Toronto Star | 14Nov2009 | Orest Slepokura

The ugly face of journalism

Kathy English:

Your 14 November 2009 Toronto Star column "When citizens are journalists," ascribes to "legendary" broadcast journalist Morley Safer of 60 Minutes fame some degree of moral authority when commenting on the craft of journalism. "I would trust citizen journalists as much as I would a citizen surgeon," Safer is quoted saying. It's as if the embarrassing episode of Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, only five years ago, touting the authenticity of those patently bogus Killian documents -- only to be shot down by citizenship journalists -- never happened.

In fairness to Rather, he was likely snookered by savvy political operatives in the GOP who had his number; Safer, by contrast, has wallowed in his mendacity willingly.  I refer to the 60 Minutes episode that Safer hosted on 23 October 1994 under the header "The Ugly Face of Freedom."

Not to put too fine a point on it, the CBS program projected an ugly image of Western Ukraine as a kind of serpent's egg, where a Fourth Reich was being hatched; regular Ukrainian boy scouts, for example, were portrayed as a latter-day Hitler youth. Safer's guide to Ukrainian affairs was the "legendary" Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal -- just recently outed as a serial liar by Guy Walters in the Sunday Times ("The head Nazi-hunter's trail of lies: Simon Wiesenthal, famed for his pursuit of justice, caught fewer war criminals than he claimed and fabricated much of his own Holocaust story," 18 July 2009). 

On 1 December 1996, before the Sunday broadcast of 60 Minutes went to air, CanWest Global Television ran an abject apology for "the hurt and prejudice" the 1994 broadcast stirred up. But Safer has never apologized, unlike his 60 Minutes colleague Dan Rather, for broadcasting abject lies.

Whenever I hear the term "presstitute," I think of the NYT's Pulitzer Prize laureate Walter Duranty -- and Morley Safer.


Orest Slepokura
Strathmore, Alta

Toronto Star | 14Nov2009 | Kathy English

When citizens are journalists

Legendary 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer evoked much laughter and applause from the media establishment crowd in attendance at last June's Canadian Journalism Foundation awards gala when he offered his view on the challenges and changes facing the media.

"I would trust citizen journalists as much as I would a citizen surgeon," Safer, 77, said.

Fast forward to another awards ceremony three weeks ago when another well-established media organization, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, presented its first award to a citizen journalist.

The CJFE Citizen Journalism Award was presented to Paul Pritchard, 27, the British Columbia man who shot the video showing the RCMP Tasering Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in fall of 2007.

"CJFE salutes Paul Pritchard who has demonstrated values that we need in citizens and journalists – the courage to bear witness and do the right thing," the award citation states. At the awards ceremony held at a Toronto restaurant, CJFE president Arnold Amber told Pritchard: "What you did will be noted in Canadian history. The culture of journalism is about getting at the truth. You shone that light in a dark place."

Does this landmark award mark a détente between we, the mainstream media, and what's been dubbed "We Media," the movement toward citizen participation in gathering the news?

It's no secret, as Safer's scathing words made clear, that the established media industry has been largely hostile to the idea of citizen journalism, simplistically and defensively defining it as amateurs taking on the work of professional, trained journalists.

It's not quite so simple. Citizen journalism, as it pertains to newsgathering, has evolved to be more about collaboration between citizens and journalists than citizens replacing journalists. In Pritchard's case, while he shot the video that ultimately forced Canadians to look at how Tasers are used by police across Canada, and clearly understood its significance in the investigation of Dziekanski's death, it was mainstream media -- largely the CBC -- that made sure the video was widely seen and the right questions asked.

This collaboration was "the best of all worlds," said Amber. For his part, Pritchard told me, "I never looked at myself as a citizen journalist, I looked at myself as a citizen."

This debate about citizen journalism ignited once again this week with critiques and counter-critiques of news coverage of last week's shooting massacre in Fort Hood, Texas. Blogger Paul Carr, former new media columnist for London's The Guardian, claimed that errors in mainstream media coverage emanated from erroneous Tweets from someone inside the Texas hospital where the shooter and victims were taken. Carr described this as "another example of how citizen journalists can't handle the truth."

The truth is, digital technology does indeed allow "citizens" to capture and communicate words and images as never before. Equally true is that mainstream media have come to count on those tech-ready citizens with a sense of news to help us cover breaking stories. The Star and other news organizations now even solicit citizen contributions -- also known as "user-generated content" -- on breaking stories.

We understand that no news organization can be everywhere when anything might happen. As Pritchard's video, shot at the Vancouver airport in the middle of the night, shows, we all benefit from more coverage when citizens have the courage to bear witness.

I expect such collaboration is the way of the future. Indeed, newsgathering in the digital age has "changed forever," as Helen Boaden, news director of the BBC, said in a speech last year to the e-Democracy conference. "It's no surprise then that the BBC has gone from passively accepting user-generated content to positively soliciting it. It's not just a `nice to have' -- it can really enrich our journalism and provide our audiences with a wider diversity of voices than we could otherwise deliver."

Some news organizations are now taking steps to train citizens in their communities in professional journalism practices. The U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists recently established a "Citizen Journalism Academy," a one-day program to help citizens "practise journalism" accurately, ethically and fairly.

Having taught journalism at Ryerson University, I question what can be learned in a day. Still, it can't hurt to introduce curious and committed citizens to the ways of journalism.

But what's most important in the debate about citizen journalism is that news organizations themselves uphold journalistic standards and verify all information that is gathered before it is published or broadcast.

Unverified information is not news, it's simply rumour -- whether it's gathered by journalists or citizens committing acts of journalism.

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