dined out on this story. It was simply assumed that Ghomeshi was guilty as charged. As a result, media outlets did not show much restraint in these matters, which is to assume that Ghomeshi was innocent until proven guilty.

In matters of sexual misconduct, the assumption by the media was quite the opposite. Social media especially, pounced heavily and with both feet. Many media organizations reported this story as though the conviction of Ghomeshi were a mere detail. Columnists especially were unrestrained, which may be their prerogative, but it likely created a sense of pressure on daily news reporters. While there is no doubt that the public was interested in this story, the "clickbait" quotient in print and broadcasting websites was powerful.

As a result, comments on various mainstream media websites were appalling, with the cover of anonymity to proclaim a surprising level (for Canada at any rate) of xenophobia, misogyny and anti-CBC sentiments.

The Mike Duffy trial had similar tones of schadenfreude. Duffy was charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. In a a trial that was extensively covered, the assumption by the media was that of course, Duffy had to be on the take. Last week, the judge dismissed every charge against Senator Duffy based on an extremely weak case brought by the RCMP.

The media, quick to jump on the Duffy bandwagon, pronounced that he had been "vindicated."

Over the three month trial, journalists - and especially columnists - seem to take great pleasure in seeing one of their own brought down a peg or three. Duffy had been a high-profile CBC and CTV journalist and his appointment as a Conservative senator seemed to enrage his former colleagues.

(Full disclosure: in 1981, for six months, I worked as a producer in the CBC's Ottawa bureau. I was assigned to work with Duffy from time to time on stories for the CBC's flagship nightly newscast).

Why did the media assume that Ghomeshi and Duffy had to be guilty? Partly because the moral implications of the accusations were powerful. Journalistic neutrality might have been seen as support for the accused, especially in the blogosphere. As a result, there was a distinct lack of seriousness in the coverage, in my opinion. Both men were high fliers who were being brought back to earth, Icarus-like and the media loves to see the mighty brought down, especially when it's one of our own.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a young reporter, I was told in no uncertain terms that covering a trial was extremely consequential. It had to be done with great care, especially with regard to tone and language. In-house lawyers were frequently consulted to make sure that the reporting was scrupulously accurate and neutral. Jury trials especially, had to be reported in as straightforward and un-editorial a way as possible, to avoid the risk of a juror hearing or reading something that might result in a mistrial. Causing a mistrial was considered a fire-able offence in every newsroom. Now? Not so much.

A long time journalist of my acquaintance recalls that in the past, "we had to be very careful after a charge and arrest. Cops did not give press conferences. There was little or no speculation. And we didn't have TV and radio reporters trying to ad lib their way through very complicated stuff." 

As the news becomes more "infotainment" oriented, and the quest for eyeballs on websites is intensified, we are seeing less reporting and more of a TMZ approach.

Presumption of innocence? An ignored concept in our digital age.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Is there a future for digital journalism?

I was asked about the state of the media by a young journalist. Here's the transcript:

Q: How has the nature of journalism changed since you first stepped into the industry, or even thinking about becoming a journalist? 

My first contact with journalism was as a grad student in London in the 1970s. I was writing my thesis and got the part time job as “overnight editor” with CBS News. It was at a time of great intensity in international affairs: the war in Vietnam, the IRA offensive bombings in England, the oil crisis, etc. CBS London was the logistical lynchpin of their vast system of foreign bureaux which at that time, numbered 38 worldwide! 

My job was certainly Office Work 101 (fixing tea, making sure the teletypes didn’t run dry aka, out of paper, answering phones, tracking down the correspondents who were needed for a program or an assignment, booking flights, running out to Heathrow to pick up film from Saigon and yes, it was still the age of film). The basic and driving context was all about telling the news in a compelling and immediate way. By today’s standards, the technology was basic. CBS had access to one satellite to New York and it was owned by the BBC. We would satellite a story from the BBC’s offices, but only if the story demanded it. Otherwise, I would run the film out to Heathrow to make sure it got on PanAm 001 to New York. 

Fast forward to today: as digital technology has made the news more ubiquitous and more comprehensible, the ability of journalism to make sense of this tsunami of information is more complicated. Part of this is purely economics: media organizations like CBS News in the 70s were not expected to make a profit. News departments were expected to be “loss leaders” - bringing audiences in for the value and the prestige of news, then hopefully, that audience would stay for the sports and the entertainment programs. Once news divisions began to be profit centres of their own (in a post-Watergate era), the pressure was on news departments in broadcasting and in print, to return larger and larger profits every year.

With the arrival of digital technologies, the need for traditional journalists and journalism as gatekeepers began to decline as the public found its own way to get the news they both wanted and maybe even, needed. The fragmentation of markets, the decline of profitable news organizations, the pressure from the Internet and the absence of an effective monetizing formula has made legacy journalism more precarious than ever.

Q: What is the biggest thing happening to journalism right now? 

The potential of digital journalism has made some important strides, but it is still (imo) a long way off from being the powerful force for democracy and journalistic inclusiveness that its supporters claim. Instead we have a further atomization of audiences, a decline in media platforms able to create a sense of community around ideas or places, an exacerbation of moral panic as media organizations desperately attempt to aggregate audiences for advertisers by relying on clickbait, celebrities and trivialities. 

Audiences are seeking more reliable forms and my sense is that we are about to witness the return of substantial print journalism, delivered most likely, on different platforms. This would allow digital to serve journalism again, rather than the other way around. Traditional broadcast media will (with some exceptions) become circuses where the public can be alternatively titillated and shocked; print journalism will return to a more substantial method of serving the readership. This will produce a less cohesive social culture which may encourage further intellectual inequality. The prospects for democracy remain uncertain as a result. But I could be wrong...

