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.

April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by Maggie Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.

May 11, 2008

The need for more, and better, mainstream media criticism

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 pm by Maggie Clark

“You know what the worst part of that is? It’s not that the speeches have gotten better; it’s [that] media criticism isn’t as good as it used to be.”

— Robert Schlesinger, guest author, The Daily Show

Within the last two years, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Adbusters, the Tyee, the New Yorker, and the Walrus have written extensively about the challenges facing contemporary media in its on-going bid at maintaining relevance as both political watch-dog and central arbiter of social discourse. Newsroom cutbacks, expansive media monopolies, weak protectionist policies from the government, social pressures from extremist interest groups, and the advent of New Media (and with it, a rapidly transforming revenue structure) are all aspects of a journalism culture that is presently tasked with re-branding itself without ready access to all the resources such an effort requires.

And indeed, many feel this lack of resources is ultimately to blame for the deficit of effective media criticism at crucial North American turning points in the last fifteen years, but one could just as easily argue — and I would — that a lack of effective media criticism in and of itself marked the industry as “ripe for the picking” by corporations increasingly unfamiliar with journalism’s non-entertainment responsibilities. To elaborate on that reversal, though, I should first deliberate a little on what constitutes “good journalism.”

To that end, consider a recent Globe & Mail article, which notified readers of the paper’s dominance at the 2008 National Newspaper Awards. One online respondent commented: “take it easy globe, you’re faaaaaar from perfect.” But is perfection even a reasonable aim for journalism? When by its very nature news media is tested every single day, with every single news report it issues, it can’t be: stories necessarily develop over time, new facts regularly emerge to supplant the old, and self-correcting mechanisms are an intrinsic part of the process, thereby confirming the necessary incompleteness of any one day’s product, no matter how thoroughly researched or reasonably presented. No, there is no resting on one’s laurels in an organization constantly tasked with proving itself anew, and so the measure of good media has to be based more on its commitment to that process itself. How tireless is it? How well does it resist complacency, revisit entrenched internal biases, question assumptions, and respond to outside criticism? Good journalism is fallible; but good journalism also knows how fallible it is, and strives very hard to account for subsequent lapses. And when good journalists internalize this state of constant questioning, this aversion to complacency, they can fight even the most aggressive of pressures to the contrary.

In 2001, for instance, CanWest Global Communications tried to impose a national editorial in its constituent papers — the same editorial, written at CanWest headquarters, for papers all across Canada. Its inclusion would be mandatory, and while local op-ed pieces would still be accepted, they were not allowed to contradict the opinions expressed in the corporate editorial. In the name of maintaining an open forum for public debate, reporters and editors resisted: they went on a byline strike and raised public awareness — especially when a spate of CanWest firings were tied to similar attempts at curtailing different opinions and approaches to the news (with criticism of the Liberal Party and pro-Palestinian comments proving especially dangerous for CanWest staff).

The CanWest corporation embodies a series of on-going problems for Canadian journalists, but at least where corporate editorials are concerned, journalists can — for the moment — claim victory: CanWest dropped that intended policy the moment public pressure became too much. But here, too, there is no such thing as a “perfect” victory: the freedom of the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, must be tested and affirmed on a regular and rigorous basis. This is where media criticism comes in — journalism’s answer to the ancient question, “Who will watch the watchers?”

I can’t say for certain that media organizations would have suffered fewer newsroom cutbacks, or that corporate owners wouldn’t have interfered as much with their editorial decisions, if there had been a more entrenched culture of media criticism in the early 1990s. But to have someone keeping tabs on other organizations, and teaching readers to keep tabs too — this, to me, is a crucial part of journalism’s internal, self-correcting mechanisms, and one I hope very much to participate in throughout my life.

It is also one that has flourished, oddly enough, in its own absence. When mainstream publications proved unable to provide this public service, the public — settling very easily, and very prominently, into the age of New Media — began supplying this service on their own. Now, in 2008, we see military blogs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rivaling information released through standard channels; the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report heading a broad spectrum of “Second Gen” blog aggregate sites (ones which, unlike Digg or Redditt, have an editorial team setting the front page content); and the Talking Points Memo especially empowering citizens by showing how public pressure can, in fact, improve political accountability.

Whether or not journalists within mainstream publications are ready, the realm of discourse has broadened, and readers today are far from their passive cousins of yesteryear. To this end, the role of traditional journalism is still changing — still being “re-branded” — but not in any way that really lies outside of its original precepts. Journalism has always been something taken day-by-day — something that requires regular adaptation, and constant self-correction. And so long as Canadian journalists are willing to avail themselves to the new demands and needs of our population — and especially to acknowledge and make up for the lack of entrenched media criticism within its walls — we’ll never be perfect, but at least we’ll be far more likely never to forget that fact.