As a retired producer who worked at the national level at both CBC News and CTV News I was appalled at the superficial (to say the very least) coverage in English Canada of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque last night , January 29, 2017.
So were many people. The news was coming in on Twitter and Facebook, not television and along with the real news (and the fake news) there were complaints that neither CBC nor CTV had any coverage. The viewers were demanding television coverage from both the public CBC and the private CTV.
While Societie Radio Canada and its French language private competition TVA were live and in-depth, the CBC National broadcast on both the main network and News Network had nothing more than a minute of a phoner voice over. A disgrace for a national public news service.
At 11 pm, Pacific, that’s 2 am Eastern, CBC News Network went back to a canned documentary while BBC World devoted much of its newscast to the shooting.
This is the age of instant communications. Mobile phones. Text. E-mail. Twitter. Facebook.
It is obvious that in this age of 24/7/365 communications neither network news service has an emergency plan.
Probably in the view of bean counters and consultants news happens most often when there is a regular measurable audience and a newsroom is fully staffed (or as staffed as much as today’s budgets allow) and the new buzzwords like a “Hub” or a “Breaking News Desk” will always respond.
The Hub and Breaking News desks can only respond if there are warm bodies with their bums in chairs actually in the newsrooms.
Maybe the network news bosses should bring an old analog era procedure that actually got (real) breaking news on the air fast. It’s called a phone tree.
Back when I was starting in journalism 40 years ago, the days long before Breaking News became nothing more than a marketing gimmick, there were emergency plans and procedures and when the fertilizer hit the fan you learned quickly how those procedures worked. Even if you were a lowly editorial assistant (a job that no longer exists) almost all alone in the newsroom.
These long forgotten procedures were created (I was told at the time) when the Greatest Generation returned from service in the Second World War to begin or resume careers in journalism and they damn well knew what an emergency or breaking news really were.
So here’s how I learned my trade back then:
On September 28, 1978, it was just after one in the morning at the old National Radio Newsroom on Jarvis Street in Toronto. The evening staff had gone home. There was a writer for the hourlies for western Canada. The late Doug Payne producer of the World at Eight was preparing the show. His writing and producing staff would not be in for a couple of hours. I was the editorial assistant. It was still the days of clattering teletypes in a side room. Nothing had moved on any of the teletypes for an hour. Nothing. Then suddenly the Reuters machine literally went nuts. Normally five bells on an old teletype was a Bulletin. A Flash was seven. This time the machine rang 28 bells. (I saved the carbon copy and counted them later) The new Pope John Paul I was dead. (He had been in office just 33 days).
I was stunned for a few seconds, then ripped the paper and ran over to Doug.
Doug knew what to do. He knew the phone tree.
First I was to call the then senior assignment producer, Bob Dowling.
Second and only after I had called Dowling, who could start getting the foreign desk and reporters mobilized, I was to call the then managing editor Eric Moncur.
Doug and the writer under CBC procedure at the time (not these days) waited for the CP/AP confirmation. They then prepared the network bulletin and after that the last two hourlies to the west.
Doug told me that once I had called the boss, I was to call in all the morning staff for both World at Eight and Hourlies, starting with producers and senior technicians, then writers and junior technicians. Overtime was no problem. The early morning EA didn’t answer (I later learned he was spending the night at his girl friends’) so I was told to call in the mid-morning EA. Doug then told me to call Frans, the nearby all night restaurant and order breakfast to go for 30 people. As soon as the mid-morning EA got in, he was sent out again in a taxi, with an envelope full of cash to collect the breakfast. (Eggs, bacon and sausage).
I was also fielding calls from the public (including an assistant to the Archbishop) who had direct lines numbers to the newsroom in something called a Rolodex. (In the first round of many budget cuts the overnight switchboard operator had been let go a few weeks earlier)
In Toronto, noise bylaws forbade the Catholic Churches’ bells from ringing until 7 a.m. But as the World At Eight went to Atlantic Canada, the listeners could hear LIVE, those bells ringing.
