Category: Journalism

A rare—and welcome—case of real government communications

I have vented previously, here and here, about the quiet acquiescence of municipal and provincial leaders to the destruction of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation. Why haven’t the Premier, the Minister of Economic Development, the Leader of the Opposition, and other provincial leaders spoken out against the elimination of an institution, enshrined in an Act of Parliament, whose dismantling will cost Cape Breton tens of millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future? Cape Breton is still part of Nova Scotia, after all.

Marlene UsherMy purpose in this post is not to belabour the point, but to direct readers’ attention to a striking and courageous counterpoint to the unbecoming silence of  leaders who ought to have spoken out. It came from an unlikely source: the acting CEO of the soon-to-be-dissolved agency, Marlene Usher, in an interview with CBC Cape Breton’s able Information Morning host, Steve Sutherland, Friday.

You can find it here.

So much about this interview is remarkable: the tone of regret; the avoidance of forced cheeriness; the absence of scripted talking points; the unmistakable ring of candour. At one point, two or three questions in, you can almost hear Sutherland pull himself up short, as if to say, “My gosh, she’s actually going to answer these questions!”

Referring to Industry Minister Rob Moore’s false claim that all would be “business as usual” after he rolls ECBC into ACOA’s deathly grip, Sutherland said, “It kinda sounds like you don’t really think it’s business as usual.” Usher demurred, but went on to detail the kinds of offerings that ECBC could make as a locally based Crown corporation that will no longer be possible under ACOA’s aegis.

There was nothing insubordinate about Usher’s response, just plainspoken, truthful answers to probing questions—which is to say, a style of communication you almost never hear in today’s hyper-messaged nexus of media and politics. My immediate thought, given the Putinesque style of the Harper administration, was that the interview might put Usher’s employment at risk.

I don’t know Usher, but in conversations around Sydney in the days since the axe fell, I’ve been struck by the reservoir of affection for her and her staff.

“I get to work with some incredibly dedicated folks from ECBC on a regular basis,” wrote musician and music promoter Albert Lionais on Facebook. “They’re really set on helping to develop the cultural industries here and to help folks make a living at what they love and from here at home.”

Usher’s two predecessors, the mercurial Rick Beaton and the ethically controversial John Lynn, caused the corporation, and the island, no end of bad press. An unassuming professional, who does her job quietly in a way that earns the affection of those she is mandated to serve, gets no press at all. Give the interview a listen.

Proof that it’s never to late to correct a factual error

The New York Times this morning published a correction of a story it ran 161 years ago, on January 20, 1853:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.33 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.59 PM

The Times does take its responsibility for factual accuracy seriously. This whimsical correction of two, 161-year-old spelling errors was one of nine corrections it published today. Five years ago, at the urging of Contrarian and Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick, the Times corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall Jr. The original version of the Times obit had incorrectly described the circumstances surrounding the killing of Sandy Seale, the 16-year-old boy whom Marshall was falsely convicted of murdering.

For all they criticize others, journalists have notoriously thin skins. They hate admitting error. Certain local journals all but refuse to do so unless someone credibly threatens litigation. Yet here comes the august New York Times publishing fistsful of mea culpas day after day. Far from diminishing its credibility or exposing the paper as sloppy, this willingness to admit and correct mistakes enhances its stature.

The Times published tens of thousands of words a day about fast-breaking, important, often controversial events. It is not humanly possible to do that without making mistakes. By correcting them forthrightly, the Times show readers a commitment to get things right.

To be sure, many critics say the Times gets a lot of big things wrong, such as its reluctance to apply the term “torture” to brutal tactics employed by the US Military. I agree with some of this criticism, but they are matters of editorial judgment and opinion. I am still grateful for the paper’s determination to ferret out and fix even the smallest factual mistakes.

