Monday, June 27, 2016

Who Watches The Watchers (Part One)

The issue of what journalism is today and whether traditional journalists have any justification in their attacks on bloggers, resulted in researching an extensive amount of material and necessitated separating this article into two parts.

The battle lines between journalists and bloggers had been drawn years ago, and most of the salvos have been fired by journalists. On February 17th 2016, Grant LaFleche, a reporter with The Standard, a Postmedia owned newspaper in St. Catharines, Ontario, presented an article 'Why do you need a community newspaper' in their opinion column. Throughout this self-aggrandizing, opinion piece LaFleche raises what he calls his “craft” to new heights, and then drops this: “Blogging gives anyone with an Internet connection a voice. However, with only a few exceptions, blogging isn't journalism. Bloggers aren't doing interviews or poring over government and scientific reports, they aren't doing the kind of investigative work journalists do every day.”

It appears now 'journalist' LaFleche has found a way to delineate the line between journalists and bloggers, with a chorus of ra-ras from his peers as background music. Yet the truth is something these backslappers prefer not to see. On February 18th 2016, Neil Macdonald of CBC News wrote an article titled 'The Rebel and the NDP, why not to provoke Ezra Levant', with a by-line, “Thanks Rachel Notley, for helping define what journalists are, or maybe aren't?” After February 18th Neil Macdonald maybe sits alone at the local journo-watering hole.

This article opens up with, “Journalists entertain all sorts of self-aggrandizing notions about what we do. The big one is that we are a profession, which we pretty clearly are not. We don't even really qualify as a trade. Professions generally have minimum qualifications. Not a journalist. Journalists don't even have to finish high school.” Now if a blogger had said this he or she would have UNIFOR and the whole chorus line attack with threats of lawsuits and demands for withdrawal with apologies, but this is Neil Macdonald.

Who is Neil Macdonald? Macdonald is a senior correspondent for CBC News currently based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent 5 years reporting from the Middle East. He often presents articles with courage and hard facts rather than a 'yes master' attitude.

He goes on to say, “If lawyers or doctors or pharmacists breach the clear ethical rules governing them, they can be formally charged and punished by their peers. But regulating journalism? Out of the question, for the sake of democracy itself, my peers would argue. There are no national journalistic standards and no way to enforce them if they existed.”

Newspapers, and the journalists who write for them, are facing a new world and it's not only because of what Neil Macdonald has raised in his article. The general public is becoming harder to fool. The Internet has provided many more sources of information which too often expose the lacking ethics and integrity of published stories in traditional press, or those presented on television.

At the same time traditional media faces a populace that demands ease of access to information without limitation on choice. The Canadian Daily Newspaper Circulation report provided figures for a total weekly circulation for 2009 at 36,987,591 with that total dropping to 31,765,434 in 2014. In response to the decline in sales of newspapers, Postmedia, a giant in the newspaper business, cut 90 jobs, combining newsrooms in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

In 2013 La Presse launched its unique tablet edition, La Presse+, and in January 2016 it was the first major daily newspaper in the world to end weekday print editions. Guy Crevier, publisher of La Presse has said, “This project was a solution to transform our declining business into a growing one. La Presse+ has known constant substantial growth for almost three years now, while most traditional press is declining” (La Presse successful shift away from print, Marianne Bouchart, 17 February 2016 on GEN-GLOBAL EDITORS NETWORK). Tablet users had accepted La Presse+ well, providing a daily circulation at an average of 250,000; prior peaks in its long 131 year history were in 1971 with 221,250 copies, and later in 2009 with 207,769 copies. The decision to end daily print editions was simple logic.

Traditional press has found the ground beneath its feet being pulled out from under it, and unless it finds a way to float, to hover through the limitless boundaries of the Internet, it will disappear altogether. Big city newspapers can combine newsrooms, cut staffing and take other measures to streamline costs, but not the smaller ones. The Guelph Mercury was facing this encroaching modern world and had no choice but to stop the presses and shut its doors. Started in 1854, it was one of the country's oldest newspapers, but age cannot stand against the tide of change and survive without the willingness to adapt.

