June 4, 2009

When the Media’s a Player

Posted in Media overviews, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Maggie Clark

I hate to speculate on the “why” of CTVGlobeMedia’s omission from a CTV Southern Ontario news broadcast yesterday, June 3 — but the fact of that omission is troubling enough to merit at least a little consideration.

A few days earlier, The Globe and Mail published a pair of investigative pieces tackling possible misconduct at the Toronto Humane Society: the first, addressing the condition of the animals; the second, building a history of the organization’s long-standing volunteer president. But before the third article, describing the messy bookkeeping associated with lack of funding for essential services, could be published, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) launched a probe into such allegations.

Though The Toronto Star does not mention The Globe and Mail — unsurprising, as mainstream media generally pretends other media organizations don’t exist (unless they do wrong) — it does state in its brief that this probe was sparked by “a series of newspaper articles in which some people alleged animals were suffering because of a restrictive euthanasia policy.” Seeing as Kate Hammer’s first installment, about just such a policy, was published May 29, and the announcement of the probe came the same day as the second, June 1, it really doesn’t a leap of faith to recognize the correlation between news story and official response.

Of course, The Globe and Mail also readily explains how its three-piece series opened the floodgates of complaints to the SPCA, and created grounds enough for the search warrant that then allowed them to revoke the THS’s affiliate status — but it was obvious that they’d note their role in the on-going case: again, self-promotion is just the nature of the beast.

And, in a way, The Toronto Star likewise managed to promote its own interests in the process — reminding readers of the relevancy of newspapers (and the investigative pieces they bring in) without pointing out which newspaper in particular had achieved this staggering level of community response.

But that’s where it gets especially strange that CTV News avoided any mention about the origins of this SPCA investigation (to say nothing of one launched against the board — and especially the president — by other THS members in the wake of the second series piece): CTVGlobeMedia owns The Globe and Mail, alongside its broadcast networks, so if one medium is so quick to take credit for the upheaval its stories created, why wouldn’t the other even mention this connection — even as it broadcasts photos that the other has in its photo gallery? Thanks to CTV’s news archives, I was able to go back and transcribe their original broadcast, so as to highlight just how many places the omission touches the story of this organization. Bolded text marks content sparked by The Globe and Mail‘s story:

Christine Bentley: “A dogfight is brewing between two agencies who [sic] make their living caring for animals in need.”

Ken Shaw: “The THS is showing its teeth after some allegations that it mistreated some would-be pets. The Humane Society says it has done nothing wrong; CTV’s Austin Delaney is in our newsroom working on this developing story, so, Austin, set the table for us.”

Austin Delaney: “Well, today it’s a bit of he-said, she-said; neither agency is backing down. But the one with the power and the clout says that there are some serious concerns at the THS.

[cut to video] It is anything but business-as-usual at the THS today: Its power to investigate allegations of cruelty to animals are still under suspension from the OSPCA. On Tuesday [June 1], OSPCA inspectors with police on hand raided the society’s River St. headquarters after allegations that some animals were being mistreated. Today [June 2], those same inspectors announced they found four animals in distress.

“Their condition was very serious; it required immediate intervention.” [said Kristen Williams, OSPCA.] “As a result of that findings [sic] we issued OSPCA orders to ensure that their standards of care are going to be met moving forward.”

“You know, we don’t agree with that.” [said Ian McConachie of the THS.] The Toronto Humane society issued its own statement today saying it had been vindicated by the OSPCA. “We feel we are; I mean, their investigation found nothing: they didn’t seize any animals, they didn’t find any major problems at the shelter, and they didn’t find any animals suffering in need.”

But that’s not what the OSPCA inspectors told CTVNews: “Certainly not. We found animals in immediate distress, requiring immediate intervention,” [said Williams.] “And that is something we’re taking very seriously.”

We were given these disturbing pictures from volunteers at the THS. They show animals in dirty cages with empty water bowls. “The dogs’ cages were covered with feces, urine. There was no one there to clean them,” [said one unidentified woman.] “The dog walkers, through compassion, were cleaning cages themselves because there were no staff there to do it.”

There are now calls for the resignation of the THS’s president, and board, ’til the OSPCA investigation is concluded. [cut back to newsroom]

Much of the debate is about how long animals are allowed to suffer before they’re put down. There are allegations that the THS lets them hang on too long, making the animals suffer needlessly. That, too, is now a part of the investigation. I’m Austin Delaney.”

