a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Williams trial will affect information we receive

No, this blog is not another reminder of the horrific crimes of Russell Williams. So relax.

But just as Williams will be a case study of the evil of which human beings are capable, the way his sentencing was covered by the media will be a case study of its own.

The sentencing represents the first major court case in Canada in which reporters were allowed to cover every detail on Twitter, 140 characters at a time.

Every time there was a lurid detail of Williams’ crimes, a roomful of Tweeting reporters was there to alert the outside world – so much so that visitors to the Twitter site started asking for a halt within hours.

There is no point in worrying about how Tweets and other social media may or may not corrupt journalism. They will be affecting how the media report what we see and hear from now on.

In my experience – I first started writing for a living in the 1970s -- any new communications technology affects how the news is reported.

Computer keyboards meant journalists could write up to deadline. Videotape meant video could be on the air in minutes and so on. Technology affects how we are informed about our society.

What has not changed – and probably never will – is the media’s love for being first to report the news. Speed too often trumps accuracy, context or comprehension.

Believe or not, there was a time not too long ago when reporters could provide thoughtful coverage that gave their audience clear reasons why their stories were important.

How is a roomful of journalists constantly tweeting information supposed to supply context and perspective to Canadians?

Let’s hope the media come up with a way to compensate for what will no longer fit into Twitter journalism.

One thing is already apparent. Reporters rushing out Tweets will now be deciding on the spot what we see and hear instead of the editors back at the office. That means sound editorial judgment will often be missing from the product we receive – at least until the next technological development comes along.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to spin and how not to

If there were an Olympic gold medal for political spin doctoring, Reinaldo Sepulveda would win it hands down.

So who is Reinaldo Sepulveda? He is media director for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. But most importantly, he is the person who assembled eight cameras with 55 technicians and media from all over the world at a remote mine site in the Atacama Desert in Chile for a drama that enthralled an entire planet.

About a billion people were watching live last week when 33 miners were hauled up one by one at the San Jose mining site in an operation that will likely set the gold standard for mining industry rescues for many years.

The operation will also be a case study for governments around the world on how to turn a potential political disaster into what will probably be a vote getter for Chile’s media-savvy president. Pinera is also the former owner of TV channel Chilevision.

When the miners were trapped Aug. 5, there was potential for disastrous consequences for any government. Safety had been an issue at the mine and the owners were not exactly forthcoming with details on what happened.

Pinera decided to put together a media spectacle thanks to Sepulveda’s three decades as a television producer with experience at several Olympics and World Cup soccer matches.

The Chilean government took incredible risks by showing the miners underground on a day-to-day basis and of course the long recovery operation. But it also did a good job of managing people’s expectations by announcing early it may take until Christmas to rescue the miners 700 metres below the surface.

Contrast this with the way BP handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP kept building up people expectations only to announce a litany of failures.

Safety and other nasty issues are bound to come up in the aftermath of the San Jose disaster. But nothing can dilute the world’s initial memories of that dramatic rescue operation.

We likely will see more governments stage managing disaster relief operations after this one.

Any bets that Canada will be one of those governments?

We are not likely to forget the way the Harper government controlled the damage of losing a seat on the UN Security Council last week.

Since we all knew Canada faced a tough vote, you’d think Ottawa would have had a carefully-crafted cover story in reserve just in case we lost.

But the best Ottawa could do was try to blame everything on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff – sort of like the dog ate my homework. The Harper government’s lack of strategy is very telling.

Maybe the Prime Minister’s Office should dip into the contingency fund to send its chief spindoctor, Dimitri Soudas, to Santiago to study how real professional communicators take the high road.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Like Trudeau, Harper the man we love to hate

Their admirers may be far apart. But Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau now have something in common.

With the publication of Harperland by journalist Lawrence Martin, Harper’s personality will likely become a dominant issue in Canadian politics. Much the same thing happened with publication of Shrug: Trudeau in Power by the late Walter Stewart in 1971.

Stewart’s book, published three years after Trudeau was elected in 1968, served to validate all those who said he was arrogant and disconnected from most Canadians. In fact, Stewart’s book likely was a contributing factor in the 1972 election, which reduced Trudeau’s huge majority to a minority government.

Martin’s just-published book likely will publicly brand Harper once and for all as a secretive control freak four years after taking office.

But before Harper’s many critics get too smug, they should be mindful of one thing. Trudeau may have been permanently cast as arrogant and aloof. But he was still our prime minister from 1968 to 1979, and then, after a nine-month hiatus, from 1980 to 1984.

Those who attacked Trudeau’s personality may have helped keep him in power.

There is something in human nature that is attracted to a domineering, take-charge leader. Trudeau owned that franchise in his day. Harper appears to now.

Robert Stanfield may now be remembered as the greatest prime minister we never had. But in his years as Trudeau’s chief opponent, he was derided much in the way Michael Ignatieff is now.

No one could accuse Harper of being charismatic like Trudeau. As a result, Harper may not dominate our national psyche quite as Trudeau did.

Trudeau was swept into office by the then-emerging and idealistic baby boomer vote, fed up by years of minority government. He was also kept in power by the baby boomers.

Harper crept into office, helped by an angry, aging and fading baby boomer vote.

With this difference in demographic scenarios, Harper could be swept out of office by the children of the baby boomers, should they become just as fed up with minority government.

But at this point, that is just another maybe scenario.

Harper may never win a majority. But he will be tough to dislodge just the same.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The return of gotcha journalism

Just as the political landscape goes through changes, so does journalism. Right now we seem to be witnessing a return to the journalism of the Mulroney years.

So-called gotcha journalism is a particularly aggressive type of reporting that plagues a government when the media collectively decide to join the opposition. Every decision of a government is scrutinized for any appearance of malfeasance, favourtism or conflict of interest.

Gotcha journalism is based on true information. But it also implies a lot and invites its audiences to draw a lot of inferences.

A case in point is a story in Monday’s Hill Times by veteran reporter Tim Naumetz. The HT reported that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s new chief of staff, was until last week a director of aviation company Hawker Beechcraft. Hawker Beechcraft partners with Lockheed Martin in supplying the U.S. military with a precision war and reconnaissance plane, the AT-6.

The parent company of Hawker Beechcraft is Onex Corp., Wright’s former employer.

According to the article, Hawker Beechcraft also makes a .50-caliber cannon used in Lockheed’s F-35 stealth fighter. Canada is buying 65 of these Lockheed fighters.

Several media outlets have reported that Wright will be returning to Onex in a couple of years. In addition, he still owned about $2 million in company stock as of last week.

The HT quotes New Democrat MP Pat Martin as saying Wright’s connection with Onex ``doesn’t pass the smell test.’’ Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc said the connection feeds people’s cynicism about Ottawa’s decision to buy the F-35s without a formal tendering system.

He is probably right even though no one has established any direct connection between Wright and Lockheed.

The story does not directly state that Wright’s directorship had any influence in the selection of the F-35 by Ottawa. What it does do is imply that there is a connection.

The media and the public are suspicious about the current federal government. We can expect many more stories that imply almost as much as they report.

Before you get all huffy about the media, just remember that a government that practises gotcha politics on its opponents brings this type of reporting on itself. Why wouldn’t nasty politics spawn nasty journalism?

In addition, the current government has not exactly been forthcoming with the media.

Gotcha-style journalism is validated in many people’s minds when the government gets caught fudging the truth. Remember the census issue when Industry Minister Tony Clement implied Statistics Canada supported the decision to get rid of the long-form census?

This style of journalism is something that comes and goes as it did when the Mulroney government left office. But expect more of it as long as the current government remains in office.