Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Breaking News! There May Not Be Any More!

I recently watched the movie Spotlight. It’s the story of a special team of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe who were tasked with looking into allegations that some Catholic priests were abusing children. The movie was not bad—the acting pretty good—and the story itself: very disturbing.

Afterwards though, I wondered if this kind of investigation into a story could even happen today. Back then, when newspapers were starting to feel real pain from a shrinking readership and advertising revenue, there still existed real newsrooms. Earlier still, there had been reporters like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, both working diligently on the Watergate story until they had all the facts. Facts that eventually resulted in the downfall of a US president.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that a television station’s newsroom by comparison is not real, but let’s face it. We’ve all heard their mantra; ‘If it bleeds—it leads’. I get that producing a daily TV news show where all of the day’s news has to be condensed into an hour (actually less when you include ads), leaves little time for in-depth reporting and even less for investigative journalism. These days a story that appears on tonight’s news will probably never be heard from again, unless it involves a trial or some aspect of it materializes again.

Newspapers on the other hand, although dealing with very real deadlines, can afford to offer a deeper look into a story as they are not forced to crunch their stories into a short time slot. There is also a great deal of flexibility to provide more background and follow-up stories which can be placed throughout the paper. Another bonus of the newspaper is what I call collateral stories. An article that catches your eye in the next column or an adjacent page that you would not have heard about otherwise.

As for radio…well, radio will probably soon be going the way of the newspapers as more and more people turn to dedicated stations, whether satellite or on-line. One local station claims that ‘if you’re reading the news, it’s history’. Maybe so but after the sound bite story on the radio, I may want to read more details about the story—all five W’s.

What brought me to this topic for my blog today was a Facebook comment posted on September 17, 2016 by the Halifax Typographical Union. The Chronicle Herald’s unionized journalists have been on strike for over eight months now with no end in sight and someone commented on the story by indicating that there are other options available for news today.

They’re not wrong. There are other options. I cringe however, every time I hear someone say they get their news from Facebook. Some of the stories posted there are accurate, although short. Others are, well, just pathetic. We have all seen ‘reports’ on Facebook that everything from cannabis oil to my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies have now been proven to cure cancer.

I will admit being amused by the Facebook ‘news’ stories placed there by the various ‘left’ and ‘right’ political hacks, all frequently ‘liked’ and shared by people who may actually plan to vote based on that information. The problem is, once a story has been shared over and over again, does it become real? How scary is that? A good litmus test for this is of course the current United States election which has posts glorifying and decrying both candidates. I am sure some of them are true, just as I am sure most of them are completely bogus. TV news is not much help clarifying the election issues with all day news channels constantly displaying a group of ‘talking heads’ vying against one another to see who can scream the loudest in favour of their particular candidate. In some ways, the only thing missing is an audience yelling Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!

With the demise of the print news media, I wonder if we are seeing the end of responsible journalism.
The Canadian Government is not ignoring the issue, while spending less on newspaper advertising in favour of the internet. There is currently a study being undertaken to look into what the changing news landscape will look like in the future. Ironically, here is a link to that story by the CBC.

That bastion of news has no concerns regarding dwindling advertising as it operates through the generous ‘donations’ of Canadian taxpayers while still pulling in advertising revenue. The concept that we could end up with only one major source of news whose funding level is determined by the government is more frightening in my mind, than not having any at all. But, as with newspapers and radio, how much longer will even the CBC survive?

Hopefully The Chronicle Herald and its reporters will soon come to an agreement. We need them both.

I have a deep concern that news as we know it will soon disappear and all we will hear are snippets and sound bites of news events, leaving our imaginations and the likes of Facebook to fill in the blanks. My heart ‘bleeds’ for today’s journalism students, but not enough for this story to ‘lead’.