Q: How was the business of media transformed by digital? 

Aside from the invention of the telegraph and the radio, digital media is the largest single transforming event since the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the 15th century. Just as movable type allowed anyone to print their ideas, the digital culture allows anyone to express their notions directly to the public without relying on journalistic gatekeepers. Initially, media organization through this would simply be just another way to connect with their hitherto loyal audiences. Instead it had a centrifugal effect, hurling audiences away from legacy media and to other places where they could find people and ideas that they might consider to be more useful to their views of the world. 

This atomization and fragmentation of audiences quickly rendered the previous business model obsolete: ratings and circulation declined even as methods of consuming all forms of media increased. The Guardian (UK) has more (non-paying) readers on line than in (paying) print. As a result, what was once considered to be a great newspaper is now faced with the prospect of massive layoffs and a need to figure out who will pay and how much will it be worth? The Toronto Star is attempting to reproduce the success of La Presse in Montreal with a tablet. So far, the Star has spent a lot of money but has not recovered the mass audiences it once enjoyed. La Presse is more successful because they have a linguistically captive market. 

In short, the business model for traditional media is uncertain with the result that more media organizations are going “down-market” in order to try to salvage what’s left of their audience and a now outdated business model.  

Q: On your blog, Now the Details, you wrote, "if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture." In your opinion, how did technology poison journalism? 

Technology was neither the cause nor the effect of the deterioration of journalism. But it allowed for the dominance of the digital culture to define what constitutes journalism. In some important ways, that happens to be true: digital journalism allows for a more fluid and serviceable form of journalism that can reach the public wherever and whenever the public needs it. That’s an excellent way of doing journalism. The problem is that digital technology also allowed for a de-skilling of the workforce, an increased amateurization of production and a lowering of ethical and journalistic standards. My hope is that at some point in the near future, the public’s need for reliable and contextual information will be joined by a business model that will allow for media organizations to thrive once again.  

Q: With multiple layoffs, and mergers across multiple national newsrooms, what is the best advice you can give for journalists coming into uncertain media times? 

Young journalists need a deeper sense of what constitutes great journalism which is the product of strong writing skills and an insatiable curiosity. Newer media forms are being constantly created and there is a wonderful sense of creativity out there. It may take some time, but the best and the brightest will survive. Young journalists will need to try a number of ventures, even create their own attempts at doing powerful journalism. In the end, I’m optimistic after seeing the talent that exists. But we need to harness the digital culture to serve the public as citizens first, and consumers of news, secondarily. The best is yet to come. I hope...

***FYI, This blog was named as one of three finalists by the Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism. It is an annual award by the College of Communications, Pennsylvania State University. The judges "did appreciate the depth and breadth" of the blog. Much appreciated.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Uber-ization of Journalism

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. Not co-incidentally, ratings and circulation began to decline. 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.

Last week 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.

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 are often worse and company morale, in many instances is still dropping and not yet hit rock bottom.

At the same time, profit margins for owners 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 labor-intensive) content. 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. When it comes to digital, skepticism has been jettisoned for unquestioning enthusiasm.

And the information-starved public is less well-served as a result.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

More Digital "Deviancy" at the CBC: From My Source - "Deep Microphone"

Mindy Kaling - American Actress
The late New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined a phrase "defining deviancy down," the catchy alliteration equivalent of "permissiveness" in political rhetoric about crime and criminal justice.

The CBC continues to pursue a race to the bottom of the digital culture on its website,

This time, the story is out of Newfoundland.

Three important stories recently emerged concerning the justice system in that province.

The first involves a 12-year old fraud case. It involves a complex condo-flipping scam. The judge in this case threw it out because the RCMP took too long to get the case to trial. This resulted in millions of dollars in fraud and court costs being lost. And it seems, this is the second such case over the past year thrown out because of allegations of RCMP fumbling.

The second case involves a homicide. Charges were again dropped against a man in Labrador accused of the second-degree murder of his infant son. A critical piece of evidence was a piece of the 4-month old's brain, accidentally disposed of by the medical examiner. The defence argued that without the tissue sample, there was no way to determine the veracity of the photos that the Crown intended to enter as evidence.

Third case: the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is under investigation for turning a blind eye to the illegal activities of a CI (confidential informant) until he assaulted two individuals.

None of these stories was covered by the CBC.*

This, at a time when local news everywhere in Canada is being diminished by the collapse of the newspaper industry and the closing of commercial TV newsrooms.

Instead, "Deep Microphone" informed me that the CBC newsroom in St. John's assigned TWO journalists to cover this "important" story concerning the American celebrity, Mindy Kaling who can properly pronounce "Newfoundland."

It is possible that the CBC did cover the more significant stories. But there is no sign of them on the local website. I hope I'm wrong. And I'm not against the occasional "clickbait" to brighten up our dismal times. But news judgement at the CBC seems to be in favour of the trivial and what Neil Postman called "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

In economics, there is a theory called "Gresham's Law." Gresham (1519 - 1579) was an English financier who observed that "bad money drives out good"...that any dubious coinage causes all monies to be suspected as worthless.

Perhaps there should be a similar law in journalism.

* I have been informed that these stories were reported locally. Apologies to the journalists who did these stories. But I am still appalled by the prominence of clickbait on The public broadcaster remains our last best hope for substantial local information in Canada. But I sense it is slipping away under the pressure of the marketers and the digirati.