That part about the THS president is what really kills me: It’s an absolute orphan in the midst of this framing of the story, unless you know from The Globe and Mail‘s series that president Tim Trow, volunteer president, personally presides over (or interferes with, depending on which side you’re on in the debate) day-to-day operations, and that a monopoly is perceived on the part of the board through the use of an excessive number of proxy votes left in his hands. In the case of this story, The Globe and Mail‘s series thus absolutely represents an aggregate of sources that would greatly aid in viewers’ understanding of the issue — and leaves a lot of unanswered questions in its absence.

But above and beyond the imperative for journalists to provide as much information as they can about a story (which CTVNews could easily have improved upon by mentioning the original articles) there also exists the need for ownership of allegations — for a measure of responsibility taken at the outset, should it later emerge that allegations spun out of hand or were not fully corroborated in the first place. This especially resonates with me when I recall Tim Trow’s response to The Globe and Mail‘s series, available here, but no longer directly linked (as a related article) with any of the news installments Hammer’s published daily since the OSPCA got involved. There are some interesting counters offered up in this piece, addressing some of the more dramatic elements of the original articles; and it thus surely warrants inclusion in any more complete discourse about what’s going on at the shelter. And yet when The Globe and Mail‘s connection is itself removed from this piece, as it is in subsequent reporting by other news organizations, we essentially see this relevant response become twice removed from the story’s more dramatic and expansive outcomes.

Now, perhaps it’s just not in our media climate to highlight the paper trail for readers, when that paper trail involves other forms of media (or rival media outlets) as key players in a story’s development. Maybe that’s just the way it’s always been, and it happens all the time.

But I for one find the casual use of “some allegations” grossly inappropriate when more concrete information is so readily at hand. And I find myself wondering, too, if it’s thus any coincidence that both broadcast and print journalism are so reluctant to cross-reference other media in relation to top stories, while online journalism — that monolithic tide of change culling revenue streams for both — thrives on just such an interplay of sources.

Maybe CTVNews should do a story on that.

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May 22, 2009

War journalism vs reporting on the military, Part One

Posted in Military matters tagged , , , , , , , at 10:31 am by Maggie Clark

War journalism has to be the toughest media gig around. You go out, you get the facts, you tell a very complex story as best you can. And then you have to sit on it. Or the censors get to it. Or your editor just tells you to take it down a notch. Why? Because if you’re too detailed — about intentions, about army locations — you put more lives at risk. Every day finding the balance between two difficult end-goals (telling the whole story, and doing as little harm in the process as possible) carries much greater risks than just about any other kind of news.

It’s not as though plain old local investigative reporting doesn’t come with its own risks: damaging an individual or a community’s reputation can have very dire consequences in and of itself. But in a war, on the ground, those consequences are much more immediate, and lie almost invariably in further casualties.

So it is as well with reports on the human element in war, as I referenced in relation to the late Canadian soldier, Major Michelle Mendez, dead of a self-inflicted injury late April — and as I find myself returning to in the case of American Sergeant John Russell, who opened fire two weeks ago in a stress clinic while stationed in Iraq, killing two attending medical officers, three patients, and injuring four others with a stolen gun. Sgt Russell had six weeks remaining on his third tour of Iraq; the stolen weapon came from a fellow soldier, who Sgt Russell violently assaulted some time after own had been removed.

For all these stories, whether they be about suicide, rape, vandalism, brutality and torture, corpse mutilation, unnecessary civilian casualties, or “friendly fire” incidents, anything that casts our own soldiers, or their allies, in a poor light during war time is immediately deemed a danger to their safety, either through internal morale issues or the provocation of heightened aggression from enemy combatants. And often this status leads to more delicacy, more omission, and more neglect in the realm of story updates.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem when incidents keep happening that, with or without the help of the media sphere, make it to the public consciousness — creating in their wake a mythology that, in its vagueness, ends up implicating the good right along with the bad. And after all the horrific military abuses that emerged during and after Bush’s presidency, I highly doubt further censorship, in the aim of keeping a damper on such rumours, would either be effective or without backlash. So what options are we left with?

The story of Sgt Russell had a news cycle of a scant two days; I’ve given it over a week, and no follow-up exists. To be fair, though, the media’s had its hands full in the last couple days especially, with the case of Steven D. Green, the “ex-soldier” who instigated the gang rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi girl, alongside the murders of her father, her mother, and her younger sister, while a private for Bravo Company, First Battalion, 502nd Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. This is too sick a case to refer to without more vile details, because the news broke just yesterday that Green is getting life in prison for his role in this heinous attack; he, along with four other soldiers implicated in this incident, will be up for parole in ten years:

New York Times — The March 2006 murders in Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, were so bloody that American and Iraqi authorities first thought they were the work of insurgents. The American soldiers were implicated after at least one acknowledged to fellow soldiers a role in the crimes.

