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


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, May 15, 2015

Has Journalism Become Too Dangerous for Women?

City TV's Shauna Hunt Confronts the "Boys"
The recent high profile stupidity of a couple of drunken yahoos making crude and obnoxious remarks to female TV journalists in Toronto and Calgary has opened up a well-known but long avoided issue for women in newsrooms.

In effect, how to handle the recent spurt of hoser eruptions where crude and sexist comments are yelled on camera by men as female journalists try to do their jobs.

There have been sexual assaults on women journalists (notably CBS News' Lara Logan) reporting from Arab countries. They have been condemned by western media organizations. In the countries where the offense occurred, not so much. In the West, we smugly assumed that couldn't happen here. But in fact, a version of that (more verbal than physical but also revolting) has been happening here for a while.

Until now, the highest profile case of sexual harassment came out via the Jian Ghomeshi incident. That led a small delegation of my female students to ask if they should risk applying to the CBC for internships. I was surprised when they asked, but it was clear to them, that the CBC was a dangerous place to work. Worse, that management seemed not to care. I assured them that it was safe. I hope I'm right.

A number of women journalists have posted on Facebook about various incidents that happened to them. And it seems to be getting worse as media organizations cut back on staff. Now a reporter goes out with only a cameraperson, if she is lucky. Increasingly, the reporter is expected to shoot the visuals and report all on her own.

But why now? In fact, the gutsy response of Shauna Hunt from Toronto's City TV News brought the issue into prominence by her own willingness to confront the harasser (quickly fired by his employer).

So a couple of ideas: first, the prevalence of the digital culture with its tendency to anonymity has allowed for a higher level of public crudity. If you can say it online, why not in person? Isn't that part of  the digital democracy? Maybe it was always there. We are just able to witness it more than we once did.

Second, the pornification of popular culture has allowed for these attitudes to be expressed. I know I sound like a conservative on this. So be it.

Third, media organizations may talk a good game about supporting their employees, but in fact, as staff positions are replaced with freelance contractors, newsrooms are less inclined to provide the level of support they once did.

One female employee told me that as she was being harassed by a couple of drunken yobbos, her cameraman ran away to protect his gear, rather than the reporter. This would not happen if a field producer were there if the story was designated as a "dangerous assignment."

That might be something for the next round of union-management negotiations. But a more immediate response and solution is needed now.








Wednesday, April 29, 2015

No Playing it Safe: Why Journalism Must take Risks to Tell the Truth

I teach in a university with a very high proportion of non-Anglo-Canadian students. At the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, the majority of the students in my journalism classes are from families who have come from China, South Asia, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean.

So there is a certain tension when the subject comes around to how journalism should handle "uncomfortable" ideas such as race, sexuality and satire especially when directed toward identifiable groups.

When the Charlie Hebdo massacres occurred, we talked about whether media organizations can or should be limited in what they can do. What is the purpose of anti-hate legislation? Should any of the cartoons be republished? And if not, why not? What are the limits, if any, of free speech in a digital culture?

The discussion was quite frank. One Pakistani student felt comfortable enough to ask me privately, why the media has so many Jewish employees and employers. He also asked why is it ok for the media to criticize Islam but not the Holocaust? (He knows I'm Jewish). I responded by saying that it's not fair to criticize either. But it is fair to question the violent actions of of both radical Muslims and Jews. I also pointed him to an excellent article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times.

If journalism were only comforting, it wouldn't be journalism, I told him. On the other hand, if it only reports the worst aspects of humanity (often the most newsworthy), we would be doing a disservice. Finding that elusive balance is what makes journalism so interesting, so challenging, and so fierce.

Now the Pen Gala is being challenged for giving an award to Charlie Hebdo for its commitment to free (and offensive) speech. Some serious writers have said they will not attend because of their sense that the cartoons pillory an already oppressed minority.

The debate is intense. And appropriate. And it fits in perfectly with the anguish I witnessed in my class where students of colour felt nervous about re-posting the cartoons while white students thought it was a proper journalistic service.

