Campus reverie

For most teachers and students, school’s out for the summer. The great, yawning gap of July and August provides a respite from daily and weekly routines. Not so for me: July and August bring seven weeks of teaching and mentoring in the company of 31 graduate students at the University of Western Ontario‘s journalism program.

We began our foray into the murky and tentative world of journalism ethics last evening with a discussion about bias, then launched into two case studies. One of the benefits of having taught journalism as long as I have is that former students become some of the best sources of case material. Last night, we explored dilemmas (one from the world of broadcast journalism; the other, print) faced by two of my former students at Ryerson University‘s School of Journalism: Kimberly Gale, a reporter at CBC Radio in Toronto, and Oksana Lypowecky, an editor at the Saint John Telegraph Journal. It’s a three-hour class. But I arrived early and stayed late, taking time to stroll the UWO grounds before and after the lecture.

The spire of Middlesex College at dusk

There is something haltingly beautiful about a university or college campus in the summer. The pace is relaxed. The manicured grounds are beautiful. The detritus of the past semester has been swept away and anticipation is already building toward the arrival of a fresh crop of students in the fall. Campus pubs and eateries are uncrowded and convivial.

Perhaps I feel this way because my spouse and I spent our first year of married life on a university campus. We were residence dons at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo and spent the glorious summer of 1975 on its sprawling grounds. Our studies complete, we had four months to while away before the big move to our first jobs in another community — and we took advantage of every moment. There were early-morning duckling feedings and late-night walks. Both of us became involved in the dramatic production of In Search of a Country by Urie Bender, directed by Maurice Evans, at UW’s Theatre of the Arts — Jacquelyn had the female lead; I was stage manager. There were cast parties, walks to a nearby plaza for wine and havarti cheese, and impromptu picnics with no particular beginning or end. Rent was $50 a month, it was summertime and the livin’, as George Gerschwin wrote, was easy.

At a deeper level, however, there’s much more. Universities and colleges are about inquiry, learning and communicating — pursuits that lie at the heart of the journalistic credo. Their campuses are at once utilitarian and symbolic. They represent aspiration, experimentation and progress. They remain repositories of a kind of idealism that tends to dissolve beyond their gates. And, as corny as it may sound, the students who inhabit their varied spaces are a kind of bridge to the future.

In all of that, for me, there is a magnetic attraction.

Politics, journalism and Toronto’s G20 weekend

Quite the weekend in Toronto. As anyone who has followed the history of multinational summits and anarchical protest over the past two decades could have predicted (and did), millions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds of arrests accompanied the G20 meetings at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

In my view, face-to-face meetings of world leaders are a useful thing, both to promote discussion of foreign and fiscal policies and to advance rapport and understanding. Multilateral summits have always required extensive security preparations, but the large-scale protests that began to accompany them in the latter 20th century increased the costs enormously. For more than 20 years, anarchists have used large and well-meaning protests as cover for their own destructive and criminal activities. Any legitimate protest group or movement that thought things would be different in Toronto was simply naive. Essentially, large-scale protests and demonstrations provide the cover and anonymity anarchists need to operate. The Harper government, the province of Ontario and the integrated security force operating before, during and after the summit understood this; hence, the $1.2-billion security tab.

Given these realities, meetings such as the G20 ought either to go virtual (a severely limiting option) or be permanently located at purpose-build venues that can reasonably accommodate leaders and their accompanying delegations and hangers-on (which can number into the many hundreds per country). The United Nations comes to mind; in the world of graphic novels it might be a Fortress of Solitude. In any case, to spend more than a billion dollars on security for a one-off set of meetings is unsustainable and borders on immoral.

A few critiques of the news media, which on the whole provided fair and balanced coverage of events inside and outside the security perimeter.

First, the use of social media and new technologies as part of the news-gathering process added another dimension to reporting of events, especially on the streets of Toronto. Tools such as Twitter provided an immediacy in reporting that approached real time. Yes, some tweets and posts were inaccurate or misleading, but the work of journalism behind the scenes has always consisted of a process of sorting accuracy from fiction in the context of fast-moving events. With social media, it merely happens more publicly.

But there’s a downside too. Any reporter who has ever covered a rally or strike knows that the mere presence of a still or video camera can alter events. Where a picket line might be peaceful before the arrival of news media (or even after the arrival of a print journalist), it becomes noisy and agitated with the arrival of radio or television. The ubiquity of cameras in cellphones and webcams — in the hands of thrill-seekers, protesters, police and others — raises the stakes and exponentially distorts the event itself, as various actors in the unfolding drama seek their million hits on YouTube or an adrenaline rush they can take away as a virtual souvenir.

Second, the degree to which news media, mainstream and otherwise, provided any type of historical context for the mayhem that began to spill out onto the streets of Toronto was at first remarkably low. Not until Sunday did coverage more frequently begin to include mentions of multilateral meetings and their accompanying protests in places such as Seattle, Quebec City or Kananaskis (the latter as a setting where nature and geography did part of the work of security). Again, background and context seemed more afterthought than preparation.

Finally, there was a bit of a “homer” element to some reports, as national Toronto-based news organizations, with Toronto-centric news sensibilities, staffed by Toronto residents, wrung their hands in distress and worried aloud about the impression their coverage of violence in the streets of Toronto the Good was leaving on the rest of the world.

Reporting on journalists in harm’s way

There were a number of very interesting seminars and panel discussions at this year’s national conference of the Canadian Association of Journalists in Montreal in late May. Among conferees, the most popular panels were those on “Ottawa’s Information Lockdown and What Journalists Should Do About It” and “The Future of the Daily Newspaper.”

