The 24/7 news cycle has created intense pressure to get the news first, sometimes at the expense of getting it right.
For two full days, “Chi chi chi! Le le le!” was chanted around the world. The heroic rescue of the 33 Chilean miners in October was without a doubt one of the biggest news events of 2010. It will also be remembered as the best planned, directed and controlled media operation of the year. The authorities turned a potential tragedy into a big good-news story. But does anyone remember the name of San Estaban, the mining company?
President Sebastián Piñera — the media-savvy former owner of the Chilevision TV network — hired an experienced TV director and 45 people who were tasked to produce the event with eight cameras. They had sole access to restricted areas — including inside the cavern where the men were trapped, supplying constant live feeds of incredible shots for use by foreign media. In essence they were the pool, but the pool coverage was the only visuals of the event. The miners came out with clean clothes, freshly shaved, wearing trendy sunglasses. Piñera made sure those were the images the world would see. He reportedly ordered officials not to show shots of miners in poor physical condition.
Access was limited, from the mine area to the hospital. Even an army of 1,500 reporters could not get much information about the real state of the miners’ health. The BBC spent over $200,000 with as many as 26 staff on location. But the British viewers got exactly the same pictures and account of the events as did Canadians, Americans and over a billion other viewers worldwide.
This was a huge victory from a public relations point of view, but the risks were high and it could have turned into a total disaster if the rescue mission had failed. But what failed, perhaps, is journalism. In fairness, this was such a compelling human story. How could the media — at that very moment — dare question the Chilean government and its inspection agency, which is now being sued along with the mine owners? We collectively were so drawn into the drama, conscious the viewers were riveted to their screens and, yes, so happy to get ratings and readership that we may in retrospect wish we had exposed more thoroughly the obvious attempt by the Chilean government to manipulate the media and the message. For hours and days we were trapped, too, but unlike the miners, we could get out.
The authenticity of the moment when the miners were coming out one by one made their story appealing and real to the public. No one, including the media, wanted to spoil the moment. There was, above all, the hope the miners would make it out alive. And that’s what made showing every minute of this event “live” a smart strategy. You can be sure that without such control, the cameras would not have shown such a flattering picture and it would have been easier to portray the real story: the serious depression among some men, and the growing anger in Chile over the reckless behaviour of the mining company, San Esteban. The record shows that the mining company was at fault on several counts: it delayed reporting the accident, had violated several security measures and hadn’t paid social security for the miners, according to complaints. The San Josémine had a record of 80 accidents. In 2006, 182 workers were injured, and the mine was closed in 2007 after a rock explosion caused the death of a geologist.
This story highlights all the challenges facing news organizations today.
The bad news first. You walk into a newsroom these days, and a lot of people are packing boxes. Some have chosen or agreed to retire, others are changing desks and moving closer to one another to accommodate the new concept of integration. Hires are rare and we are all trying to do more with less. In other words, the newsrooms are shrinking. More succinctly, the world of reportorial journalism is shrinking.
News organizations are integrating all their media services or platforms into one single assignment process. Television, radio, newspapers and their online and other digital platforms are all sharing content. This process is a major and very complex cultural change. There is enormous pressure for journalists to adapt quickly, learn new skills and increase their performance in an era of cuts, incessant changes and new expectations. Some see it as an opportunity, others as a struggle. The pressure is intense, too, for managers who are trying to hold to a steady course when the ground is shifting beneath their feet. There is no doubt that journalism is at a transformational moment.
For one thing, there is no such a thing as a news cycle anymore. Internet, cellphones, the social and cable networks have created constant access to news whenever and wherever the public wants it. This, in turn, has changed the focus of journalism from filing once a day to getting information out immediately. With so much space and time to fill, the demand to feed the beast is intense. In today’s increasingly competitive market, many believe the faster the news is out, the better. Being first has become an important part of the strategy.
In that context, time to gather the news has shrunk, too. All too frequently, journalists report sketchy and incomplete news. The pressure to be first, and to try to make sense of it, often gets in the way of gathering facts. And it is not only being first, but continuously updating the developing story. There is often more analysis and assessment of the news than reporting of facts and reality checks.
You walk into a newsroom these days, and a lot of people are packing boxes. Some have chosen or agreed to retire, others are changing desks and moving closer to one another to accommodate the new concept of integration. Hires are rare and we are all trying to do more with less. In other words, the newsrooms are shrinking.
