I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Failing Journalism: Who’s to Blame?

I got another note from a CBC staffer today questioning the journalism at the Corp. Once again it points out the lack of journalistic rigor at what is supposed to be our most trusted news operation. Does this sort of thing happen all over? Yes. Way too often. But CBC News is always tooting their horn about their journalistic bona fides. They are the ones you can trust, according to them, when a big story happens. What about the small stories?

Here’s the note that came in to me:

So I came in to work today and found that the late-night and overnight journalists had written a story about the death of a 13-year-old boy – suspected to be H1N1. Turns out there’s absolutely no facts to back up the claim – just some misguided/misunderstood comments from one distraught parent. You’d think that at least one fact in the following story might be checked by a CBC journalist before rushing to publish – but I guess that is no longer a concern. I read an article recently about CNN’s over-the-top coverage of a Sept. 11 Coast Guard training exercise in Washington. The writer said online news organizations like getting the ‘double hit’ – once for the original story – once for the correction.

This is just so sad that I can’t believe I work for an organization that is this bad.

See for yourself.

(The original headline said a minor hockey player had died … what the hell does playing hockey have to do with his death? Would we have written a headline saying ‘boy scout dies’ or ‘choir member dies’?)
A 13-year-old Toronto-area minor league hockey player has reportedly died from the H1N1 virus.
Evan Frustaglio died Monday evening at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto. Evan’s family reportedly told CityNews that their son had died after falling ill with the H1N1 virus.
(Since when is CiytNews a credible source for information?)

Evan’s father, Paul Frustaglio, told the Toronto Sun the coroner’s office has confirmed his son died of the virus.

(Now we quote the Sun?)
(But the coroner’s office on Tuesday morning said it had never confirmed any such thing. The autopsy won’t be performed until sometime later on Tuesday – even then it will be almost impossible to blame a death specifically on H1N1 flu)
Evan visited a walk-in clinic Sunday after complaining of feeling ill with a sore neck and throat over the weekend, Frustraglio told the Sun.
(So it appears CBC does stories based entirely on reporting by other organizations – without ever talking to any of the principals? What shoddy and inept reporting. Is this the “new” CBC?)
The boy was sent home with a fever that appeared to be going down but was vomiting, his father said. Evan then collapsed after taking a bath on Monday and was taken to hospital, he said.

Medical officials have not yet confirmed a link between swine flu and Frustaglio’s death. It is also unclear if the boy had any other underlying medical conditions. (Hang on – didn’t the previous paragraph “confirm” that the child had died of the virus?)
‘You will be missed’ A Facebook memorial page has been set up for Evan and had more than 280 members by Tuesday morning.
Posters on the memorial page remembered Evan as a well-liked student and a skilled hockey player. “R.I.P. Evan. I’m so sorry that this happened, you will be be missed so much that it cant be expressed in words. You were a great kid,” wrote Masha Petrasinovic on the memorial page.
Evan was a right-winger with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Mississauga North Stars minor bantam AA team and played at a tournament in London over the weekend. The Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario has sent an email to parents of players from the tournament confirming the death of a 13-year-old who had been at the games on the weekend. The youth died after suffering from a high fever and bouts of unconsciousness, the email said.

Two players from the youth’s team are also being quarantined after showing swine flu-like symptoms, the email said, recommending that anyone from the tournament with similar symptoms see a doctor. North Star coach Al Reisman told the Sun that teammates are devastated by the news. Counseling is being offered to the team and some ice time has been canceled. (Really – they cancelled ice time! It must truly be devastating!)
Precautions in place.
Kim Sutherland, whose son played at the tournament on the weekend, said the death has left some hockey parents on edge.
“There is interaction at all levels of the hockey game and play out of the same complex at various times so … there is potential there for all sorts of exchanges of things,” Sutherland said. Sutherland said swine flu concerns won’t affect her family’s involvement in hockey. “This can happen anywhere. It’s among us now and we’re just going to have to deal with it — can’t bubble wrap them,” she said.
John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, told the Toronto Star precautions are already in place to combat the potential spread of the virus. “We don’t want people to over-react,” Gardner told the Star. “We will be acting responsibly and re-emphasizing all the safety measures. (Now CBC pulls quotes from the Toronto Star! Aren’t we the largest journalism organization in the country? Can’t we obtain one fact on our own?)
Vaccine available
Swine flu claimed 29 lives in Ontario, including several people in the Greater Toronto Area, during the first wave of the pandemic this spring. A Cornwall-area pre-teen girl believed to have had the H1N1 virus but no pre-existing medical condition also died in an Ottawa hospital on the weekend. The Eastern Ontario Board of Health said following the girl’s death that it is putting school-age children on its priority list for the H1N1 vaccine, which became available across most of Canada on Monday. Priority groups include individuals under the age of 65 who have chronic medical conditions, as well as pregnant women, children under the age of five and people living in First Nations or remote and isolated communities and health-care workers.

