Helping journalists cover mental illness

DownloadedThe morning that the booklet on which she and Cliff Lonsdale been been working was to be unveiled, Jane Hawkes allowed herself just a little satisfaction.

“After operating in a bubble for months, we really didn’t know if it would finally resonate — and [we’re] grateful that it seems to be,” she wrote in an email. “Interestingly, [there’s] just as much buzz outside Canada — [we’re] hearing from journos and mental health groups in Australia, Thailand, Israel, England, Ireland, U.S., Vietnam, Spain, Mexico, Kenya.”

The “buzz” is regarding Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health, a new resource by journalists for journalists, intended to improve the reporting of stories that touch on mental health issues. The slim 42-page field guide is available in booklet form or as a free download, in English or French, from the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

At a reception ahead of Thursday night’s launch at the Glenn Gould Studio inside the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, Lonsdale credited CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin with an unrelenting drive to keep the guide short and practical.

That, it is. Through seven short chapters and a quick reference compendium that includes a best-practice checklist, interviewing dos and don’ts, and guidance on language in cases of suicide and addictions, Mindset should take its place alongside a reporter’s dictionaries, stylebooks and legal guides on desktops and in backpacks, rather than on the shelves of newsroom libraries or inside yellowing manila folders.

Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health is published by the Forum in association with CBC News, with partial funding from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s a valuable resource for reporters who, in today’s newsrooms, are generalists far more often than they are specialists. And the dynamic website promises the guide will remain useful for years to come.

Below is the video, featuring Linden MacIntyre,  that led off the panel discussion at the booklet’s launch. The discussion, chaired by World Report host David Common, included Enkin, neuropsychiatrist Anthony Feinstein and André Picard, public health reporter at The Globe and Mail.



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.

Kudos to Globe for North Korea series

Inside a North Korean train car, shot by Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail. Gallagher is a freelancer based in China.
Inside a North Korean train car, shot by Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail. Gallagher is a freelancer based in China.

I’m finding the current series of articles, diary entries, photographs and video clips by Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon and freelance photographer Sean Gallagher on life in North Korea absolutely fascinating. It’s undercover reporting at its finest — illuminating, revealing, well-written and robustly illustrated.

I had the pleasure of getting to known MacKinnon on the days, during my tenure at the Globe, when I acted as a substitute assistant foreign editor. He was always a pleasure to deal with and his prose was unfailingly well-crafted and accessible. At that time, he was stationed in Jerusalem; he had earlier served as the newspaper’s correspondent in Moscow. MacKinnon is currently The Globe’s eyes and ears in Beijing.

I plan to make the series compulsory reading for my journalism classes this week. In addition to discussions about the qualities of feature writing, the series will undoubtedly provoke debate about journalism ethics, especially the uses and abuses of deception.

Watch for the MacKinnon-Gallagher series on the list of this year’s National Newspaper Awards nominations, as well as various online journalism competitions.

Teneycke, Harper and managing news media

Kory Teneycke
Kory Teneycke

The resignation of Kory Teneycke as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications brings to at least five the number of people tasked with managing the information flow between the Prime Minister’s Office and the news media since early 2006. All have had remarkable short tenures.

Teneycke says he’s leaving the PMO in order to spend more time with family. He’ll step down as soon as a replacement is named — which should be soon, given the possibility of an election campaign as early as this fall.

Clearly, however, the job of handling communications and the media for Harper is not for the faint of heart. The Prime Minister has now had more communications directors than there were press secretaries in the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations combined (a total of 16 years).

Harper is well known among journalists, political observers and even his own caucus as one who tightly controls media, messaging and information flow. At a conference in London, Ont., shortly after the swearing in of the Conservatives’ first minority government in February 2006, CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge labelled the new prime minister a “control freak” who was determined to change the fundamental relationship between the PMO and the news media. Evidence of that manifested itself through new rules of engagement established by the PMO early that year that dealt with scrums and news conferences (see CBC producer Ira Basen’s piece for Pressthink on the controversy). Many experts see the Harper strategy, when combined with the party’s own inventory of websites, new-media tools and consultants, as an effort to “decertify” traditional news media as agents of communication between government and citizens. According to those who work closest to Ottawa’s inner orbits, the working relationships between the news media and the Prime Minister remain delicate and mercurial.

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler
Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler

Whenever the matter of communications and government comes up, I can’t help but remember the impossible task of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler during the final years of the Richard Nixon administration. Ziegler had the unenviable job of managing media relations through the Watergate years and the many headlines that eventually led to the president’s resignation. Contemptuous of the Washington Post, which was constantly on the leading edge of the story, Nixon held the threat of dismissal over Ziegler’s head, should he allow any reporter or photographer from the Post onto the White House grounds.

The ultimate embarrassment for Ziegler, however, came during a visit to New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1973. As Nixon was about to enter a convention centre to make a speech, he grabbed Ziegler by the shoulders, turned him around and shoved him in the direction of nearby reporters, who were shouting questions about the unravelling Watergate affair and Nixon’s role in it. The incident was captured on film by CBS cameraperson Cal Marlin, and it aired on the national newscast that evening. Dan Rather set up the clip by saying, “What you are about to see is a rare glimpse in public of presidential irritation. . . . The president’s aides deny he is nervous or testy or anything.”

Ziegler was the communicator who invented the term “photo op,” tried to dismiss the Watergate scandal a “third-rate burglary” and had a penchant for declaring previous statements, proven to be misleading or untrue, as “inoperative.” He died in hospital near his home in Coronado, Calif., in 2003 at the age of 63.

