Archives for category: Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the media coverage surrounding the verdict of Richard Kachkar.

He was found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for running down a Toronto police officer with a stolen snowplow.  I bemoaned the media coverage for failing to balance the tragedy of the death with facts about how those found to be NCR are treated by the justice system and by the mental health system.

A recent Canadian documentary from director John Kastner called NCR: Not Criminally Responsible focuses on exactly this issue, and the conclusions are that it is an appropriate and effective method of dealing with those mentally ill who have committed terrible crimes.

This review of the film, and the information provided to contextualize NCR, would have been very good to see in the media at the time of the verdict. In particular, the documentary shows how the authorities tasked with overseeing the treatment and socialization of those found to be NCR are doing a pretty good job – and how they are not being influenced by the sadly predominant school of thought that considers punishment behind bars to be all that we need.

Too bad it took a documentary to spur the kind of media coverage we should have had weeks ago. On the other hand, documentaries provide some of the best journalism and storytelling around these days.

The Star, in particular, has been busy filling in the gaps. This story, and this one, should be checked out. As well, this CP story about criticisms of the Harper government’s proposed changes to the law overseeing NCR should not be missed.

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible is playing at the Toronto Hot Docs festival.

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Part of Porter’s ad blitz

Intuition isn’t much to rely on when it comes to complex decisions, especially if those decisions are up to other people.  However, I have been hearing the same intuitive responses to Porter’s expansion plans in the weeks since they caught most of Toronto City Council off-guard. Many people I’ve asked think Porter will get their longer runways, amended noise limits, new planes and new routes — even if city council is not on board.

Porter, no doubt, is lobbying behind the scenes, and it is still attracting “supporters” of its plan through social media, although they are yet to reach 7,500 people (still a small number when you consider the potential number of Torontonians who would love to bypass Pearson and fly to Vancouver, LA or Miami from the Island). They are also continuing the ad buy that started soon after the announcement.

If you check the language at porterplans.com, it gives the impression that the proposal is going to happen (“… as we’re adding new routes,” “…our take off and approach flight paths will be over water…”), and that the debate and consideration are simply parts of the process that need to be endured.

There is something almost passive about Porter’s messaging and strategy since the announcement; something that suggests they know something we don’t – or least it appears that way. Maybe Porter is heartened by a new poll they commissioned  that suggests a majority of Toronto citizens support the expansion plans.

So, I stop and ask myself: for or against?

I’m pro-expansion, with conditions. I’m guessing that Porter’s confidence comes from the knowledge that convenience and accessibility are very, very appealing. So in thinking that this is a done deal, am I simply giving in to my own biases?

A Toronto Star story on a recent poll shows a slim majority of GTA residents reject the various taxes, fees and levies proposed to pay for the Big Move, the plan for long-term transit expansion.

No doubt there is value in a pollster asking the question, and absolutely it deserves to be covered as a story, but I honestly can’t completely trust a poll that isn’t more transparent. As a reader, I’m given the sample size, the geographic spread of the respondents and the date of the poll, but not the questions (A similar poll in late March by the same pollster generated similar results). The details of the poll are not available to the public.

Why do I consider this important?

This was an “interactive voice response telephone poll”, or IVR, which means respondents aren’t talking to a human, but a pre-recorded voice that asks them to push a button to indicate their response to specific prompts. Without knowing what exactly was asked and how the issues are defined to the respondent, it’s easy to imagine that respondents can be guided into a certain kind of response or perception.

Image: Megasat.de

IVR polls favour simple questions; it’s not the ideal method to capture opinions on complex public policy issues – such as various types of taxes and fees on everything from road use to property development to payrolls.

This is where the journalist’s job comes in. Without having the poll script dropped into the story, it is the journalist’s job to ensure the poll is not misrepresenting public opinion or not skewing opinion by presenting subjective or leading information to the respondents.

I’m not saying I don’t believe the results of the poll. And I have absolutely no reason to doubt the professionalism of Forum Research, the company that conducted the poll. But consider this: we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that tell us that taxes are bad, so it’s not hard to imagine that a robocall from a pollster asking if you want to pay more taxes for transit generates an automatic negative response.

A poll can be a quick and easy story to do, with results that make for tasty headlines. Consumers of news media should be confident that they are getting fully transparent and objective coverage of opinion polls.

I digested the media coverage of the Richard Kachkar’s sentencing with a bad taste in my mouth. Yesterday, he was found not criminally responsible for killing Toronto Police Sgt. Ryan Russell; a result that can hardly be considered surprising for those who have been paying attention to the trial.