The gold standard for correction goes to the Public Radio International program This American Life, which discovered it had been grossly misled by a freelancer in an episode that purported to expose abuse of factory workers in China. The program didn’t merely correct, retract, and apologize for the story. It did all of those things, but it also devoted a full hour to a meticulous examination of the fabrication, and its producers’ failure to realize they were being hoodwinked. The correction is a remarkable piece of journalism in its candour, thoroughness, and willingness to shine an unflattering spotlight on its own journalistic failings. Ironically, it gave me an almost unshakable trust in the program. You can listen to the correction here, and download the transcript here. You can subscribe to the podcast with iTunes or any podcast app.

 

AllNovaScotia now a ‘case study’ at America’s most prestigious J-school

Two years ago, I pointed to an admiring account of Nova Scotia’s unorthodox online business and politics journal, AllNovaScotia.com, on the website of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Halifax freelancer Tim Currie described how a “tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia.”

Kelly-ToughillLast month, Kelly Toughill, director of the King’s Journalism School in Halifax, fleshed out the story in an 18-page “case study” submitted to the equally prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism. From the abstract:

This case tells the story of a small, online publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has confounded the punditry of the digital era. AllNovaScotia.com (ANS) sits firmly behind a paywall, does not allow its stories to be shared online, and even refuses subscriptions to employees of rival publications. Nonetheless, it has been financially successful. But in 2013, founder David Bentley faced a crossroads. At 69, he was ready to step back. But what should the next step be: sell out? Duplicate the ANS model elsewhere? Go more digital?

Although she canvasses various options for Bentley’s next step, Toughill ends her study as a cliff-hanger, without any prediction as to which course, if any, he might pursue.

She does, however, capture what I believe is the key to AllNS’s competitive journalistic edge:

The traditional organizational structure of a newsroom had been compared to a military organization, with power flowing through well-­defined channels from the editor-in-chief or executive producer through sun-editors to reporters. AllNovaScotia was different. All reporters worked in the same room. Even Bentley didn’t have an office. There were no assignment editors telling reporters what to do; each reporter was responsible for finding and covering the news on his or her own beat. Most news organizations relied on a series of daily news meetings to make editorial decisions and to plan future coverage. Bentley did not believe in meetings. In 2010, eight years after founding the site, he proudly boasted that there had never been an official meeting within the organization.

Bentley worked closely with new reporters to help them adopt the sparse hard-­??news style of AllNovaScotia stories. As the organization grew, new reporters also worked with a managing editor and several part-­??time copy editors. Bentley’s standards were high, and those who couldn’t adjust quickly were let go. Those who stayed were expected to be ahead of the competition on their beat. Journalists who moved from local broadcast outlets or the local broadsheet reported that the AllNovaScotia newsroom had a more positive and dynamic ambiance than the organizations they had left.

“Reporters at AllNovaScotia had total independence,” says Kevin Cox, whom Bentley hired as an editor after Cox left the well-regarded national newspaper, the Globe and Mail.

All stories were self-­generated. There wasn’t that top-­down direction. At the Globe, you came in each morning and someone told you what to do. At the Globe, you were always double-­checking with people up the line about what you were doing. There was no hierarchy at AllNovaScotia and that made for a completely different mood.

The generally meaty quality of its reporting is AllNovaScotia’s great strength (although its journalism sometimes suffers from a habit of nursing hobby horses and unreasonable pet peeves). Its continued success while so many other models are failing is a marvel to behold.

It may be that Toughill knows more about Bentley’s plans than she’s letting on. A note on Columbia’s website says the case has “an Epilogue” and a” Teaching Note,” visible only faculty members.

H/T: SP.

Fear-mongering as news: turning sad stories into bogus trends

Underage-pic

See if this sounds familiar:

(1)  A teenage girl becomes involved in sexual activity that most grownups, regardless of their own sexual behaviour as teens, find shocking and horrific.

(2)  The girl’s parent or parents learn of the activity and are utterly devastated.

(3)  A family crisis ensues, with outcomes that can range from good to horrendous.

(4)  In their struggle to process shocking new information about the child they love, the distraught parent or parents construct a frame to explain and cope with this cognitive dissonance.

Huge problem(5)  The frame invariably posits the existence of a large but hitherto unacknowledged social problem that explains how a good child falls into bad situations.