A year later, on November 10, 1979, it was a deadly Saturday night. There were two people in the radio newsroom, myself and the hourly writer. Down the hall a producer for Sunday Morning was putting the last minute touches on a doc that was to air that morning.
It was five minutes to midnight. Five minutes until the switchboard closed. It was then the phones started to ring. There had been some kind of huge explosion in the west part of Toronto. At midnight those calls stopped.
Those calls were enough for me to follow the phone tree procedures and call Bob Dowling. It was soon after that that news staff began calling on direct lines, not just from the west end but even from high rises in downtown Toronto, telling me there were huge flames in the west.
A Canadian Pacific train had derailed in Mississauga at 11:53. So those warning phone calls from the public had come almost instantly. Dowling went through the phone tree, calling in staff and alerting reporters. Then he called back and ordered me, the most junior person and the available warm body to get out to the scene until a national reporter could relieve me. There was a problem, the weekend CBL (local Toronto radio) reporter had taken the staff car and he couldn’t be contacted. So Dowling authorized a technician who should have gone off shift to drive me on overtime to the scene in his personal vehicle.
As soon as we got on the Gardiner, we could see the flames reaching 1500 feet into the air; we eventually got to the scene, and (in those days) were waved through the police barricade to a parking lot designated for the media. Even for the TV people who were also arriving this was long before the days of easy live coverage. But there was a quick police briefing within a half hour or so. Soon after the briefing, a national reporter arrived, so the tech and I drove off to find a place to file. In those days that involved taking a phone apart and using alligator clips to send audio from a tape recorder back to the newsroom. Then, the tech and I went to a mall that was an evacuation centre that was already filling up, for interviews. We were back in the newsroom by 5 am, which by that time had all hands on deck.
On August 19 1991, I was a writer at CTV News in this case the Sunday news with Sandie Rinaldo. It was a dull, routine Sunday night with (as far as I remember) until about 11:25 when once again it was Reuters, this time on a green CRT screen tied via some badly written software to a mainframe, that sent the Bulletin that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had announced that Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer in office. It was the infamous August coup. I called the show producer Jennifer Harwood (now a CBC News manager) and read her the bulletin.
Normally on a Sunday night after the control room told us “tape is good” everyone would go home. The control room called, tape was good, but there was no call back from the producers saying they could go home. Everyone was reading the wires. Control room called back, “What is going on?” So I told them and told them to stand by. The coup meant that there had to be a whole new show with real breaking news put together in now less than half an hour.
At the same time, the CTV phone tree was activated. Calls were made to then CTV VP of News Tim Kotcheff and senior assignment editor Dennis McIntosh. The midnight show to Central Time Zone made it to air (of course) and then after that show was off the air; there was a full network special report aimed mostly at the eastern, Atlantic and Newfoundland stations that had already broadcast the original newscast.
That’s how the system was supposed to work. That’s how it worked at both public and private networks when the networks had executives and managers who knew what they were doing.
My sources tell me that at CBC there is minimal staff assigned to the Sunday National (unlike the old days when the Sunday National was a flagship that led the rest of the week.) and even the English Montreal local CBC newscast was a disaster.
This news disaster is the result of decades of budget cuts, staff reductions and misleading viewer analytics that say it isn’t worth money investing in weekend coverage. At CTV I suspect that the parent company Bell Media has no real interest in actual news coverage in a demographic low point. CBC lost its way as a public broadcaster years ago, with too many managers and too many managers who know nothing about broadcasting and don’t consider news apart from marketing it.
The CBC now has version 5.0 or higher of a so-called digital strategy. The news of the shooting was on Facebook and Twitter, not much even on CBC.ca (they can’t do much if there’s one writer and no reporters on scene to feed information) and everyone in English Canada was waiting for CBC to go live with real reporting. It never happened.
In these days when all the media is in deep trouble, there are some things you can’t fix.
But one thing can be fixed. Remember the Greatest Generation.
Remember the old Journalism School 101 adage. Never Assume.
Never assume that news is going to break when you’re expecting it.