Yet it is not only traditional press that face huge challenges in the future. Magazines are feeling equal pressure regardless of how glossy or stylish they may be. Some try and send out free subscriptions to a select number of the public, in the hope this fire sale attitude works. Others offer large incentives for online subscribers, which normally is more attractive. Canada Post also has felt the growing pressure of the digital world. Deepak Chopra, its President & CEO, opened their Annual Report of 2014 with his president's message, a warning in many ways. He said, “The unprecedented volume decline of lettermail places enormous pressures on our finances.” Like any large corporation, Canada Post hit its workers first in its attempt at streamlining, setting up a system of community mailboxes and cutting out door-to-door deliveries. Executives rarely feel the pinch.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority Factbook for 2014 states, “Canada continues to be one of the most wired countries in the world with nearly 87 percent of Canadian households connected to the Internet. Canada ranks 16th globally in terms of Internet penetration in 2013. This is up from 80 percent in 2010. Among its G8 counterparts, Canada ranks second in Internet penetration behind the UK.”

How much more proof is needed that the public's demand for information and its availability is changing alongside with the methods of communication? Yet journalists still choose to denigrate bloggers with labels, herding all bloggers into one corral. One of the old boys of journalism, Morely Safer, had said that he would trust citizen journalists as much as citizen surgeons. Safer had no formal training in journalism, in fact he only briefly attended the University of Western Ontario. Safer's experience is exactly that – experience, gathered through years of reporting and learning 'on the go'. No one can deny the value and richness of his work, yet that does not provide the right to attack others without foundation.

Tim Knight, another ol' boy who wrote an article for Huffington Post titled Watching the Watchdog: Why Citizen Bloggers Aren't Journalists. He opens his article with, “Seems I've suddenly become a journalism guru to whom young people with stars in their eyes and All The President's Men in their future's flock for wisdom.” Can anyone read these words and keep a straight face, other than Tim Knight?

Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of The Intercept is a journalist, a constitutional lawyer and an author of four New York Times bestselling books on politics and law. His two co-founding editors are Laura Poitras, a filmmaker, journalist and artist, and Jeremy Seahill, who is an investigative reporter and war correspondent. On January 28th 2015 The Intercept published an article by Glenn Greenwald titled The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists. Even though The Intercept deals predominately with socio-political issues relevant to the US, the commentary in this article easily transcends any border or demarcation lines.

Greenwald comments on how “Prior to the advent of blogs, establishment journalists were largely immunised even from hearing criticisms.” Can this in any way explain the motivation behind the vitriolic sentiment of traditional journalists towards bloggers?

Here in Canada that sentiment is somewhat more passive, sprinkled with rose-coloured water. Traditional journalists attempt to sell the virtues of journalism opposed to what bloggers lack in their posts. After all 'real' journalists do research, pore over government and scientific reports, and conduct interviews to present insightful and truthful reports. At the same time bloggers in Canada have rarely attacked or even commented on traditional journalists, until now.

In his article Glenn Greenwald continues, “What made the indignity so much worse was that the attacks came from people these journalists regard as nobodies: just average people, non-journalists, sometimes even anonymous ones. What right did they have even to form an opinion, let alone express one? As NBC News star Brian Williams revealingly put it in 2007:
You're going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in two years.”

Whether it is the adulatory praise of The Standard's Grant LaFleche for his 'craft', or the full frontal mustard gas attack of NBC's Brian Williams, the delusions continue. The American Journalism Review, August/September 2005 Feature Journalism's Backseat Drivers, opens with “These are beleaguered times for news organisations. As if their problems with rampant ethical lapses and declining readership and viewership aren't enough, their competence and motives are being challenged by outsiders with the gall to call them out before a global audience. Journalists are in the hot seat, their feet held to the flames by citizen bloggers who believe mainstream media are no more trustworthy than the politicians and corporations they cover, that journalists themselves have become too lazy, too cloistered, too self-righteous to be the watchdogs they once were. Or even to recognise what's news.”

Ethics and trust are two simple concepts traditional journalists have lost touch with, and the general public can no longer be fooled as easily as these watchdogs of the past think. Scandals have ripped through what Grant LaFleche call his 'craft'. Brian Williams faced the moment of truth regarding his reporting of a helicopter flight and whether it was fired on, or by who. As a star of NBC News, Brian Williams found forgiveness for his misreporting and he continues to smack the airwaves. In Canada Evan Solomon, a former star of the CBC, found that providing self-serving guests for his on-air interviews was seen as less that ethical. In this case Solomon's equation of news coupled with financial profit hit the scandal sheets. Yet once again fame and connections far outlasted the potential of consequence for such breaches of ethics. The Toronto Star had one of its heavyweight reporters Antonia Zerbisias caught publishing an article where comments made by her were not entirely true. Zerbisias later admitted that she did not verify her information prior to publishing. Every new journalism student has two major rules drummed into them from almost the first lesson: verify your source and verify your facts.