(6)  The parent seeks a journalist’s help in exposing this putative social problem.

(7)  To justify publicizing salacious details of a private family tragedy, the journalist adopts the frame. The girl’s story is not simply her story, but an exemplar of an unrecognized social problem of broad and increasing scope—a sinister trend, usually one in which digital media are implicated.

(8)  The reporter conducts an “investigation,” that consists of sympathetic and deeply restrained interviews with the parents—and with the girl, if she has survived and is cooperating.

(9A)  If the parental frame, now adopted by the reporter, includes warnings about the rising prevalence of criminal or socially destructive behaviour, police are interviewed, and their comments, while non-specific, support the parental call for greater resources (police resources) and legislation (police powers) to deal with the putative trend.

(9B)  If the parental frame adopted by the reporter includes criticism of alleged inaction by police or prosecutors, then police decline to be interviewed, because they cannot defend their position without revealing confidential information and appearing to attack the victim.

Iceberg-tip(10)  The journalistic “investigation” posits an upward trend in the socially destructive behaviour it highlights, but presents no objective, quantifiable information or data to support this assumption.

(11) The reporting omits certain basic information about the girl and her family, elisions justified as necessary to “protect” the girl against unspecified dangers. Interviews conducted in shadow-view, with deliberate voice distortion, reinforce the apprehension of danger.

Portent(12)  The story script employs portentous language that stresses the putative dangers to other children, and the shocking (but unverified) frequency of similar stories.

(13)  If the story is perfectly positioned, it will appeal to right-wingers, eager to implement greater authoritarian controls against social behaviour they find offensive, and left-wingers, distraught over victimization of girls and women in a patriarchal society.

(14)  In extreme cases, this unholy coalition will propel politicians to pass hastily contrived, ill-thought-out legislation giving authorities over-broad powers to address problems that may or may not exist.

The growing clamor to grant Edward Snowden clemency

Bus-ThankYouSnowden

A Washington, DC, city bus

Briefly, because I can’t say it better than these people did, please check out the links below for eloquent arguments about the value of Edward Snowden’s lawbreaking, and the Obama administration’s pernicious folly in persecuting him.

On the last day of October, from his exile in Russia, Snowden wrote a letter seeking clemency.

snowden letter

On the first day of January, a New York Times editorial endorsed his request.

Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.

In a series of tweets, a US business journalist who has cheered on the excesses of the security state, condemned the Times’ position.

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The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf eviscerated Barro’s argument in a logical tour-de-force.

When should a leaker of government secrets be forgiven rather than jailed? Here are some possible standards:

  • When the leak reveals lawbreaking by the U.S. government
  • When the leak reveals behavior deemed unconstitutional by multiple federal judges
  • When a presidential panel that reviews the leaked information recommends significant reforms
  • When the leak inspires multiple pieces of reform legislation in Congress
  • When the leak reveals that a high-ranking national-security official perjured himself before Congress
  • When the leak causes multiple members of Congress to express alarm at policies being carried out without their knowledge.

The Snowden leak meets all of those thresholds, among others….

Leaks of classified information in the United States will remain common, regardless of what happens to Snowden, because they frequently serve the interests of people in power—and they won’t be prosecuted precisely because they are powerful or connected. That longstanding, bipartisan dynamic is far more important to the norms surrounding official secrets in the U.S. than how a singular, unrepeatable, once-in-a-generation leak is handled….

For apparently altruistic reasons, Snowden revealed scandalous instances of illegal behavior, and the scandal that mass surveillance on innocents is considered moral and legal by the national-security state, though it knew enough to keep that a secret. It is difficult to imagine another leak exposing policies so dangerous to a free society or state secrets so antithetical to representative government. The danger of a Snowden pardon creating a norm is virtually nonexistent.

The Friedersdorf piece in particular deserves to be read in its entirety.

Edward Snowden’s Christmas message: asking is cheaper than spying.

Every Christmas since 1993, British Television’s Channel 4 asks a noteworthy figure to record an “alternative” to starchy pieties of Her Majesty’s annual Christmas message to her subjects.