Now the CBC is in another internal crisis over how its programs should or should not describe what happened to Armenians a hundred years ago.

Was it genocide, as many governments (including the Canadian government) have allowed? Indeed was it the first genocide that paved the way for future genocides of Jews, Hutus, Bosnian Muslims and others?

CBC guardians of editorial standards have issued this notice:

For instance, historians consider the Holocaust an attempted genocide of the Jewish people. Despite the strong views of a few fringe communities, the Holocaust can be considered an attempted genocide without qualification. Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Second World War.
By contrast, Turkey has refused to classify the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the First World War as genocide. Turkish authorities consider the deaths a legitimate military response to revolution and banditry. Canada and more than 20 other countries have formally recognized the killings as genocide, including Belgium, France, Italy and Russia. So has a United Nations commission and the European Parliament. Critics, however, have questioned whether the killings between 1915 and 1916 were actually part of an orchestrated, systematic attempt at extermination - a key component in their definition of genocide. Many Armenians were killed. Others died of starvation or disease.
For this reason, the common term Armenian genocide should be qualified when used in our reporting. Examples:
  ***  In what's widely referred to as the Armenian genocide ...
 ***  ... The UN, Canada and more than 20 other countries recognize the slaughter as genocide. But Turkey disputes the term ...
Proper nouns are OK but still require context:
Millions of people around the world mark April 24 as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. More than 20 countries, including Canada, recognize the slaughter of Armenians during the First World War as genocide. But Turkey rejects the term.
There's no need to use a word such as "alleged" to describe mass killings that are known to have taken place. But when facts are in dispute our audience should be informed. (Armenians say 1.5 million died, for instance, while the Republic of Turkey puts the number at 300,000.) While some governments and many scholars label the killings genocide, it's important to acknowledge that Turkey and others do not. By mentioning both official positions, CBC News maintains balanced coverage.

This has outraged a number of CBC journalists who wonder whether this is an attempt to avoid any sort of outside criticism.

It would make my Pakistani student wonder about the "courage" of western media.

I do, as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"q", Shad and Public Broadcasting in Canada

Shad - CBC's Latest Host
CBC has launched the newly rebranded pop culture show "Q" - now officially in lower case as "q." That sends a message that the CBC is going low profile for a while. After the drama of Ghomeshi, journalists taking fees for speeches from lobby groups and hundreds of layoffs, that may be a reasonable strategy.

The new host is a hiphop artist named Shad and he seems like a good fit to search out that elusive 18-35 demographic. It will take time for the program to find its own voice and sensibility. But so far, the show sounds like another solid piece of CBC Radio  - fitting in nicely, nothing too alarming and basking in the massive internal CBC media attention being paid to it after the  Corp's serial public relations disasters. No pressure, Shad and break a leg!

"q" is being heard on more than 150 public radio stations in the US. And a brief survey of my former colleagues at NPR-member stations indicates they are glad the show is back with a new host who sounds appropriate.

One difference between "q" in Canada and "q" in the US: on the CBC the program airs at 10 am. In the US, most stations are running it in the evening where it attracts the specific demographic.

In Canada, my guess is that age group isn't listening to the radio at 10 am; they are either at work or still asleep after the previous night's revelry...In public radio-speak, it's called "daypart" and it means putting the right shows, with the right content on the air at the right time of day for the right kind of listeners. "q" will likely struggle to grow that audience if it stays on at 10 am even if most CBC managers (of a certain age) are awake and can listen to the show from their offices.

Andrew Cohen, a friend and colleague who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa has written an excoriating critique of where the CBC is right now...And more specifically, where it isn't.

The problems at the CBC are extensive, but they are not in specific radio programming. We can acknowledge that the public broadcaster can still produce great journalism and shows.

The problems are much deeper as Andrew suggests: a managerial culture that doesn't either understand or value public broadcasting, an over-emphasis on ratings instead of service and a governance structure that deforms and endorses patronage instead of competence. Also a propensity to value TV over Radio with scant attention to the oncoming digital train. 