Come up with a real 21st century emergency plan and bring back that old analog frigging phone tree system and when there is real breaking news get it on the air and out on digital and social media whether it’s on Wednesday afternoon or Sunday night. Accurate and fast. Accurate is crucial in the age of fake news on social media.
The news media, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom are crying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,” today over their failure to foresee Donald Trump’s victorious campaign for president of the United States.
In this case certainly, flogging yourself for your sins is somewhat justified.
Unfortunately, the pundits and analysts are already falling into a trap of their own making—the narrative already is that metropolitan media elites ignored the pain and rage of the mostly white voters in America’s heartland.
There already two widely circulated articles by Americans from small towns.
In many ways I agree with the media ignoring smaller towns (one unspoken reason is that that these days small town markets are considered too minor by the bean counters to even bother about.)
This is what I said when I posted a link to Smarsh’s article on Facebook:
This article about the failings of the American media also applies to Canada, with a media elite ignoring the realities of the lives of people living outside of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. On the issues in northwest British Columbia (and I suspect elsewhere) I have to say that since I retired from CBC News in 2010 and came back here to Kitimat, BC my respect for the Ottawa press gallery has gone down by 95%. By that I mean mostly the commentators and columnists?—?for the CBC, Globe, and definitely the National Post who have become experts on the issue of northwest BC, the coast, First Nations and pipelines, who sit in their cubicles and pontificate expertly about things they actually know almost nothing about. Even when reporters came into town and I acted as an unpaid fixer, they stayed for two days, three at most, talked to the usual suspects and then flew out.
Journalism has failed to listen to, understand, empathize with, and serve many communities—it sees only the mass. I include in that indictment its failure to reflect, respect, and then inform the worldview of the angry, white men—and women—who became the breeding ground for Trumpism.
There’s a lot of truth to that, and to the role of click bait, the painful transition to the digital world and the economic collapse of journalism.
But it’s just one narrative.
That’s because every media post-mortem I’ve seen so far show’s YOU’RE STILL NOT LISTENING.
What was the main thing that Trump supporters said? What was the number one thing that wasn’t racism, misogyny, and rage at the collapse of local economies, Islamophobia or parochial America firstism?
The number one thing was “authenticity.”
More specifically the Trump supporters say “He tells it like it is,” (even if he was actually lying).
I heard Trump supporters say that again and again and again throughout the campaign, “He tells it like it is.”
The Trump supporters hate spin.
Everyone, except corporate executives and political operatives hate spin. But spin today is part of the information ecosystem. There’s corporate spin, government spin, political spin. We’re all sick of the spin.
It was Donald Trump, an ultimate spin master who recognized he could spin himself to the presidency by hating spin.
As journalists we too often have to go along with it because we have no other choice.
So let’s put a lot of the blame on what happened squarely where it belongs?—?the message track public relations industry which now employs more people worldwide than journalism does.
Spin. Spin. Spin and more spin. As journalists you’re so used to the immediate enemy that you no longer recognize that how dangerous that enemy is.
So let’s ask a question. The term “implicit bias” is used a lot today in race relations. What if there’s an implicit bias in journalism actually in favour of spin because we’ve become so used it that it’s become second nature?
False balance didn’t start with the Trump advocates on cable news. False balance started when journalists accepted (or had to accept because they were overworked) the phony statements that come out every day from the media relations of whatever company or department or politician you’re dealing with today. False balance began when news shows felt they had to book smooth talking phony spokespeople (some of them former journalists) to get that side of the story. False balance began when you didn’t have the airtime or space to challenge an outrageous statement.
False balance began when you shoot a 30 second clip with a young woman (yes 95% of the time it’s a young woman who looks good on camera) who says nothing really about the story you’re trying to do but you have include the clip anyway.
It gets worse when message track media relations simply issues an e-mail statement that means nothing that you have to include in your story. You know it’s crap, but you use it anyway. The media relations department congratulates themselves on putting out another fire.
The audience at home, whether a well paid elite in a big city or a plant worker in a small town both say the same thing. “That’s crap!”
It begins to add up.