This year, Channel 4 tapped whistleblower Edward Snowden. From his temporary asylum in Russia, Snowden sounded a pithy, 1 minute, 43 second, warning about the dangers of government spying:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalysed thought….

Remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.

H/T: A.C.H. Noskwith

Tpyo feedback

On Wednesday I noted a typographical error that caused a local journal some embarrassment, only to acknowledge I was no one to talk, given the rising frequency of self- and auto-correct-induced typos that fill my keyboarding day. (See: Report a Tpyo button, above.)

Naturally, other journalists quickly jumped into the fray. Dan Bedell, the most meticulous copy editor I ever encountered, toiled for many years at the Canadian Press Bureau in Halifax.

Badell

Bedell

I hope the Chronicle Herald crew takes the award in stride and draws comfort from knowing it serves to remind all wordsmiths there should never be room for complacency. Anyone who’s been responsible for final content, especially in print media, feels their pain. You do your level best to review every page including headlines, editorial content and even the advertising, check it again, and have a second or even a third set of eyes look it over to be absolutely certain it is free of errors. Even when spell-check software attempts to sound the alert, you over-confidently click “ignore.”  Then the final product lands on your desk in print or goes live online and that glaring mistake slaps you in the face. And of course the entire world feels the need to point out the one error you inexplicably managed to miss.

Also, thanks for confirming that humour, not editorial sloppiness, is behind the misspelling in your “Report a Tpyo” link. However I hold fast to the belief that it originally was an error you have cleverly sidestepped by claiming it was always intentional.

The real story is better. Before Contrarian launched in the spring of 2009, computer smart guy Mike Target was putting the finishing touches on its template. At Doug MacKay’s suggestion, I asked him to add a “Report-a-Typo” link. When he sent back the draft template, I spotted what looked to be an error, and emailed him.

“Talk about irony,” I chortled, “You misspelled ‘typo!'”

“You idiot, that’s a joke,” he shot back.

I slapped my forehead, and the Report-a-Tpyo link survives to this day. Every once in a while, a gentle reader politely points out my “mistake.”

Ron Crocker writes:

My all-time fave typo appeared in the St. John’s (NL) Evening Telegram many years ago, when I was a cub reporter. I did not write the story myself, but almost wish I had. It probably appeared in October or November, but those of us who frequently drive the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland know it could be almost any month except July. The lead went like this:

“A freak storm overnight left two inches of snot on the Trans Canada near St. John’s…”

There was damage to correct spelling, of course, but not much damage to accuracy.

These discussions always put me in mind of a story about Nathan Marsh Pusey, who served as president of Harvard University from 1953 to 1971. A contractor wanted to build a multi-story office tower over the top of Harvard Square—on stilts as it were. The aloof Mr. Pusey called a rare news conference to condemn the scheme. The student-run Harvard Crimson’s apocryphal headline:

Pusey Fights Erection in Square

Not exactly a typo, and to the best of my knowledge, it never actually found its way into print. But too good a story to let facts stand in the way.

“Al Goldstein Dies at 77; Made Pornography Dirtier”

That’s not my headline. It’s the hed on the New York Times’ hilarious obituary of the founder of Screw magazine.

Long before the internet brought newspapers to their knees, the industry suffered plenty of self-inflicted damage. Among the unnecessary wounds I would place the decision by big newspaper chains to turn obituaries into paid advertisements. The result has been a stream of unctuous prose authored by funeral directors and family members rendered inarticulate by grief.

One of the glories of the New York Times is the standard it continues to uphold in this magnificent genre. Witness today’s delicious piece on Goldstein:

Mr. Goldstein did not invent the dirty magazine, but he was the first to present it to a wide audience without the slightest pretense of classiness or subtlety… The manifesto in Screw’s debut issue in 1968 was succinct. “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” it read. “We will apologize for nothing. We will uncover the entire world of sex. We will be the Consumer Reports of sex.”