Equally interesting, however, was a discussion titled “In Harm’s Way,” moderated by Cliff Lonsdale, a professor at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate journalism program. The panelists were Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, based in Britain, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on journalists, and Lorne Motley, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald.

The session was fascinating, given each of the unique perspectives present. Pinder argued forcefully for the need for journalists to report on the casualties among their own — something we’re often loath to do. More journalists die each year around the globe in the line of duty than do aid workers, he said, yet journalists do not often report on deaths or the threat of death within their ranks. Feinstein discussed the prevalence of PTSD among journalists who cover war and conflict, but also made the point that reporters who cover the police, crime and court beats over many years can also suffer from the disorder. Motley provided a glimpse into the emotional journey within his newspaper’s newsroom in the hours, days and months after Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in Afghanistan (see my previous post).

To promote awareness of these issues in Canada, Lonsdale and veteran journalist Jane Hawkes have co-founded the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, which “promotes the physical and emotional safety of journalists in Canada and abroad. We also address the impact of coverage on people caught up in violent and traumatic stories as well as the effects that covering violence and trauma may have on news consumers.”

One of the Forum’s goals is to make hazardous-environment training — the kind provided by large news organizations to their journalists ahead of risky assignments — more widely available to freelance journalists and others who may not be provided with such preparation. Though many Canadian journalists and their employers agree with that notion in principle, fundraising for it has been a challenge.

My own view is that Lonsdale, Hawkes and the rest of the board of the fledgling Forum are onto something here. As news organizations and their distribution platforms change, and as those companies divest themselves of full-time staff in favour of additional part-timers and stringers, the numbers of freelance and unilateral journalists are likely to swell. And the need for better preparation for dangerous situations will grow too.

Can Sun TV provide a ‘third way’ in Canadian TV journalism?

As was widely expected, Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau has announced plans to launch Sun TV News Channel across Canada beginning Jan. 1, 2011. Speculation that Quebecor would bid to become a national news broadcaster has soared in recent weeks with the appointment of Kory Teneycke, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as vice-president development of Quebecor Media and seasoned multimedia journalist David Akin as Sun Media national bureau chief. Veteran Astral Media radio broadcaster Brian Lilley was named a senior correspondent.

The first few moments of the June 15 press conference, featuring Péladeau and Teneycke, follow below.

Media watchers have already dubbed the Quebecor venture “Fox News North,” given its declared intention to be decidedly colourful and provocative in its news coverage, along with a political orientation that will sit to the right of centre. As if to fire a shot across the bows of news channels operated by the CBC and CTV, Teneycke said he’s leave the “boring” and “condescending” approaches to news to his competitors.

Quebecor faces some difficult challenges in getting its proposed venture off the ground. The first is regulatory: The Category 1 licence required from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to compel cable operators across the country to carry the Sun TV signal on at least one of its tiers is by no means a lock. The second lies in the way of infrastructure: Although Quebecor runs newspapers and cable systems across the country through divisions such as Osprey and Sun Media, it has no video newsgathering apparatus with which to feed a beast as voracious for moving visuals as a specialty news channel. Finally, the experience of the National Post — at its inception, a national newspaper dedicated to serving readers with a conservative, right-of-centre orientation — has been less than a runaway success. Some media experts have speculated about the wisdom of building a TV news channel on the same down-market sensibilities on which much of Canadian talk radio depends.

And what of the Fox-News-North moniker? Here I find the Canadian media establishment just a little condescending. Yes, Quebecor publishes newspapers in which Sunshine Girls make daily appearances and in which reporters, columnists and editorial writers sometimes seem slavishly committed to the political right, no matter what the issues or the nuances within them. And yes, U.S.-based Fox News often seems to revel as much in its ability to provoke anger and controversy as in its ability to unearth and cover a great story with balance and integrity.

But let’s concede two things. First, another national news organization determined to aggressively compete with existing TV news franchises can be a very good thing, both for citizens and journalism. Second, let’s not pretend existing news channels don’t have their own political biases. The test of good journalism and public service should be on the quality of the stories they deliver: in their accurancy, balance and impact. Let’s not deny that the CBC sits slightly left of the political centre, and that CTVglobemedia tries to cover the great yawning middle ground, so long dominated in the political sphere by the federal Liberals. And that’s to say nothing of the Toronto Star, where the Atkinson principles and a left-of-centre sensibility still guide the newsroom — and produce some truly great journalism.

We should not allow political orientation to prejudge the issue of whether or not a new enterprise could make a significant contribution to Canadian journalism. Let the test be its performance.

The undoing of White House correspondent Helen Thomas

Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas

She was the matriarch of White House correspondents — until a few ill-considered sentences from the side of the camera lens to which she is less accustomed landed her in hot water late last month and forced her abrupt resignation from a career she loved and through which she’d done yeoman service.

Helen Thomas left her front-row seat in the White House briefing room under a cloud. Would that she’d had a more honorable exit, given the body of work she’d amassed in questioning 10 American presidents, most recently for Hearst News Service.

Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q, got it right in his opening monologue to yesterday’s program: “There are so many rich angles and ironies to this story. A political observer and witness to scandals and lies from multiple administrations undone by her own scandal. A reporter who sought the truth and balance undone by personal opinion. And perhaps most of all, one of the great symbols of old media being undone by the new. After her thousands of meticulously crafted reports and columns over the years, she was tripped up by a cheap camcorder, a couple of off-the-cuff questions and the power of viral video.”

Thomas issued an apology this week through her former employer: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

Her resignation marked the unfortunate end of a long and distinguished career. Thomas will turn 90 on Aug. 4.