In working in a region where there are multiple environmental problems and multiple proposed energy projects the words you hear again and again are “cumulative effect,” the cumulative effect of too many environmental stresses or too many industrial projects in one small area.
Just like cutting down one tree doesn’t affect the forest, the first example of modern message track spin didn’t have any affect. Cut down ten trees and you begin to see gaps. Cut down a thousand trees and the ecosystem is under stress. Clear cut an entire forest and there is nothing left of the ecosystem. A hundred thousand spins, a million spins undermine the system, destroy trust and in the end are a threat to democracy.
We all know it but it’s time that it was said. The public relations industry has responsibility not only for the election of Donald Trump but also for Brexit. (Remember how Tony Blair “sexed up” the reasons for the Iraq war?)
It wasn’t always that way. Yes there has been PR at least for a century.
When I started out as a journalist 40 years ago, there were PR people but they had a different job. They knew (at least in the days of large news staffs) that the reporters would find out the story anyway. Their job was to put the facts, yes facts, in a corporate context.
If you were dealing with the police or the military, it was often the same. They would go so far, up to a boundary you knew and they knew they couldn’t cross. So you sometimes found your way around that boundary. Today most journalists don’t have the contacts or the time to recognize there is a boundary.
An example, on my first job on The Sudbury Star, back in 1975, if there was an accident, with a fatality or serious injury at one of the mines or smelters, I would quickly get a call from the PR department giving me the details. In those days they were smart enough to know that everyone in town would know within a couple of hours anyway.
These days in industrial towns the PR people (when they talk at all which is seldom) give a carefully crafted message track email that says little or nothing. Everyone in town knows something happened, but with the facts withheld, the rumours (often wild rumours) accelerate on Facebook. In some places the local PR people don’t even have the authorization to issue releases on their own initiative, everything has to be approved by suits in head offices tens of thousands kilometers away.
That’s not very smart. But that’s the way it is these days.
Then’s there the case of no balance, when a company decides not to issue a statement and hope the story might go away.
The story might go away but the public idea that it is all corporate crap doesn’t go away. Cumulative effect. Cumulative effect of media relations spin creates a demand for “authenticity” even if it is the phony authenticity of a Donald Trump.
We have to ask how much has journalism’s regurgitating of corporate and government spin contributed to the loss of our credibility?
It’s likely that more people began to believe fake news, not just because their social media feed is a conformation bias silo but because they’ve been fed faked up news for years by media relations and carefully crafted message tracks.
If responsible journalists, once they get over the mea culpa of today begin to sit down and really reconsider their role and what can be done under today’s economically precarious conditions, getting back to really challenging the message track agenda has to be high on the agenda, no matter how difficult it is or how little money your organization has or how little time they give you.
Giving up false balance spin has to be a priority not just for the off the wall fringes but for every bit of corporate nonsense.
For media relations, especially those former journalists in the spin rooms, it is time that you look in the mirror and realize that you, the public relations people, have become among the greatest threats to democracy and freedom we are facing today.
“Such miserable pirates are too sordid to engage a photographer to make a special series for them; they prefer to rob an already poorly paid class of men-men who have to depend for their living upon the sale of views taken during the short summer months.”
Most photographers today believe that the problems of image piracy began with the Internet in the 1990s and the switch over to digital in the 2000s. That’s what I thought too — until this weekend when I was doing research for a book project on the archive site Canadiana.ca. I serendipitously came across some old copies of the Canadian Photographic Journal from 1894 and 1895. If you read about the problems photographers were facing with image pirates and with news organizations that took images without credit 122 years ago, it appears that things haven’t changed all that much.
MORE CONCERNING COPYRIGHT
WE have on former occasions tried to impress our readers with the vital importance of registering their copyright in photographs that are likely to prove of more than passing importance, and we published in a former number a concise article upon the method of securing such registration in Canada.
We have since received numerous complaints from subscribers who have been victimized by pirate publishers. One of these firms of pirates began by buying a few photograms of a prominent Canadian city at a cost of about twenty-five cents each and then published them as photo engravings in “Souvenir” form at about ten cents the book.
