Friday, February 3, 2012

Journalism's Epic Fail

One of journalism's criminal failures is well known: last year's infamous phone-hacking scandal of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World that caused its ultimate demise.

A more recent scandal is from Canada. In October 2011, Sun News, a cable "news" channel, staged a Canadian citizenship affirmation ceremony, peopled not with new citizens but with government bureaucrats standing in for them. The ceremony was not announced as a dramatization; it was presented as an actual ceremony. The occupations of the "actors" demonstrate just how supportive the channel is of the current government.

Count two failures here - the fraud of the staged ceremony and the ideologue channel masquerading as objective news media.

The truly epic fail is not those spectacular, scandalous frauds and crimes. The most damaging, sad, and epic fail of so many news media is the fraud of masquerading as objective news media.

Not all news organizations do so, and not all guilty ones do so all the time or with intent.

Examples abound, but two recent and important ones well demonstrate the point.

Toronto's Globe and Mail has just published a piece on the Sun News fraud. And while it seems to recount the circumstances objectively, the whole tone of the piece is screamingly uncritical of Sun News.  What starts out as "fraudulent" slides over into being possibly "a rookie mistake," a production of a "faux ceremony." Sun News was really just trying to be ultra Canadian. Why even the CBC does that!

The backhand swipe at the CBC may well be the real point of the piece, but that is just my speculation. The real failure here, though, is that "news" from a national, supposedly objective, news source can so blithely skim over journalistic fraud - indisputable and unsupportable fraud that needs serious comment.

The second example comes from another of Canada's national publishers.

Earlier this week, an Ontario jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder for a man, his wife and son who planned and then murdered three of the couple's other children, teenage girls who had "dishonoured" the family. They also killed the man's first wife in a polygamous marriage. Horrific!

Columnist Jonathan Kay in The National Post believes that the jury got it wrong about the mother and possibly about the father.

I am appalled that anyone admitting what Kay does about his limited knowledge of this case feels entitled to publish his opinion as somehow authoritative.

He did not attend the trial - not at all. He read about the trial in the reporting of another of The Post's writers.  Everything I found by this other writer did indeed report the facts of the trial, but in language so "loaded" that it was clear what she believed of the accused. Kay says that he has a gut feeling about the guilt and innocence of the convicted murderers.

So here we have a writer who got his information secondhand from a biased source, a fraction of the information included in the 40-day trial; he has a gut feeling about the jury's decision.

We all have our opinions.  Some are crazy, illogical, and biased. But we share them with friends and family only, or sometimes not at all.  Kay's kind of commentary shouldn't present itself as objective and authoritative. I would say to him that sometimes the little voice in the head expressing gut feelings should stay in the head!

Many journalists bemoan the intrusion of citizen journalists and uppity bloggers like me. They say we don't have the training or objectivity to get it right. But as news outlets lean more and more towards "soft," even "yellow" journalism, they shouldn't try to have it both ways.

The epic fail of journalism, for some writers and publishers, is that it has sold out, but wants to retain the appearance of objective commentary.


Hels said...


You said it all, sister! - an ideologue channel masquerading as objective news media. And presumably, as you say, very supportive of the current Canadian government.

Do you think it is just nasty right wing news media licking the bum of your nasty right wing Canadian government? I suspect that even if you had a decent left wing government in power, there would still be journalistic fraud in the right wing news media. Perhaps even more so, if the said news media want to openly attack a left wing government.

Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation Australia, has a powerful set of ideological beliefs and is determined to maintain tight control over the political line of all his papers.
Does it matter? Yes. News Ltd owns 70% of the circulation of our major newspapers.

ChrisJ said...


I think you are right - it would be even worse if we had a left-wing government. Although I'm not sure, journalistically speaking, which is worse - making the bad look better or the good look worse!

Pearl said...

there's a lot of slopping news styling. it seems to me the Epoch Times is keeping closest to ethics of journalism, if you skip the page scourging the Chinese government that the rest of the paper is a carrier for.

ChrisJ said...


I hadn't heard of them, but being the scourge of the Chinese government must run them into the odd problem at times.

Owen Gray said...

Add to those two failures the way the Bush administration hoodwinked the New York Times in the run up to the Iraq War.

When I first began teaching, Chris, we all read a book by Neil Postman and Charles Weingarten entitled, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity."

The authors recommended that every good teacher develop a set of "crap detectors."

That's good advice for everyone -- not just teachers.

ChrisJ said...


I'm going to look up that book!

Ciss B said...

For me the best in journalism is gone. We're lucky for journalists like Bill Moyers, but there are so few of his ilk around today. Those days of thoughtful, honest, journalists seem to be gone,sadly.

ChrisJ said...


I always appreciated Bill Moyers's work as well. He did a series called "the Language of Life - a series about poetry that was wonderful.

Judie said...

Journalists used to take a lot of pride in reporting "the facts" but in this age of 24 hour news reporting, and the demand of the viewers for something sensational, that pride has been replaced in a popularity contest. So sad for the world.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, sensationalism. Whitney Houston's death is a case in point. How sad - her death and the endless coverage.

Hels said...

I am not sure that crappy journalism is new.

Consider Gordon Bennett whose paper was imfamous for its chequebook/kiss-and-tell journalism (1830s). For another great example, think of Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) who sensationalised the news in the 1890s, to attract more readers. British examples would be even worse :)

ChrisJ said...


Sigh, you are right. It just seems that there are more of them proportionately.