At the time, the Iraq insurgency was near its violent apex, and American forces were suffering heavy casualties. Private Green’s unit, Bravo Company, First Battalion, 502nd Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, was sent to a particularly violent area that soldiers called the Triangle of Death soon after arriving in Iraq in the fall of 2005.

The battalion quickly suffered casualties, including a sergeant close to Private Green. In December, Private Green, along with other members of his platoon, told an Army stress counselor that he wanted to take revenge on Iraqis, including civilians. The counselor labeled the unit “mission incapable” because of poor morale, high combat stress and anger over the deaths, and said it needed both stronger supervision and rest. It got neither, testimony at Mr. Green’s trial showed.

On March 11, 2006, after drinking Iraqi whiskey, Private Green and other soldiers manning a checkpoint decided to rape an Iraqi girl who lived nearby, according to testimony. Wearing civilian clothing, the soldiers broke into a house and raped Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Soldiers in the group testified that Private Green killed the girl’s parents and a younger sister before raping and then shooting the girl in the head with the family’s own AK-47, which it had kept for self defense.”

Two things came to mind when I read this story: First, and most prominently, was the blatant labelling of Green as an “ex-soldier” in the headline: “Ex-Soldier Gets Life Sentence for Iraq Murders.” Well, yes, clearly the army would dishonourably discharge him after such an incident. I could see that getting a sentence or two inside the actual article. But as the primary fact in a headline about the heinous crime, its consequences, and the systemic mental health issues it brings yet again to the surface? Not on your life: Green was a soldier when he committed those acts — a soldier whose entire unit was deemed unfit for duty, and yet was left by its superiors without adequate resources for stress and grief management. The moment we veer from these facts, even for a second, we start shifting our attention from the continual immediacy of mental health issues on the ground in Iraq, and permit the build-up to more — more killings, more rapes, more suicides.

… Which leads me to the second thought this article prompted — a throwback to something I’d read last week in relation to Sgt Russell. “At a Senate hearing Tuesday,” ABC News reported, “Army Secretary Pete Geren and chief of staff Gen. George Casey diverged from a discussion of the Army’s budget to weigh in on what is being done for soldiers like Russell. … Casey said it isn’t true most soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following combat, instead making the point that ‘the vast majority of people that go to combat have a growth experience because they are exposed to something very, very difficult and they succeed.'”

Honestly, I don’t know quite how to take this argument: I’m sure there are plenty of people who cope perfectly with the taking of enemy lives, the knowledge of civilian casualties, children or otherwise, an awareness of the brutality wrought by others in their ranks, and exposure to the deaths or crippling injuries of their comrades. I’m just not entirely sure I’d be comfortable around them.

The fact is, war is not meant to be pretty, and it cannot be managed with the board-room efficiency of a business. Nor should it be: No amount of spin and rhetoric should ever take away from the importance of protecting human life, and the gravity of its loss in a time of war. Sadly, it looks very much as though each generation needs to live through a time of conflict before that lesson truly hits home.

And yet, surely we can do better. Surely there is a way, with all of the channels available to us today, to be better in our reporting. Better by our fellow civilians, who are represented to the world by the actions of our troops, and our public condemnation (or lack thereof) of any wrongdoing on the field. Better to the civilians whose lives we claim we’re trying to protect from insurgency and tyranny in the war zones we’re fighting in, by holding military abuses on their soil to higher account. And better still to the soldiers themselves, who for better or worse place themselves in the line of fire — external and internal, in the course of duty — in search of a better peace than the one we already know.

I think the road to this goal lies with a stronger division between war journalism and reporting on the military. But I also think this argument is one for another day — Monday, to be specific.

Today I just want to end off reflecting on the five lives ended by Sgt Russell, and the four, equally innocent, lives cut short by Ex-Private Green. How much future bloodshed could we ward off, I wonder, if we truly gave ourselves over to the solemn remembrance of all that’s come before?

May 18, 2009

To Pay or Not To Pay: The Internet’s Most Intricate Crisis

Posted in Business & technology tagged , , , , , , , at 10:24 am by Maggie Clark

Within two months after Last.fm, a music streaming service, signed into partnership with four major record labels, Amazon.com saw a 119 percent increase in online music sales. Through an ad-based revenue model Last.fm was able to offer free access to a database of songs numbering in the millions, and to group them into “stations” wherein your tastes would yield similar artists or songs in that vein. The catch was that after three iterations of one song, Last.fm would display an advertisement directing listeners to affiliate partners selling the tune. All in all, it was a sweet deal: We got free music, the big labels got paid, the small labels got exposure, and contrary to popular wisdom about downloaders detracting from music profits, online sales were through the roof.