So wrong information does get on the news. Back in September, a reputable news organization announced that Pat Burns, the former Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins hockey coach, had died of cancer. As soon as a cable network reported it, it took on a life of its own, thanks to Twitter. The “news” spread at amazing speed and got picked up online and by many other media outlets. It took almost an hour for the erroneous story to be corrected and killed. Sadly, Pat Burns did pass away two months later. The mistakes are not often so serious, but they are nonetheless mistakes. A few months ago, one Quebec pundit announced on the air that
Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was resigning, notwithstanding the fact that he had just been re-elected in November 2009. Immediately, the “news” became instant commentary, analysis and speculation and was repeated until it was found out it was not true.
Reportorial journalism is shrinking, but the commentary, opinion and discussion aspects of the media are not. In fact, we are in a state of information overload. But what seems now to be considered journalism, or at least part of it, is in fact not submitted to the same rules of ethics, standards and practices. This confusion of the genre has had many impacts.
Media organizations are trying to differentiate themselves, be distinctive and so strengthen their brands. One of the ways to succeed is by getting new information and scoops and setting the news agenda. Although there are legitimate scoops and big breaking news stories, many are hyped way beyond their real importance or impact. In today’s cutthroat environment, it is crucial to deliver what we promised. To overstate the value of “exclusive” jeopardizes an already fragile public trust.
But the media industry is pushing the limits for another very serious reason. It is in a panic mode in the face of economic loss and uncertainty. The collapse of ad revenues, the availability of free news online and the state of the economy have created a perfect storm, making it almost impossible to keep or invest in resources. Add to this an unprecedented competition and the ongoing technology advancement, and it’s no wonder some are even giving away their newspapers on weekends.
The problem is that no one really knows what lies ahead. Many are still skeptical about the prospect that advertising will support quality journalism on the web. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism in 2009: “It is now all but settled that advertising revenue — the model that financed journalism in the last century — will be inadequate to do so in this one.” And in 2010 there has been little evidence that journalism online has found a sustaining revenue model. A new survey, released by the Pew Research Center, finds that 79 percent of American online news consumers say they rarely if ever have clicked on an online ad. The CNN director of marketing for Europe told me that we are all losing control over our content and therefore the way to monetize it. Once it is out there, it becomes everyone’s property. At the convention of international broadcasters in Athens in November, there was a broad consensus that we are still at the experimental stage, with the realization that it will take a lot of imagination to match the revenues lost and the cost of transforming the industry.
With this pressure and the numerous challenges facing the industry, is the quality of journalism at risk? Many people think so. The media are often criticized for oversimplifying information. A study by the Institute of Research of the University of Zurich published in August 2010 found that the news in that country has been dumbed down. The authors note an increase of media with lower journalism credentials: “We have lost the professional journalism competence, the media are looking for the emotional and event driven news to the detriment of more complex news stories essential to the understanding of our society.” The Canadian Media Research Consortium concluded in its 2008 survey on the credibility gap that cynicism is increasing among news users. Almost half of those who have little interest in news think news media often fail to get their facts straight and nearly two-thirds of Canadians believe that the news media even cover up their mistakes. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 72 percent of Americans, for their part, now feel most news sources are biased in their coverage.
Some decisions may seem that way. Mikkel Hertz, the head of TV2 Channel Denmark, acknowledged that its coverage of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference was more about the demonstrators and the status of the negotiations than about the political process and policy discussions. In his words, “We care about substance, but we needed to get the attention.” And getting the attention is more and more difficult.
We have now come full circle. With the world of information opened up to a larger public, the line between journalism and opinions or comments has been blurred. As well, the quest for more audience has favoured form over content. Consequently, journalism has been confused and confusing.
Now, the good news. Looking ahead, there are some options. And those options are based on a fundamental value: trust. Trust of the citizen toward the media, trust between the political and other institutions and the media, and trust among the news organizations themselves. That trust can exist and be built only through new and true partnerships.
Content used to be king. Now, the audience is king. And trust of the media is at a low point. According to a Gallup Poll from last August, not even 25 percent of Americans trust or somewhat trust journalists. It is not just in the United States. That serious lack of trust also exists in Canada. We must urgently address the trust deficit.
There are three kinds of partnership the media can nurture with the audience.
First, reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative.