There is also the problem of an over-reliance on government-sponsored information. Thanks to the consultants from Magid and Associates, CBC News now over-reports crime. Also weather and traffic. All come from government agencies. 

It gives off a strong whiff of state broadcasting, not public broadcasting. And at a time when crime rates are dropping, crime reporting, especially on the CBC is up. A study by the Dart Center in the US shows that the media's disproportionate focus on crime has a damaging effect on communities and tends to drive voters to support  so-called "tough-on-crime" politicians, usually on the right. No doubt the same trends are happening in Canada.

And there is the constant promotion of TV people into Radio (example: CBC TV's Tom Harrington to replace CBC Radio News reader Bernie McNamee*) is more of the creeping televisionization of CBC Radio. Tom is a great TV journalist, no doubt. But reading newscasts is not the same as being an investigative reporter. Moreover, it sends a message that Radio broadcasters are not particularly valued in todays' CBC.

The problems at the CBC are much larger than these specific issues. If public broadcasting in Canada can be saved, it will now require a major intervention from the public and from the government. Should the Tories be re-elected, it's doubtful that will happen. Other parties might be more amenable.

Assuming a change in government, here are some suggestions for radical change to begin the discussion:
  1.  A complete governance restructuring so that the President is accountable to the Board and not to the Prime Minister. Likewise the Board must be appointed by a disinterested blue ribbon panel of citizens.
  2. The President must hold office at the pleasure of the Board for a limited period.
  3. Public representation on the Board must be an essential element.
  4. The CBC should be financed by an annual Parliamentary appropriation, but should move to a non-commercial model and learn to live within its budget. 
  5. A new Broadcasting Act must be passed by Parliament to recognize the role of the public broadcaster in a digital era. The last Act was passed in 1991 when journalists still used typewriters.
* Thanks to Talin Vartanian for correcting my misspelling of Bernie's name. Apologies to Bernie.


 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

CTV Management 1: CBC Management 0

 Once in a while a senior media executive gets confused and thinks that he owns a widget factory instead of an idea-generating enterprise. This person actually believes that he can get a group of journalists to do what he tells them to, allegedly in the interests of the company (aka, himself).

Journalists are often accused of disloyalty by management because if it comes to a choice between the values of journalism and the reputation of the organization, most journalists tend to opt for the former.

Not in all cases, it must be admitted. A journalists' own loyalty to his or her paycheque often places the scribe in impossible conflicts. But as a general principle, most journalists would prefer to plant a flag in the soil of doing what's right, journalistically.

Some media managers have to find out the hard way as did Kevin Crull, the president and CEO of Bell Media, the conglomerate that owns, among other media properties, CTV, Canada's most popular and still commercial television network.

Crull was reported outraged at seeing the head of the Canadian broadcast regulator, Jean-Pierre Blais, interviewed on CTV programs. This, after the regulator, the CRTC ruled in favour of cheaper cable costs and against the commercial broadcasters and the cable companies. So in Canada, beginning next year, the cash-cows of Canadian cable must offer a much cheaper (aka "skinny") basic cable for $25. Individuals may then opt for additional programs and pay more for the choice.

Seeing Blais on "his" networks apparently outraged Crull. He ordered the head of the news network to ban him from appearing. Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News passed along the fiat, which was quickly disobeyed by her senior journalists including, it is said, the host of the flagship newscast, Lisa LaFlamme and the senior Parliamentary correspondent Robert Fife.

When presented with a revolt based on journalistic principles, Crull caved and was forced to back down. He released a statement of apology.

Sources inside CTV say that this is not the first time Crull has attempted to influence the editorial staff and in fairness, even the boss should have a chance to get his point of view across. Whether journalists feel they must obey or be fired, is another matter. And presumably, it will not be the last time this happens. Next time, it may happen with a bit more managerial finesse.

Meanwhile over at the public broadcaster, the CBC's editor-in-chief, Jennifer McGuire has announced more than 140 job losses in local news in English Canada. Another 100 are going in French-speaking parts of the country.

