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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In Journalism, We Shoot The Wounded

In the recent Canadian election, an interview with the leader of Liberal Party Stephane Dion was shown in all of its "out-take" glory.

Dion, who first language is French, misunderstood a poorly phrased question in English from the CTV interviewer. Dion asked if the taping could start again. But Dion continued to misunderstand the question. Three times Dion asked to start again and three times, CTV agreed before the interview was finally taped.

Dion's handlers claimed they had an agreement, or at least an understanding, that the false starts would be edited out. CTV said that no such agreement was made.

In the end, CTV aired the interview, complete with false starts and requests to re-do the interview. It made Dion look foolish and very un-prime ministerial.

The Liberals and Dion were furious at what they believe was an attempt by CTV to play "gotcha" journalism. Dion has publicly admitted to a hearing problem, but he does not wear any hearing aids.

CTV and many journalists maintain that in the midst of a general election, it's not up the network to make Dion look better. And moreover, the voters should know that Dion, an academic with poor language skills in English is what he appears to be - a mild-mannered, well intentioned man who has trouble understanding and speaking English.

It of course, is now on YouTube. Here it is, in all its agony.

The question is whether journalists have an obligation to help our politicians when they make a mistake. In most cases, I think the answer must be no. It is not the job of journalists to make politicians look better than they are by covering up slips and gaffes. If Dion is disabled, the public needs to know whether his disability might have an effect on his ability to lead the country. That might have been a better and more interesting the question than the convoluted one asked by the CTV announcer.

NPR, for example, has a policy never to edit the President for exactly that reason. Had NPR edited President Bush to make his meandering and often illogical sentences more coherent, the network would have been rightly accused of trying to make him look and sounds better than he does. Yet other politicians are always edited for brevity and occasionally for clarity. CBC and the BBC have no similar compunction, and on both radio and tv the prime ministers are always edited. The aim at the CBC and the BBC is for clarity and never to make the PM look better. Yet NPR still anxiously will never put an electronic editing razor to the voice of the President.

But should the same standards apply to journalists? In their taped reports, TV reporters usually take three or more tries in their "stand ups" - those moments when they appear on camera. Frequent manglings of the script are discarded and sometimes end up on outtake blooper tapes to be shown at staff gatherings or on on "America's Funniest Videos." Of course, tv journalists aren't running for President or Prime Minister.

I think in Dion's case, given his disability, CTV should have cut him some slack and let him have his three do-overs without trying to embarrass him. Or at least run some outtake bloopers of their own to show that truly, to err is human.

In this case, CTV simply looked heartless and probably confirmed the old maxim that in journalism, we always shoot the wounded.

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