The Telegraph-Journal apology

When it comes to newspaper correction notices, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. A respected Atlantic Canada broadsheet apologizes to the country’s Prime Minister for an error in a story concerning the PM’s attendance at the funeral of a former governor-general. Furthermore, the apology is necessitated not by errors of fact; rather, it concerns what was apparently either outright fabrication or the insertion of gossip or speculation — on the newspaper’s copy desk, of all places.

Today’s apology to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the front page of New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal is the kind of notice every editor-in-chief and publisher dreads.

Telegraph-Journal bannerMany Canadians will remember the controversy that erupted in the wake of the Prime Minister’s attendance at the funeral mass for former governor-general Romeo LeBlanc on July 3. Like others in attendance, Harper went forward during the mass to celebrate the eucharist, during which a priest traditionally places a wafer (or the “host”), considered the body of Christ, on the tongue of each celebrant.

In the Telegraph-Journal’s story, written by reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras in nearly Memramcook, N.B., the newspaper asserted that the Prime Minister had tucked the wafer into his pocket, sparking follow-up queries and stories by other news organizations and a low-level national debate about the propriety of partaking or abstaining from religious rituals when they are not one’s own.

In a blog post today, Montreal-based journalist Craig Silverman, Canada’s undisputed king of chroniclers when it comes to media corrections, notes that the names of the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief don’t appear in today’s editions, promising to keep an eye on developments in the executive suite. Silverman’s reputable website, Regret the Error, also notes that the paper took tough action earlier this year with a summer intern who misstated some facts in a story about the University of New Brunswick’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Premier Shawn Graham. Silverman, in fact, wrote a column for the Columbia Journalism Review on that issue.

Today’s Telegraph-Journal’s apology is directed to the Prime Minister, as well as to its two reporters. No mention of what consequences, if any, will be felt by the copy editor(s) responsible. The T-J’s editor-in-chief, by the way, is Shawna Richer, whose byline may be remembered by readers of The London Free Press and The Globe and Mail. Update: CBC News reported this evening that Richer has been fired and that Jamie Irving is no longer the newspaper’s publisher.

The irony won’t be lost on any journalist: Editors and others who deal with copy are at their desks expressly for the purpose of ensuring accuracy. And although editing mistakes happen as easily as they do at the reporting level, it’s unlike copy editors to deliberately insert erroneous facts.

And if “transparency is the new objectivity,” events at the Telegraph-Journal, despite today’s embarrassment and prostration, are still less than perfectly clear.

Toronto Mayor David Miller and the Maclean’s cover

The cover of the July 27, 2009, issue of Maclean's
The cover of the July 27, 2009, issue of Maclean's

The cover illustration on the July 27 issue of Maclean’s, constructed from a series of manipulated images, certainly is, well, provocative.

It features a less-than-flattering image of Toronto Mayor David Miller stuffed into an aluminum garbage can, banana peel adorning his scalp, with raccoons foraging around the rotting detritus at the container’s bottom.

And lest the reader think the current four-week-old garbage strike is the only reason “Toronto stinks,” the accompanying display type offers some additional clarity: “Skyrocketing costs, soaring taxes. Now a summer garbage strike. How Canada’s biggest city got itself into this mess.”

Ironically, the colourful coverage by Canada’s national newsmagazine comes on the heels of Miller’s efforts to push back against negative publicity generated by a recent newsfeature in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which the paper put the Canadian city at the top of its “World Travel Watch,” citing the unpleasantness for travellers posed by the lengthy municipal workers strike in Canada’s largest city. (Windsor got sideswiped in that piece, too.)

In response, Miller appeared on CNN to try to counter the article’s impact and reassure visitors. On Friday, the mayor held a press conference to underline his confidence in the “resilience” of Torontonians.

The Maclean’s illustration certainly took me aback in that, at first blush, it appeared strangely pro-labour. It’s certainly the kind of cover that would engage my journalism students in lengthy debate — about photo illustration generally, but also about the kind of editorial statement being made here and whether it meets, or should have to meet, journalistic chestnuts about fairness and balance.

When Maclean’s posts a link to the feature story inside, I’ll post it here. Meanwhile, what’s your view?

Covering Michael Jackson

Paris Jackson at her father's memorial, July 7
Paris Jackson at her father's memorial, July 7

I get a discomfiting sense of unease during occasions such as today’s marathon coverage of the Michael Jackson funeral and memorial service, watched by hundreds of millions around the world. Media (and news media in particular) are, at times, the ultimate bandwagon jumpers, trying desperately to create the illusion of leading a parade from somewhere around its middle.

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, though I’ll gladly acknowledge the enormous impact the child-cum-man had on popular art forms, including dance and the recording industry. In the annals of the pop music history of the past century, his contributions will stand alongside those of Elvis, Sinatra and the Beatles. He should be given his due.

The current avalanche of newsprint, broadcasts, website excitation, tweets and blogs would sit better with me had the same news media, which today bathed itself in the Jacksonian legend and aura, not so recently been just as hyperbolic in their scathing coverage, documentaries and commentary-laden reporting of child sex abuse criminal proceedings against him. News anchors clucked their shock and disapproval and shot each other knowing glances. The prose of reviewers, writers and columnists dripped with sarcasm, innuendo and double entendre. Jackson’s plastic surgeries and personal quirks were the stuffing of a million punching bags. Mockery and raised eyebrows were de rigueur. And yet today (not to mention the past week), most news media rushed from port to starboard — the side of the ship that asserted how misunderstood, human, sensitive, pioneering and charitable the man was.

We’re still a long way from understanding Jackson in any kind of context, thanks largely to the celebrity- and pack-type journalism that devalues restraint and context, deferring instead to the immediate, the sensational and the glib.

Sure, journalism is about reporting the news. But it should also be about balance, frames of reference and perspective.