Yet, quite a bit of the media coverage focused more on the victims’ emotional response (“no closure”, “no justice”, “Sgt. Russell deserved better”), than on explaining the practical implications of Kachkar being found not criminally responsible. While in no way wanting to deny the obvious pain Kachkar caused Russell’s family, I was hoping for media coverage that would balance the tragic perspective with some objective facts that would explain how, far from walking free, Kachkar will undoubtedly be treated by professionals in a secure psychiatric facility under the close supervision of the Ontario Review Board, and could – depending on his treatment and progress – remain in custody for quite a few years. The Board will review his status every year, and this process will determine whether he gets out and under what conditions. And, importantly, public safety is the primary consideration for the Board in determining whether people like Kachkar get released.

Ok, so this wasn’t given equal play in media coverage. So what?

I think this is important because the media coverage is enabling and shaping public perception of public safety issues and how governments respond. Specifically – and bluntly – unbalanced and superficial media coverage of public safety issues enables unbalanced and superficial public safety policy. When we get media coverage of crime that is all about victims, then the laws will reflect that.

Here’s an example of how this works: After Kachkar’s verdict was announced, Ryan’s widow Christine scrummed outside of the courthouse and made a point of mentioning her support for the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, a classic Stephen Harper piece of legislation that purports to “make our streets and communities safer,” and “ensures that not criminally responsible accused people found to be too dangerous to release are no longer a threat to their victims or Canadian communities.” In fact, it is another pointless and unhelpful bill that changes little, will impact only a handful of people and will not stop this type of tragedy from happening again. However, it will reinforce the idea that our streets are filled with danger (Stephen Harper is building new prisons while crime rates are currently at a 40-year low) and that the mentally ill are merely criminals with convenient excuses. Don’t forget that fear, ignorance and political expediency drive  Harper’s correction policy; not expert research or facts.

Less crime, more fear (Image: Canada.com)

Does this approach to public policy remind you of anything? Climate change policy? Ignoring and muzzling scientists?

I regret that people feel the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I regret that people feel that correctional policy should be built around the idea that even the mentally ill must suffer in proportion to the terrible crimes they sometime commit.

But the truth is that the process is generally fair and objective – and that is how the justice system should be. Not vengeful and emotional. Media coverage should make sure people understand that.

Radio Ford Nation (Image: National Post)

One of the first rules elected officials learn – if they don’t already know – is to not comment on any case before a court. But Rob Ford didn’t get that memo. Or he didn’t listen to the briefing. Or maybe he was driving and reading at the time. Because he called into a CFRB talk show yesterday and offered his unsolicited opinion on what should happen to Richard Kachkar, who is awaiting sentencing for killing a Toronto Police officer with a stolen snowplow. The jury is weighing whether Kachkar is criminally responsible for his actions.

Ford’s on-air comments – which are not worth repeating or even summarizing – were typical of his lack of understanding of complex issues. By the way, Ford was the only person sufficiently motivated to call in to the programme.

Is our mayor so clueless that he thinks it’s OK to make public comments on an ongoing criminal trial? Does he think that his connection with Toronto’s citizens is so strong and all-consuming that he can ignore one of the most fundamental rules of behaviour for public office-holders? Does he have any impulse control? Is there anyone who can control Ford’s outbursts?

These are questions shouted into wind. Clearly, there’s not much that can be done about our mayor. However, CFRB should think about what they can do to stop providing an open platform for Ford whenever he wants to open his mouth. I’m sure the station loves that it’s become the official voice of Ford Nation, but they should remind themselves that they have journalistic responsibilities.

If the journalists at CFRB want an example of a more robust interview with the mayor of a large city, then they should check this out.

Meanwhile – speaking of excellence in journalism – I’m going back to watching the continuing coverage of the Pandas.

So you like to stay informed on topics that matter to you. You are an active and informed citizen; you always vote and enjoy discussing issues with your friends and family. But maybe you’ve been noticing lately that – with a few exceptions – most news media are no longer providing the quality of coverage that you expect.  Stories are shorter, more homogenous, poorly researched and lacking context.  You are sick of sports, weather and traffic and you find yourself regularly yelling at the TV.

What’s a news consumer to do?

You stop consuming news, is what you do.