True, no journalist, whether it be Morely Safer, Tim Knight, Brian Williams or even Grant Lafleche, had ever said that bloggers had no right to blog. If they had then they would have to face off against Article 19. “Article 19 is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide. It takes its mandate from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and information” (The Right to Blog, Policy Brief 2013, Article 19).

In their Policy Brief, The Right to Blog, Article 19 makes two major and extremely challenging statements. The first is from the brief's Executive Summary: “Where the printed press and broadcast media were once the main sources of information, the Internet has made it possible for any person to publish ideas, information and opinions to the entire world. In particular, blogging and social media now rival newspapers and television as dominant sources of news and information.” Then Article 19 argues that it is no longer appropriate to define journalism and journalists by reference to some recognised body of training, or affiliation with a news entity or professional body.

Dr. Axel Bruns, a senior lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and author of several books, presented a paper, News Blogs and Citizen Journalism: New Directions for e-Journalism. In it he delves into the history of mainstream journalism, bringing forth concepts of gatekeeping and gatewatching to explain the flow of news, from the input stage where information was to be considered as being newsworthy or relevant, through to the output stage as fully formed news reports. Gatewatching as described by Dr. Bruns requires the ability to retrieve and search information conducted on a decentralised and crowdsourced basis.

As intellectual theories both the gatekeeping and gatewatching concepts neatly describe the evolution of the news industry, though non-mainstream journalism, blogging, or citizen journalism, whatever you wish to call it, has resulted from a greater need. Dr. Axel Bruns finishes his paper with this thought: “For mainstream journalists, in current industry practice claims to professionalism are already highly problematic: levels of journalistic training and induction to professional ethos and ethics vary widely across and within individual news organisations, and often depend more on the process of a journalist's socialisation into the work environment than on their formal professional education. Indeed, the very term 'journalist' has been broadened to include not only core news professionals, but also commentators, hosts, and a variety of other media personalities; as news blogger and journalism scholar Glenn Reynolds has put it, 'correspondent' now often simply has a meaning of “well-paid microphone holder with good hair” (Weblogs and Journalism: Back to the Future, Glen Harlan Reynolds, 2003). As we noted earlier, at this point in the early information age, the mainstream journalistic industry overall may be experiencing a gradual decline which is at least in part of their own making and due to a slippage in professional standards.”

Whether one pays attention to this comment by Dr. Axel Bruns, or those made by Glenn Greenwald, a single major point remains clear. True, the age of the Internet as a whole has found profound impact on mainstream journalism, and no one can change what is becoming a new reality. Yet that alone is not the sole reason for journalists to be concerned over. In the end one question based in antiquity resounds – quis custodiet ipsos custodes, 'who watches the watchers'? Today the answer is simple, and that is the reason why mainstream journalists, from media stars to little wannabes, attack.

Governments and big businesses have found a way to develop a symbiotic relationship with mainstream media. Now that relationship has been shaken by individuals who do not necessarily have a desire to form alliances and in fact are considered to be insignificant compared to the traditional media organisations. Still journalists fear these individuals and look for anything to discredit their desire to question the status quo.

Whether it be Glenn Greenwald and the Intercept, or a respected journalist like Neil Macdonald, serious questions are being raised regarding the direction mainstream journalism has taken. Professionalism, it seems, is a concept which varies from one individual to the next. After all there is no real governing body to administer a code of conduct, and as Neil Macdonald said, no way to really enforce one if such a thing existed. Each media organisation has the wealth to retain legal storm troopers who are called into action if on the rare occasion one of their journalists brushes against issues of law; otherwise it has been business as usual for decades.

These egos are now facing change in the guise of bloggers and they don't like it. Unlike mainstream journalists bloggers have no alliances to appease, no giant salaries to be concerned about, they are only interested in the information to be made public. Each blogger has his or her own motivation for doing what they do, yet each shares a commonality and each wears the criticisms.

The battle lines were drawn out of egotism and fear of being challenged, of being held accountable for every word published or aired, and worse, for what was censored from the public. It is the nature of humanity to change, to evolve, and there is no stopping it. Instead of fearing this evolution journalists should look at re-evaluating what they are, and how they serve the public-at-large. Independent bloggers are not going anywhere, they will gradually reach greater numbers of readers because of their independence. Now one could ask whether there can be room at the table for both the mainstream journalist and the independent blogger building a symbiotic relationship.

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