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Media deserve an F+ – and we deserve better

May 6, 2009 – I am not so young that I have never heard, ‘Always Count to 10 before you....whatever.’ Whether it’s to speak ill or strike someone, the wisdom of our elders says that it’s always best to count to 10.


May 6, 2009
By Ralph Pearce

May 6, 2009 – I am not so young that I have never heard, ‘Always Count to 10 before you….whatever.’ Whether it’s to speak ill or strike someone, the wisdom of our elders says that it’s always best to count to 10.

Well for my part, I’ve counted to 1010, and I have finally reached the point where I’m not going to be nice anymore. The gloves are finally coming off like they never have before.

The source of my anger and disgust is, as the title suggests, the mainstream media, their growing incompetence and their complete lack of care and professionalism in the wake of the current H1-N1 influenza outbreak. The latest in this ongoing saga is the outright refusal of several media outlets to acknowledge the use H1-N1 designation instead of the yellow moniker of ‘swine flu’.

A quick survey of several of the larger daily newspapers on May 4 showed compliance in just one: the Globe and Mail. The National Post, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, Vancouver Province and Ottawa Citizen all chose to ignore the recommendation of the World Health Organization, announced on or about April 30. For the most part, these papers, as well as the websites for CBC, CTV and Global News, either ignored the request or carried a meek reference to H1-N1, then blithely referred to the condition as ‘swine flu’ in the rest of their stories.

This recommendation was not easily arrived at by the WHO; it was made to clarify the issue, and hopefully alleviate some of the suffering that has been wreaked upon the livestock industry, particularly in Canada, and significantly aided by the lazy, stupid and inept antics of newspaper editors and reporters across the country. I actually heard one inane radio reporter suggest that media outlets and departments of health could be reluctant to acknowledge the change since it might do more to confuse people than enlighten.

Right, because heaven help us if the media (and the departments of health, for that matter) actually do their jobs once in a while, and help create better understanding, not confound the situation with a lot of sensationalistic tripe.

The primary job of the media is to “inform and enlighten”, not inflame and presuppose. If publishers and editors would get their line of sight off the chase for the dollar and worry about the quality of information and the value of their product, they might not be griping about the demise of newspapers and TV broadcasts. The dollars would follow.

One has to wonder if this non-compliance with the WHO recommendation is a matter of defiance or just plain arrogance? Is it coincidence that many reporters and editors behave like some petulant child caught in a lie? Grudgingly, they may ask for forgiveness, all the while defiantly whining about it not being their fault and how unfair it is that no one believes them or worse, trusts them. And we’re just as bad, at times. We know they do what they do for the attention, we know they are ill-equipped to do the jobs they are entrusted to do, and we know they’re more than likely to be repeat offenders. Yet we keep giving them the chance to show us that they learn nothing from their own staggering failures.

Witness the fiascos of reporting the facts of Walkerton, BSE and last year’s vaunted "Food versus Fuel" debate. They are all borne of the mantra, "We get you the news -First!" That it’s accurate or compassionate to those affected is seldom, if ever, a consideration.
 
Seen with my own eyes
In 2003, I was at a news conference at a farm north of London, where a group of cattle farmers and industry stakeholders had gathered to listen to a BSE update, courtesy of Ontario’s Premier and the Minister of Agriculture. The press gallery from Queen’s Park made the trip, as well, and hijacked the meeting, firing questions about a pending election instead of reflecting on the reason for the trip itself. When a cattle farmer asked for such consideration, he was told curtly by a member of the media, "Well, we have our time and then you have your time."

Oh, just what media need: more "Me Time." I must have missed the memo that said they were moving Question Period from Toronto to a farm about 200 km west. It’s interesting that after the scrum, Minister Helen Johns turned to me and another member of the Farm Press, and said, "You guys are just too nice, that’s the problem." I’m not sure if she wanted us merely to wrest control back from the media or drop our pens and beat them senseless.

The other example of blatant media misrepresentation that stands out occurred in 2002, when a nationally syndicated news service attributed a quote to an Ontario farm organization executive, who was alleged to have said, "We’re just one or two food scares away from incredible legislation." In fact, the gentleman was repeating a statement made by one of the vice presidents of Cargill during a visit to Europe, the previous fall. The actual quote from the Cargill executive was, "In the US, we’re just one or two food scares away from incredible legislation." I know this because I was at that same meeting, and I recorded the comment on tape. I was professional enough, why wasn’t that other reporter?

Try as I may, I can’t provide that individual with the benefit of the doubt; I’m not that gracious, nor gullible. I believe it was written that way purely to inflame and incite – and sell newspapers, of course.
Think I’m being too harsh? Too demanding?

Too bad! The best defence is a good offence, and I intend to do a lot more offending where the media are concerned.

I have said it before and I keep saying it: We deserve better!


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