Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How Far is Too Far?

Note from Matt: This isn't necessarily a sports story but since I have nowhere else to put it it's going here. Hopefully that doesn't alienate you from the usual fare of mediocre fantasy advice and occasional thoughtfulness this blog usually provides.

Today there was a horrible tragedy in Ottawa with a shooter on Parliament Hill that killed an off-duty Canadian soldier. It has been an absolutely terrible day for all of Canada, and anyone who knows a good deal of people in the country (me). It's also been a day to reflect on the state of the media because we as consumers had a chance to look at how our neighbors to the north cover a tragedy like this. Us in the United States have a tendency to blow things out of proportion because of "HOT TAKES" and the like, but today is the day that proved that being an adult is sometimes the best way to get people through tragedy. It should not need to be a revelation to say that, but in the modern media world apparently it is, and here's why:

The job of the news media is not telling you what to think; it never has been that. The media tells you what to think about. Why is Ebola especially freaking everyone out senseless right now? The media is droning on and on about it, and doesn't feel the need to stop. While Ebola is a major news story that deserves to be covered, the way it's being covered is farcical, and that's being kind. So naturally, when the story in Ottawa started breaking, many people south of the 49th parallel turned away from US cable news like the plague, which is the correct move.

For example as I am typing this, CNN's lower-third reads as if the attack was a guaranteed terrorist attack, and how is anyone, let alone in Atlanta not Ottawa or Toronto going to know that just 10 hours after the tragedy began to unfold? The authorities in Ottawa and with the government have been especially careful to not jump to any conclusions, even with how many shooters there were/are, and the (Canadian) media has followed suit. That is such a breath of fresh air considering the experiences we have dealing with major tragedies in this country where conclusions and sources are bandied about as if those words have magical powers.

The website "The Daily Beast" might be the most blatant offender of this. The headline is in bold print and says "Terrorist ends Canada's Innocence". Below it, the tag says further, "A gunmen attacked Parliament in an unprecedented attack bringing violence to the very heart of Canadian democracy." That doesn't sound all that bad, but consider earlier today it said that the attack "brought real terrorism to the country for the first time".  Tim Mak of the website wrote the piece that went below it, and I hope he knows that what came above it in the headline and the tag are both patently false, because if he doesn't someone has mislead a lot of people. And what for... page clicks?

Why did CNN and other stations do what they ended up doing for most of the day for? Just a few people to stop on their customary and nonchalant channel scroll because "OMG Terrorism, ISIS AHHHHHHHHHHH"? Why are reputable people doing this to themselves now?

I'm not naive enough to believe that this hasn't been going on for quite a long time and that it hasn't been a massive disservice to every sane human being and been carved open by the John Oliver's and John Stewart's of the world, but today seemingly was my final straw. I could deal with falsities during the Sandy Hook shootings and the Boston Marathon Bombings, but apparently I draw the line at a shooter on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Then I read an article from the wonderful website Mediabistro, and then it hit me why I finally snapped today: The coverage of the tragedy in Canada is so markedly un-American that it is sickening.

Not just from the newspapers and local stations around Ottawa, but national coverage from Global, CTV and especially the CBC. Peter Mansbridge is unlike those we have now manning the national news desks (aside from Brian Williams), but we did have men like that in the past in Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. The media world is vastly different now than it was then, but why does it stick in Canada and not here? CBC being the public broadcaster has absolutely nothing to do with it, for the record.

As Mediabistro said and I'll parrot here, Mansbridge was calm, collected, patient and not frenetic, breathless or panicked. There was a point in time when we had anchors like that in this country, but sadly we do not anymore. At one point Mansbridge even asked the many who had tuned in to watch his coverage (about 3 hours straight by the way), "what do we know with certainty right now?" With certainty... that's a phrase you'll never hear Wolf Blitzer saying anytime soon.

Yes, these media companies need to find ways to get viewers so they can get advertising so their heads can stay above water, and this is true for many traditional and new media sources as well, I get that. But the CBC is HEMORRHAGING MONEY. And yet they can still tackle a news story with poise, solemnity and calm without going into a panic or trying to connect dots that don't make any sort of picture. The reason why the CBC and to a lesser extent the other Canadian media outlets can do this and not any American one is not solely because of a cultural difference, and shouldn't ever be said as such. Sure the world has changed here, but it's changed everywhere. If you can train people to think one way, you could certainly train them back too.

Two other notes from a really impressive day for journalism at Canada's public broadcaster: While they were not first in reporting that the Canadian solider shot at the War Memorial was dead, they were certainly by that point right. They had done enough reporting to convince only themselves as journalists that they were right. Just because someone from the Globe and Mail had reported it first didn't mean that Peter Mansbridge had to jump around on TV waving his arms saying "CBC News confirms". The focus of the story was in fact the story, not the people reporting it or the organization they worked for.

We can learn a thing or two from everyone in Canada who reported so well the tragic events of the day today, not just as journalists (as I am), but also as consumers. We can accept news that comes not first to us, but correctly, and news that is reported to us with calm and not a frenetic energy that confers nothing but cluelessness.

An old anchor named Frank Reynolds once said, "let's nail it down, let's get it right". Today showed us how far away us in US media are from doing that on the regular, and how much we have to learn from our friends above 49' North.

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