…Apart from Screw, Mr. Goldstein’s most notorious creation was Al Goldstein himself, a cartoonishly vituperative amalgam of borscht belt comic, free-range social critic, and sex-obsessed loser who seemed to embody a moment in New York City’s cultural history: the sleaze and decay of Times Square in the 1960s and ‘70s.

…With renown came obscenity arrests and lawsuits, which Mr. Goldstein in turn milked for maximum publicity. (He also wrote numerous scathing editorials accusing his accusers of hypocrisy, often accompanied by crude photo collages showing them engaged in humiliating sex acts.) Mr. Goldstein, claiming First Amendment protection, beat most of the charges, occasionally paying nominal fines.

…His lawyers argued that the anticensorship diatribes in Screw made the magazine sufficiently political, though Mr. Goldstein himself ridiculed this defense, insisting that a reader’s erection “is its own redeeming value.”

As a reward for reading to the end of the Goldstein obit, the on-line version features one of the all-time great corrections.

Al-Goldstein

Oops! – updated

The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism school respected in the industry for promoting  “the kind of journalism that enables us to participate fully and effectively in our democracy,” has issued its annual awards for best and worst media errors and corrections of the year. Nova Scotia did not escape the list.

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald won Typo of the Year for this published account of its own success at the Atlantic Journalism Awards:

Herald
“It’s always notable when a paper misspells its own name,” the Poynter judges said. “It’s even more notable when a paper misspells its own name in an article celebrating recent awards for journalistic excellence.”

I’m definitely in the glass-house-dwelling stone-thrower category here, since I make 400+ typos a day,  far too many of which find their way into Contrarian. Alert readers make frequent use of the drolly named “Report a Tpyo” button at the top of this page, and I am continually grateful to them.

Still, the Herald blooper is funny, in an embarrassing sort of way, and I hope my friends there will take my re=posting re-posting it in a collegial, there-but-for-the-grace-of-obscurity sort of way. The Poynter Awards collection offered amusing, cautionary, and instructive insight into the journalism as practiced today — definitely worth a look.

Lastly, belated congratulations to Herald staffers John DeMont, Ian Thompson, Deborah Wiles, Jayson Taylor, Matt Dempsey, Christian Laforce, and Bruce MacKinnon for producing the work that won the six awards celebrated in this ill-fated story. It’s quite a haul.

Feedback:

Peter Barss writes:

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 Well, maybe not exactly large, but broken for sure. You see what I mean?

Emus down vs. Emu Downs

HillsideTurbineBase

On Monday, Contrarian voiced skepticism about a Digby couple’s claim that wind turbines had decimated their their emu flock.

Andy MacCallum, vice president of developments for Natural Forces Technologies Inc., a company that helps develop small wind projects in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, responds:

I worked on a wind farm in Western Australia a few years ago called Emu Downs Wind Farm. An emu farmer was the major landowner for the project. The emus loved the turbines, and would gather at the turbine bases as they provided shelter from the wind.

This is, of course, merely an anecdote, just as the failure of the Ocean Breeze Emu Farm is merely an anecdote. By themselves, neither proves anything. But the Emu Downs story presents stronger evidence against the turbines-harm-emus hypothesis, than the Ocean Breeze story presents in its favor.

  • If turbines kill emus, then gathering around the Emu Downs turbines should have hurt the Aussie birds, but apparently it did not. The site remains a tourist attraction.
  • A thousand factors could have caused the Ocean Breeze emus’ failure to thrive. Owners Debi and David Van Tassell simply picked the explanation they preferred, with no supporting evidence.

Without considering possible alternatives, the CBC swallowed the Van Tassell’s sad story, whole. Not to be outdone, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald committed the same journalistic malpractice a day later.

The impulse to accept at face value any argument against any development, no matter how far fetched or specious, simply because those advancing it are deemed, “sincere,” is a recipe for basing decisions on ignorance, prejudice, and magical beliefs.

Where are the editors?

[Photo: Workers construct the base of a wind turbine going up at Hillside Boularderie, about 30 km from Contrarian’s Kempt Head base station. Courtesy of Natural Forces.]

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