So, of course, Last.fm switched to a subscription model on April 22, 2009: Now International Users have to pay “three” every month — three euros, three dollars: whatever is regionally appropriate. And honestly? This makes tremendous business sense: Last.fm has to pay for every track you listen to from a major label, and when it can’t negotiate adequate terms for payment with a label, sometimes that label just cuts out.

Nonetheless, as part of the Napster generation I can’t help but note how, the more things change online, the more they’ve ultimately stayed the same. From Napster to Pandora to Muxtape to Seeqpod and, of course, a slew of others, the introduction of free big-label music under any number of guises has always, invariably ended in a curtailing of services (at best), or else a complete redirection of the site’s aims and/or bankruptcy.

Notice anything funny there? Take a look at how this cycle begins: With the desire to give something away for free. Not to make a profit on it; just to scrape by — and only when profit margins drop deep into the red, to impose fees on the consumers. Yeah, you might say, it’s easy not to try to make money on something you didn’t create (the music). But… if history serves us well, it’s not. People just don’t pass up the opportunity to exploit the work of others for their own profit. So how is it that models like the ones listed above ever existed in the first place?

The answer perhaps lies in our generation’s unique conditioning: if as individuals we still demanded that our own creative output be viewable solely through a pay system (as Amazon is proposing in blog subscriptions for Kindle), we’d be hypocrites to demand free content from others. But growth on the internet has proven instead too nuanced for such hypocrisy: while some services have always tried to charge for content, the blogosphere, YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace, DeviantArt, Flickr, news aggregates, and other such websites have always run on a free viewing model. In short, by now we’re more than used to posting a piece of writing, a photo, a video, or a song online and expecting nothing monetary from it. Art and entertainment have entered into a free-for-all creation domain, and while this doesn’t mean we don’t still hold in high regard those artists and entertainers who dedicate the whole of their lives to such work, it certainly means we have different expectations for our engagement with them.

As such, the story of those aforementioned music services means just what seems to mean: That our first push out into the world of the internet is just as likely to be in the pursuit of free access as it is to be about exploitation — and thus, that we as consumers can forever expect to find ourselves latching on to free content, taking it for granted, and having subsequent power plays or business models then wrest that freedom away. A cry of foul will emerge, we’ll flood a comments page with angry protests… and then most of us will clear off, find a new free music service, and repeat.

Rest assured, this isn’t as hard to stomach as it sounds: we’re already quite used to learning to pay for goods we’d always taken for granted — how else can you explain bottled tap water? But the story of free music is a fast-paced tale that also speaks volumes about deeper, more complex payment issues at work on the internet.

Because while the struggle for survival of music streaming services cater to our more immediate fears about The Man, there is a longer, more drawn-out battle being waged in turn for the whole of the internet. Yes, I’m talking about the attempts of Internet Service Providers to make heavy internet users pay more, or divest the whole medium of its equal playing field by allowing some companies to pay for prioritized access, effectively shutting small companies and websites out of the mass market. Or what about Bell Canada, which last year found an ally in the CRTC when the Canadian Association of Internet Providers complained that Bell was “throttling” access for peer-to-peer applications — a direct challenge to net neutrality? When the CRTC sided with Bell in the case, they likewise permitted, and set precedent for, the legality of an ISP interfering with an individual’s use of the service he’s paid for, through “traffic-shaping.”

And then, of course, there is the anti-piracy bill passed by the French National Assembly on May 12, 2009: anyone caught downloading or sharing copyrighted files three times can now be suspended from the internet for two months to a year on that third notice. Chillingly, the law would not require a trial or court order: All the ISPs need do is send you your warnings, making this a huge win for corporate control of the medium.

This, then, is the real conflict of the internet — an on-going negotiation being fought in a much more protracted, expansive way than any music streaming service need fear: but a negotiation, nonetheless, that will shape the future of the internet for us and those to come.

For now we take our freedoms and equality online for granted — just as we do our free music moment by moment. The question is, if the lesson of music streaming services has taught us anything, what can we really say about how free or equal the internet as a whole will be just ten years down the line?

And what, right now, can we do about it?

May 6, 2009

Calm before the swine

Posted in Global discourse tagged , , , , at 9:59 am by Maggie Clark

There is reason to think positively about the strength of citizens en masse. There is reason, too, to think positively about the benefits of our new networking technologies. And one need look no farther for proof of this than the confrontation between panic and perspective in relation to the swine flu epidemic.