No statement of apology for this wilful dismantling of a once proud news organization.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Curious Appeal of Old Technology - aka a Typewriter

The Olivetti Lexikon 80
This is my typewriter.

I keep it in my office at the University of Toronto (Scarborough). Students and some (younger) faculty look at it with curiosity. And sometimes with suspicion. They approach it cautiously, asking how it works. Some are even nervous about touching it.

I put a sheet of paper in the roll and invite them to try it out. Often they recoil after punching in a letter. Being used to the gentle typing touch of computer, they are appalled at how typing is/was such a physical effort.

"It's so loud," they say. "And heavy!"

I bought it in a London pawnshop in 1974 after my flat had been burgled. They took my old Smith-Corona Selectric while I was in the middle of finishing my thesis.

The replacement Olivetti that I found cost £8, and turns out to be a rare find. First mass produced in Italy in the early 1950s, it is an example of post-war modernist design. One of the originals now resides in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

Yesterday, the university held its annual open house for prospective students and their parent. On the Journalism display table, I put a number of books, mementos and various newsroom tshotshkes I've collected over the years. I also lugged the Olivetti down and invited people to try it.

(Full disclosure - my typewriter was not a typical newsroom machine. In TV news, we used teleprompter typewriters which produced a large print format. But the memory of banging away at a typewriter on deadline, brings back the noise of a more industrial-era newsroom: the rattle of the typewriters, the noise of teletypes - even behind thick baffles - combined with the thick blue air of dozens of cigarettes and the yelling of impatient editors are gone in today's more refined and restrained newsrooms).

The high school students who came by to ask about our journalism program were indeed, fascinated by the Olivetti. We invited them to give it a try. Like others, they were wary at first, then enthusiastic pounders!

Some questions: how would you know when you are about to run out of space? They were also fascinated by the little bell that rings to warn you you are coming to the end of the line.

What if you want to double space? How do you make a capital letter? Where does the ink come from? What if you make a mistake? Don't your wrists get tired? Did I really write a thesis on this?

Some of the more "mature" faculty members came by to reminisce about their first typewriters. We all recalled purchasing a portable machine that came in its own little carrying case, like a little suitcase. How our parents bought them for us as we left for university, when we dumped the typewriters and bought our first computers...

My own Olivetti got dragged around as I moved back to North America after finishing my degree to different jobs in Montreal, Toronto, Washington then back to Toronto. The machine didn't age well and for years, it sat in a box in the basement.

Then I found a young man in Toronto who repairs and these antiques. For about $80, he restored the typewriter to perfect working condition.

It now sits in my office as a reminder of those pre-digital times of great student days and simpler technologies.

As I explain to my students, it's just an earlier version of an app. They understand that instinctively.



Friday, March 13, 2015

The Challenge for Shad and the CBC

Shad - New CBC Host
Much is being made of Shadrack Kabango, aka Shad, a 32 year old rap artist who is now the replacement host on the CBC pop culture and chat show "Q." And he's obviously talented too.

Mainly a radio program, Q is also on television and on more than 150 public radio stations in the US. It's done reasonably well, considering that the show airs at 10 am when most of its sought-after target audience may not quite be paying attention...It's not the highest rated show on CBC Radio but it does well in that time slot.

Despite its relatively small audience, Q has developed a cult following in the media. That it has an overwhelming media presence is due to the over-large profile of the previous, now disgraced host, Jian Ghomeshi, charged with seven counts of sexual assault and one charge of "overcoming resistance - choking." His trial begins in two weeks on March 27.

The CBC has placed a lot of emotional and corporate investment in Shad, not only to continue the success of Q, but to put the embarrassment of Ghomeshi behind it. Gone and forgotten, must be the fervent wishes of management.

Shad is Rwandan born, Canadian raised and from the fulsome accolades of an overwrought CBC publicity machine, the next great national treasure. A combination of Glenn Gould, Maurice Richard and Marshall McLuhan doing rap and hip hop...