(Let’s see the CBC squirm out of this one.)

 

Okay, I’m sure most readers are going to blame the journalist. Fair enough, he or she did basically rip the story from other news sources and did not check the facts. But let’s look at what news organizations like CBC are doing. Once upon a time a reporter was responsible for one story per day on one platform. Today a reporter could be asked to do a report for CBCNN in the morning, local news at 5:30 and another story for The National. In some cases a French story and a piece for CBC Online could be part of the reporter’s day. Who has the time to do research?

 

It has been my experience that today’s young reporters are actually better prepared than the journalists I came into the business with 30 years ago. They are better educated and they know more about journalistic ethics and practices. But there are several things working against them. The most obvious is time. A TV reporter in the early 70’s shot on film. He or she would have to be back early to process the footage. That gave the reporter time to check the facts and think about the story. Now you can send a crew out at 5:00 and expect them to be on air at 6:00. The technology makes that possible. All that’s missing is time to think, edit and correct. Thus more mistakes get to air.

 

A second problem is the new youth movement on television. It was very tough to get to the national level, especially at CBC. Long apprenticeships in Regina, Sudbury and St. John’s were the norm. Getting to local news in Toronto or Vancouver was a coup. If you did a great job you could do the odd weekend or summer story for The National. Eventually, if you were terrific you got a job at The National. Today that entire process has been streamlined to get younger people on air. Experienced journalists have been shuffled off while they are still active. Why? because of the misguided idea that you can’t attract a youthful audience with 55 year-old reporters. Or is it to save money because most experienced reporters are at the top of the pay scale? Either way, people who are not quite ready for prime time are plying their trade at the highest level.

 

Then there’s the ludicrous workload I referred to earlier. You can’t ask a person to do a thoughtful, thorough job if you don’t give them the time and space to do it.

 

My fear is that most news bosses, especially at CBC, have never worked in the field for television. They have never reported for television. They have no idea what is possible and what isn’t. In the meantime, when there is a screw up it isn’t their fault. They didn’t write, produce, shoot, edit, or report the story. Take a step back. Who should be blamed for the failures of journalism today? The answer is everyone who has allowed the system to come to this.

 

By the way, for those who expected a comment on the CBC’s new launch, you will have to wait. I won’t review a show in its first week. It just isn’t fair. I’ll give them time to work out the bugs…I will say however, that I have yet to speak to anyone who liked the direction the show is going in. I appeared on a live blog at J-Source while the premiere was on and a full 70 percent of polled respondents did not like what they saw.

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3 Responses

  1. wcdixon says:

    I read this article when first posted and thought there was a lot of ‘reportedly’ and a lot of quotes from other news/TV organizations. Today’s followup is better but doesn’t excuse what went out first.

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/10/27/frustraglio-h1n1-toronto-hockey113.html

  2. Unfortunately the media has become ‘all about the money’ and how much profit can be made for the ‘bosses’ who expect their journalists to turn information around in unrealistic timeframes – it’s no longer about informing the general public.

  3. Brandon says:

    I can honestly say that there are very few News anchors on TV these days that I actually trust.

    For my money, Jon Stewart has proven to have more integrity than anyone I’ve seen on a ‘news’ broadcast. He often takes both sides of the coin to task and, most importantly, he does his research — because he genuinely cares about the words that’re coming out of his mouth.

    When I see some 20 year old sitting there with perfectly styled hair and whitened teeth telling me how the world works… it really gets under my skin.

    Oh, and yeah, I’m 29 (even tho’ I suspect I sound like Grandpa Simpson — ‘Them dangnabbit whippersnappers!’)

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