We do not mean to say the photograms thus collected at so little expense were by any means excellent views, and the reproductions were even worse, but still put upon the market at so low a price-they were sold and must have injured the sale of the original photograms.
We have no battle with publishers of these books so long as they pursue their business in a straightforward manner and give the photographers, whose works they appropriate, adequate remuneration and proper acknowledgment of authorship.
But we have no sympathy with the meanness of those marauding pirates who infest certain cities and rob hardworking photographers of the results of their labors. It is all very well for these people to say they bought and paid for the views they republish, we admit that they did so-but they did not thereby acquire the right to republish those views and sell them in opposition to their original authors.
Such miserable pirates are too sordid to engage a photographer to make a special series for them; they prefer to rob an already poorly paid class of men-men who have to depend for their living upon the sale of views taken during the short summer months.
These same parasitical publishers seem- to be imbued with a natural inborn baseness that prevents them from giving the men they rob credit for being the authors of the original photographs, whereas if they had the decency to publish the names and addresses of the photographers we might consider it in the light of a redeeming act of grace.
How often do we see even in the public press such titles as “Minne-haha Cathedral From a Photograph.”
Why are publishers so averse to give credit where credit is due? Is it because they are ashamed to publish the name of their victim, or is it because they fear he might be a gainer of some notoriety if his name was mentioned?
If newspapers are mean enough to take the liberty of appropriating men’s work and publishing it, they should not be too mean to advertise him by mentioning bis name and address.
Since there is such a lamentable lack of honorable feeling among a certain class, the only remedy for photographers is registration of copyright and, again, we urge our readers, if they do not wish to, be at the mercy of copyists, to register each of their choice views.
We know that the Canadian Copyright Act is hardly in accordance with the requirements of photographers-the rates being (in their peculiar circumstances) especially high-but still registration is the only way of protecting individual interests.
In Great Britain there has been recently formed an active “Copyright Union” which is virtually under the wing of the Chamber of Commerce.
The active promoters of this union have our most hearty sympathies; they are doing a good work for our British brethren and deserve the undivided support of every photographer in the land. Canada has long been in want of such an active body to protect the interests of photographers.
We believe the time is now ripe for the formation of such a union here, and we believe the best expression of our sympathies with the organizers of the British union will be the formation of a similar body in Canada. We want an amendment to the Copyright Act an amendment that will be an equal gain to photographers and the treasury of Canada.
Individuals cannot secure this, a powerful combined effort can do so.
The active co-operation of all photographers is required to fight for that which is, according to the unwritten code of honor, their individual right.
A year later in May 1895, the Canadian Photographic Journal published this letter from New York City.
SIR, -At an informal meeting held by a number of representative photographers of this city, March 14, 1895, it was unanimously decided to issue the following prospectus to the prominent members of our profession, submitting the plan proposed therein to their earliest consideration, and requesting their immediate reply to same address, Committee of the proposed Photographers’ Copyright League, 13-15 West Twenty-fourth Street.
Art in photography is at last a generally acknowledged factor, and the productions of photographers have become the chief source of supply for the illustrations which fi1l newspapers and periodicals. Even the courts now recognize that fact and extend the protection of the copyright law to all such photographers as are artistic.
During the past ten years a vigorous battle has been waging between a few determined photographers on the one hand, and an indiscriminate host of lithographers and other pirates, on the other. The latter had become so used to appropriating without leave whatever they saw was good and original in photographic publications, giving in return neither remuneration nor even credit, and the results to them were so profitable, that the effort to break them of the pernicious habit was no easy matter.
On the contrary it developed rapidly into a serious and bitterly contested struggle.
Thus far each photographer has done his fighting, sing]e-handed, and generally against large and powerful corporations. In spite of this, however, the result has been almost uniformly a complete victory for the photographer, decision after decision being rendered in his favor by the courts, though often only after years of burdensome and expensive litigation.
In view of these facts and other reasons which follow, we deem it wise and expedient, at this time, to band our best men together, so, that in future a united front will be opposed to infringers of all kinds.