If the expectations are huge, it's hardly Shad's fault. The CBC has been increasingly desperate to demonstrate its relevance to an audience and to the government of the day that keeps funding it, albeit begrudgingly.

The problem at the CBC is that despite every effort, like other broadcasters, the TV ratings continue to shrink.

Its flagship news program "The National with Peter Mansbridge" consistently runs third after CTV and Global. In the weekly listings for most the 30 most-watched television shows in Canada, (the vast majority are American) the CBC is conspicuously absent. Canadian shows that do make it to that list include CTV's local supperhour newscasts which have larger local audiences than does CBC's "The National." *

Meanwhile there is CBC Radio, which has proven to be a pillar of popularity and growth on this shifting media San Andreas faultline.

While CBC TV has less than a 5 share of the national TV audience, CBC Radio is up to a 15 share and growing.

And now with Shad on Q, the CBC is doubling down that this is a possible bright spot that will work for both Radio and TV.

But will it? Making a successful radio program is neither an art nor a science. It's most alchemy, in my experience.

You need a host with potential, some terrific ideas, a few great producers and a willingness to tell management to bugger off. Mix well and assess in six months.

My worry is that CBC's obsession with television values (aka, celebrity culture and ratings) will make the program sound just wrong on the radio. And CBC Radio's powerful uniculture - as good as it can be - can also act as a gag on creativity, creating a kind of blandifying, public broadcasting porridge that will make Q sound like, well...like just another CBC Radio program.

And that would be the worst outcome of all.

___________

* thanks to Barry Kiefl for pointing out the distinction.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Rise and Rise of Native Advertising

As if journalists and journalism students didn't have enough to worry about. Now there's so-called Native Advertising.

So-called because it can appear to be "native" to the regular journalistic content found in print and online. It is advertising that can appear quite seamless and even integrated into the rest of the news.

In some media organizations, journalists are being pressed into writing and creating the ads, thus pulling down the long established separation of editorial from business.

When it's well done, it can appear to be deceptively journalistic. And that's the problem, and the challenge.

As the traditional advertising market, especially in print, collapses, Native Advertising has emerged as a possible saviour for a media that has been struggling to find its financial footing.

In the US, this new form seems to be working, earning around $4.5 billion for print outlets last year.
Often the ads are better looking and have more real information than the news organizations in which they are planted. Now journalism has to compete with ads for the fragmented attention spans of the audiences.

Radio - commercial and public - have been immune to Native Ads. So far.

That's because in commercial radio, ads have saturated the market leaving no place left to shill.

Public Broadcasting in the US isn't employing native advertising. But it does something similar and calls it "underwriting." On the radio, they can be found just before the newscasts. On public TV, they are more widespread and last for longer. Euphemistically, they are called "enhanced underwriting."

CBC TV has run ads for years, making it look very much like commercial television. And rumour has it that CBC TV will soon try the underwriting route to support its rapidly disappearing advertising revenues.

Public radio in Canada is trying- not very successfully - to insert ads just after the hourly newscasts on CBC Radio 2. This is a recent phenomenon and they are not successful because they sound raucous. These ads are directly bought from commercial agencies. As a result, they also sound completely out of place on the more demure if occasionally stridently hip airwaves of CBC Radio.

Now the hottest media ticket in town - the podcast has arrived. Podcasts are proving to be sizzling and exciting, especially in the public radio community.

Podcasting is also proving to be a ratings bonanza. Of the top ten podcasts in the US, seven are from NPR and individual public radio stations. NPR podcasts are being downloaded more than 25 million times a month.

Advertisers, of course, have not been slow to notice this trend. And they are eager to tap into this younger, more hip and increasingly affluent demographic.

A group of freelance radio people based in Boston, called AIR - Association of Independents in Radio, asked me to assess this phenomenon and whether it should be embraced or shunned.

My conclusion: It's too late for shunning. But it is not all bad news.

If podcasters treat the listeners with respect, then it may be possible that Native Ads may not only be necessary, but a timely life raft for a floundering media still looking for its payday.