Swine flu had, and still has, all the earmarks for a perfect shock story: The strain, H1N1, afflicts the healthy, the strong, by over-stimulating the immune system’s response. It’s an inter-species mutant, so you can imagine the inference that it must surely be three times as strong as its avian, human, and swine strain predecessors. And the outbreak has been tied to Mexico — just one more illegal immigrant to worry about, right? (It’s even being called the “killer Mexican flu” in some circles.)

As I write this, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, there are 165 reported cases of this H1NI strain in humans in Canada. The U.S. claims 403 cases, and between the two of us we have exactly two confirmed deaths. According to WHO statistics (current to May 5) Mexico has 822 cases, with 29 deaths; in the whole world, 21 countries share a collective case count of 1,490, with no other confirmed deaths.

If scientists declare that the strain has established itself outside of North America, the flu will reach pandemic status. In theory, that sounds terrifying, but really, the meaning extends no further than the fact that the illness can be found across the globe. The term pandemic says nothing, for instance, about how lethal or non-lethal said condition is; and though some sources are fond of speculating worst case scenarios, this means that the death rate is still very low. How low? Let’s take the U.S. numbers to illustrate: Annually, there are some 200,000 cases of hospitalization due to typical flu types in the U.S. — and 36,000 deaths. By this measure, swine flu has a long way to go before being anywhere near as serious a threat as its local, home-grown competitors.

And yet all this, for me, isn’t where it gets interesting. Not even close. Rather, what continues to surprise and impress me is our capacity for self-regulated response to the initial panic invoked around this illness. Yes, the media was talking up a storm about Influenza A H1N1. Yes, doomsday speculation was abounding. And yes, many industries — sanitation and pharmaceutical groups especially — have profited greatly in terms of market shares and business from all this panic.

But also abounding was — and still is — a countering force of calm. And it takes some truly extraordinary forms: For instance, mainstream news articles taking other articles to task for the lack of coverage about all the good news we have about Influenza A H1N1, and ethical deliberations about whether or not laughing at this illness (its name, its origins) is acceptable. And then there’s the really fun stuff: Stephan Zielinski applying the amino acid sequence for Influenza A H1N1 to ambient music. Gizmodo posting a hauntingly beautiful video demonstration of how the virus gets released. xkcd.com aptly encompassing the typical range of responses to Swine Flu on Twitter.

In other words, for all the panic we’ve had thrown at us about this illness, many have responded with a measure of fearlessness at least a hundred times as infectious. Does this mean everyone is rid of that panic? No, of course not: these reactive trends are often regional and compartmentalized due to varying interests and complex investments. The mass killing of all pig herds in Egypt, for instance — a perfectly rational response to a disease that, at that time, had no cases of pig-to-human infection manifested in the world, and absolutely no cases of human infection in the country itself — leaves huge consequences for the pig farmers, who with 300,000 animals killed have lashed back at the government in the form of protests: doubtless this panic attack on the part of officials will leave a long list of social consequences in its wake.

But think back, for comparison’s sake, to our global reaction to SARS — the extreme panic, the devaluation of tourism in heavily affected cities and regions, the dramatic quarantining procedures. Globally, the disease racked up 8273 cases, with 775 direct deaths (a death rate of 9.6 percent, weighted heavily toward seniors). Though clearly a more serious disease than Influenza A H1N1, the overall death rate of Americans due to seasonal influenza was still much higher; and yet our panic was long-standing and far-reaching, in large part because we were given no room for questions of doubt: only more panic.

Similarly, I’m not convinced the relative calm in this case emerged from the ground up: rather, I suspect news articles first had to present seeds of doubt about this issue, as forwarded by scientists reacting to the extent of media spin. I think room for doubt had to emerge from these sources first; and then the average reader, artist, and blogger could follow after — in turn serving to create more room to maneouver, rhetoric-wise, in future works by the mainstream media. But regardless of speculation about just how, and in what order, these groups fed off each other — the scientists, the media, and the participatory citizenry as a whole — what’s more striking is that they fed off each other at all to produce this ultimately calming effect.

We have, in the last 8 years, kicked ourselves over and over again for allowing flimsy excuses for war-mongering to stand; for allowing freedoms to be stripped from us in the name of security; for permitting, in general, the hard polemics of with-us-or-against-us to divide the population. And rightly so: When we go along with fear-mongering, we can be, en masse, pathetic excuses for an advanced and critically thinking civilization.

But cases like our reaction to swine flu should likewise give us cause for hope — and should be treated as such, with praise for measured response wherever it emerges. For as much as we can act like sheep if treated like sheep, it nonetheless takes precious little in the way of tempered social rhetoric for us to realize our own, independent engagements — fearless, inquisitive, and inspired alike — with the world instead.