This is the conclusion from a study done by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. that looked at the reduction in staffing at media outlets and the consequences for news consumers (the study only covered the U.S., but the same trends are felt here in Canada).  A more visual summary of the study can be found here.

https://i2.wp.com/www.maples.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/empty-newsroom_mk_21.jpgOne of the study’s most alarming findings is how the decline in quality news coverage is affecting public awareness and debate on public policy and issues. If a newsroom can’t afford to examine or question the pronouncements of politicians, corporations and interest groups, then news consumers will not get any value from the news they consume and instead just go directly to the source. Those who are abandoning media outlets are the typical heavy news consumers: more educated, more affluent and more involved – the type of people that form a part of the foundation of public debate and engagement.  The result? Our public discourse is further impoverished. This ties back to my last post, which discussed the critical role public broadcasters can play in informing and engaging the public.

Some suggest that this view is just wrong; there has never been more content available to consumers and it has never been easier to access. I’m not sure if I share this opinion – for me the key question is whether I can get objective news on stories that are important to me from a source I trust, and not from opinionated blogs like this one.

Interestingly, the report suggests the news media have been poor at explaining newsroom budget cuts to their customers, and at linking those cuts to the quality and quantity of news. The study concludes that even those consumers who understand that newsroom cuts lead to poor news coverage are fleeing the ship. I would bet they mostly flee to alternative information sources that reflect their opinions back at them. Or, they are getting more information directly from organizations and corporations through social media.

Have newsrooms missed the story?  Have they forgotten to communicate some basic context to their audience?

Yes, they have. But it would seem as the worst type of self-indulgence – and I say this as a former journalist – to tell your audience that your budget got cut and now you have to close some foreign bureaus and rely more on wire copy.

As a news consumer, would you appreciate that?

Please stand by.

I’m a strong supporter of public broadcasting. If done right, and adequately funded, public broadcasting can inform, engage and reflect a country back to its citizens.

Without having to worry primarily about ratings – and therefore revenue – public broadcasters are focused on their mandate to offer programming in the public interest. The CBC’s mandate, for example, says that it should “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” Its programming should, among other things, “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity… be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions… and, actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression.”

There is no doubt that better-informed citizens make better-informed decisions about everything from public policy and voting to financial and lifestyle choices. Good public broadcasting helps both citizens and the rest of the news media to hold governments to account. You only have to look south of border to see the impact a weak public broadcaster has on the quality of public knowledge and political debate.

So I was quite interested in a recent article in the Globe and Mail about a study done to measure citizens’ knowledge of current affairs in six countries with strong public broadcasters. Canada, despite what you may think about the CBC, is one of the six countries. The study’s general finding is that public broadcasters have a positive impact on public knowledge.

Here’s another finding from the study cited in the article: “Canada sits somewhere in the middle range. Citizens who rely on the CBC for news score only marginally better on current-affairs indicators. The bang for your (public broadcasting) buck is much better in the U.K., Japan, and Norway. Not coincidentally, in these countries the levels of funding and independence from government are much stronger.”

So we can expect the Harper government – which prefers Canadians fearful and ignorant – to continue to cut funding to the CBC. The result will likely be the continued erosion in quality journalism and programming (overdone news coverage of the new pope, the cringeworthy Jack Layton biopic and the continuing presence of Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary being a few examples) at the public broadcaster, particularly for English TV. Well, at least we have CBC radio. I should also single out TVO for the quality of its current affairs programming.

The next post will further explore what happens when news consumers don’t like what’s on offer – from public or private broadcasters.

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Image: cbc.ca

I have yet to read, hear or see any reasonable justification of why I am subject to a barrage of news coverage on the new pope.

Of particular concern to me is the CBC, and the National (full disclosure: I worked for the National for several years as a writer), which has sent Peter Mansbridge to Rome. Why is the CBC spending newsgathering money hosting the top of the show from the Vatican? I can see the private broadcasters decamping to Rome, but this reflexive blanket coverage – “CBC News was first on the scene with coverage of this historical event!” – has no place at the public broadcaster. At the very least, host it from Toronto and save your limited budget for a real news event.

Breathless accounts of the conclave, the machinations of backroom negotiations and the devout assembled at Vatican are not relevant to me as a viewer. I could not care at all whether the guy from Quebec threw his support to the South American delegation. I am not remotely interested in vague speculation on whether the new pope will suddenly transform the Catholic Church into a service organization for the world’s poor. The media village at the Vatican? Not a story.

Tell me why the new pope is important to me. Tell me why it should matter to me. Tell me what you know about the new pope or what he will do that is relevant or different from past popes – without speculating. If not, please move on and get to some real news.