Reading Words and Naming Names

pile of newspapers

Anecdotal evidence used as fact only causes trouble. I like dark roast coffee. My husband likes dark roast coffee, as do a couple of our friends. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that most people like dark roast coffee. However, that’s the kind of weak country-club polling that some people draw their steadfast conclusions from. 

A recently retired broadcaster often mentioned the newspaper obits on the air. He loved to hold the actual paper in his hand and read it over breakfast. Nothing wrong with that. But a) our radio station is a media competitor to that paper and b) our target audience, by and large, doesn’t share his preference. This is based on evidence, not assumption.

One morning, I couldn’t take it anymore. When he said all of media owes the family of a recently departed Londoner an apology because one man’s obituary’s font was smaller than the rest in the section, I shot back, “I’m not sorry!  It has NOTHING to do with me!”. The newspaper needed to own its mistake and not anyone else in media. We are not all one big blob, in fact, we are in a fight against each other for survival. Proof is in the recent closures of more small-town papers.  Last week, The London Free Press’s front section was literally one thin page, wrapped around the National Post. That’s not the fault of the paper’s excellent journalists. I know all about trying to do my best work within an almost untenable corporate framework based solely on revenues, not on turning out a quality product.

The free press

A new research project aimed to find out what Canadians thought of online newspaper paywalls but it also revealed other fascinating facts. Fewer than one-in-ten Canadians will pay for a newspaper anymore. And if the online version of a paper puts up a paywall, as the Toronto Star has recently done, Canadians will find a work-around in order to get their news for free. The Star conducts its own, fascinating investigations – rare for newspapers anymore – but people are perfectly willing to live without knowing about them. After all, news used to be free, right?

Ironically, according to the research, more of us are likely to purchase a local newspaper, the same outlets that are being slashed and shuttered. The survey also found solid support for the federal government to invest $50-million in independent organizations that support local journalism. (In other words, screw you Paul Godfrey and other media executives who line their pockets with bonuses while decimating the industry.)

The US President, and now the Ontario Premier, aren’t helping anyone. Their constant misuse of the term “fake news” for any story they don’t happen to like, or is critical of them, is eroding trust in journalism.  A segment of the population gets its “news” from crap sites like Doug Ford’s own propaganda machine or – heaven help us – Alex Jones’s Infowars. (Some of that crackpot’s videos have recently been taken off Spotify, Facebook and YouTube for violating their hate policies. But he’s capitalizing on a growing mistrust of mainstream media, promoted by the Crackpot in Chief.)

Judgment day

The appetite for salacious details in news, possibly because of the blurred lines between news and commentary, is as big as ever. News outlets track website clicks and know what people are reading – crime literally pays. A researcher at Western University (along with one from Pittsburgh) looked at the reasons why media outlets name the names of those charged, but not yet convicted, of crimes. It’s common practice in North America. In fact, journalists will find out all they can about someone charged with a serious crime: are they married, employed, known to police? How are they described by neighbours, friends and family?

It’s not handled that way everywhere else. They found a very different approach in parts of Europe:

In Sweden and Holland, for instance, journalists usually choose not to name or divulge any details concerning the accused or the convicted person – not because it’s the law, but because they want to protect innocent family members and ensure the accused’s presumption of innocence.

Here in North America, we tend to name the accused – with exceptions – and the study has found that it’s mainly because of a drive for ratings. As I mentioned, it’s a literal fight for survival in the news business. In countries where the name is suppressed, it’s because of a prevailing belief that the accused has a better opportunity to turn their life around and get a second chance if everyone doesn’t know who they are.

News coverage has evolved this way and it varies from newsroom to newsroom, even within the same company. In one, we didn’t name the accused if the case wasn’t big enough for us to send a reporter to their trial. The thinking: don’t name them as a possible guilty party if we’re not going to name them if they’re acquitted. Another News Director wanted us to use only the names of those charged with major crimes; serial killers, murderers, major swindlers. The idea there was public safety; people had a right to know.

North American news media also use the cover-your-butt word ‘alleged’ when naming a suspect. It’s the get-out-of-getting-sued card that’s misused as often as it’s used. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a reporter say the crime was alleged, but the accused actually did it, instead of the other way around. If I did, I’d be sipping a near-beer, looking at calm, blue water right now.

People confuse critical thinking with cynicism and they’re not the same thing. We need more critical thinking and less cynicism. A cynic thinks they automatically know the facts. The critical thinker doesn’t automatically know, but aims to find out. That’s what journalists do and that’s what corporations and politicians are killing off. It worries me that many people readily accept a “news” outlet paid for by tax dollars and written by staff of the Premier. That’s not bringing us the truth. It’s destroying it.


2 thoughts on “Reading Words and Naming Names”

  1. Good heavens, what a brilliant piece of writing. You’ve nailed so many elements to being in media – in Canada as well as the US – and the massive wool-pulling that is occurring daily. A Canadaland story in June connected the dots between the National Enquirer’s David Pecker and Godfrey’s Postmedia board of directors (Pecker attends their board meetings). Of course Pecker is a friend of Trump (or has been – famously quashing a story about Trump squeeze and Playmate Karen McDougal). It all sounds so fantastic, but in these days of lies and deception from the very top on down, what isn’t? Here’s a link to that story and basically why the Toronto Sun (to name one) will always be slightly to the right of Attila the Hun:
    It’s all Godfrey and all money. And we’re going down the same infinite hateful rabbit hole as our neighbo(u)rs to the south. Heaven help us.

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