One rich source of information comes from the social networks. There are millions of conversations happening between citizens and communities in the world through social media. The digital environment brings choices and content. The technologies are facilitating the work of journalists by giving them the chance to create connections, listen and interact with the largest audience they could ever reach. This is an opportunity the news organizations cannot miss.
In fact, reporting is more and more shared by both professionals and amateurs. One concept that is getting more attention is collaboration of old media and citizens in what some call a “proam” model for news. Citizens take up reporting and researching duties in partnership with experienced journalists. There are many highly regarded sites such as Talking Points Memo, ProPublica, Kaiser Health News and Global Post.
In the meantime, most news organizations — new or old — are becoming niche operations, more specific in focus, brand and appeal. The professional/consumer model is a result of this new trend. A news organization offers a higher rate of depth reporting or highquality information, such as the Wall Street Journal Professional Edition.
The upside is that it’s a way to monetize content. The downside is that it creates an information divide and a two-tier system between the masses who cannot pay and the elite who can afford to be better informed. The second way to involve the public is by being authentic and bringing the news in a transparent and honest way. The authenticity of moments such as the Chilean miners making it alive or the Russell Williams confession showed the real story without any filter. You could make your own judgment on the value of each event and its meaning.
The third way of building trust with the public is to practise the journalism we learned and make the people in power accountable. The media can have an impact on people’s lives and often policy-makers react or make a decision once a story is brought to light. In this era of information overload, we have to do a better job at highlighting the quality journalism that does exist.
Making people in power accountable is becoming harder as the trust, the transparency and the access have quite diminished. Barack Obama held one news conference in seven months in 2009 and then, even after the New York Times and the Washington Post published pieces pointing this out, his next appearance was nearly a year later. Instead the White House has been increasingly using the online media, social networks, blogs and Twitter to break news and to broadcast its own video Q&A sessions, moderated by government employees, on its own websites.
The present Canadian government seems to have modelled its relations with the media much the same way and gone even further. It is no secret that journalists have had restricted access to the PM and officials since the present government came into power in 2006. At the same time, new technologies make it easier for newsmakers to control the message and influence the first impression received by the public. As journalists are spending more time on air or writing updates of news events, they have less time to analyze and contextualize press conferences and press releases. Those releases are sometimes being published or making it onto air verbatim.
The tight economic state of the media in Canada has also forced the news organizations to share content on coverage of the Prime Minister’s trips. The television media are even more limited as they share one or two cameras among all networks. They rarely can go off script. Unless the media decide not to cover the trip or do it in a different way, you are most likely to see the same pictures and the same story from one network to the other, much as you saw the same visuals of the rescue of the Chilean miners. In the US, the reckoning has been even worse. Newsweek, for instance, has even left the White House photo pool, and relies increasingly on White House photos.
There is no doubt that the ability of the press to report properly on government business has been jeopardized.
We are at the point where a better understanding of each other’s reality is crucial. It is quite true that policy-making and decision-making are complex and can not often be described in a black or white manner. It is complicated and there are nuances that journalists need to take into account.
Both have an important role in a democracy. Policy-makers are expected to be open and honest about the issues and the solutions, take responsibility for their decisions and be held accountable. The journalist’s job is to inform, to get the facts in the most objective, fair and balanced way and to hold those in positions of authority to account. There is a continuous struggle for control of the agenda, but both institutions are accountable to democracy.
The world is facing serious issues and so is Canada. For many, the Mulroney years of debating free trade, the GST and Meech Lake were challenging. There seems to be an absence of projet de société and a lack of substance from a public policy viewpoint. But there is no lack of pressing issues such as the fragile state of our economy, health care and pension reforms. We ought to tackle them in a constructive way for the benefit of Canadians.
There is a need to restore respect for each other but there is also a need for the media to pull together, identify the most pressing issues facing our industry and help each other in finding solutions. We are in a competitive market, but we are weaker isolated than we are working collectively. A partnership on matters of high-quality journalism will help us maintain that goal and raise the bar in terms of standards. A partnership will be even more important within each news organization. Staff and management will benefit from working closely together, so they find ways to adapt to the changes while keeping the focus on journalism.
Journalism should contribute to the mutual understanding of our society by being inclusive but rigourous. Maintaining quality journalism will be the biggest challenge, as the industry keeps transforming at a fast pace.