There have been many demands within the past few years for such a union, and we know of no question now rife in the fraternity in which a community of interests would be more desirable, mutual and in every way advantageous to us all.
Our proposition is that an organization (to be known as the Photographers’ Copyright League of America) be formed at once, and take upon itself, by means of an advisory committee to be elected annually, the prosecution of all infringers of the copyright works of any of its members, whenever a proper case for such prosecution is presented by him ; that it defray all expenses of same ; and that in return, so as to make it self-supporting, a fair percentage of all recoveries so obtained, be turned into the treasury.
In the nineteenth century, Canadians were encouraged to register copyright materials with the Department of Agriculture. Today, under the Berne Convention, Canadians don’t have to register, but can if they wish with the copyright office. However, unlike the United States, there is no requirement to file a copy of the work.
An online search has found no references to the Photographers’ Copyright League of America. It would be interesting to find out what happened to the organization.
The original copies of the Canadian Photographic Journal for May 1894 and May 1895 are available online. Full access to the Canadiana.ca archive costs $10 Cdn a month.
One has to note that despite the fact that magazine masthead shows a woman photographer with a camera on a tripod, the copy is somewhat sexist, referring to photographers as “men” and a “fraternity..”
And now a word from our sponsor……the latest gear for May 1895 (ad in the Canadian Photographic Journal)
This blog has not been active since 2012 for two reasons:
1)I was concentrating my efforts on my Northwest Coast Energy News site.
2)This blog was started when it looked as if there was a possible long term future for journalism and news coverage. As of February 22, 2016, with more closing of news organizations, continuing corporate mismanagement and seemingly never-ending layoffs, the future looks bleaker than ever.
I am currently working on a related book project and within the coming weeks, I will resume posting related information and reporting on this site tied to the to be announced book project.
Kitimat, BC and New York City had one thing in common this week, the misuse and use of social media, Twitter and Facebook, that spread both accurate warnings and dangerous misinformation about an impending disaster. In the case of New York and the surrounding area, it was Superstorm Sandy that caused widespread devastation. For Kitimat it was the tsunami warning after the 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii and no damage but a lot of worry for residents.
New York has a population of millions, it is the media centre for the United States, and much of the U.S. Northeast coast is still recovering from the horrendous damage from Superstorm Sandy.
Kitimat has a population of about 8,000 and my home town is off the media radar except when the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline issue pops up on the national assignment desks. If the October 27, 2012 tsunami from the Haida Gwaii earthquake did come up Douglas Channel to Kitimat harbour, it was so minimal that any water rise was scarcely noticed.
In one way New York (the state and the city) plus New Jersey and other states were ahead of Kitimat. In the US, there were numerous official sources on Twitter and Facebook, as well as those ubiquitous live TV news conferences with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or various state governors.
On October 27, neither Kitimat nor the nearby town of Terrace had any official emergency outlets on social media. In Kitimat, that may change as early as this Monday when District Council considers what happened last Saturday night.
It has been documented that there was no official response from Emergency Management British Columbia (still largely known under its former name Provincial Emergency Program) until an hour after the first earthquake report from the US Geological Survey. Only sometime later did BC’s provincial emergency officials hold a short conference call with reporters. (At the time the BC Liberals were holding a policy convention at Whistler. After the conference call, TV reporters at the convention in Whistler were doing live reports with taped clips of Attorney General Shirley Bond. It should have been easy for Bond and other senior government officials, including Premier Christy Clark–who is plummeting the polls– to hold a live news conference just as US state governors and mayors did later in the week when it came to Superstorm Sandy)
So in that hour of silence from the BC government, one question that has to be raised is: Were the tsunami warnings so completely uncoordinated–at least as far as the public is concerned– that that was one cause of the misinformation and inaccurate information on Twitter and Facebook? Or did confusing information from authorities simply compound and amplify the social media misinformation that was already spreading across British Columbia and around the world?
Here in the northwest, the two area fire chiefs Trent Bossence of Kitimat and John Klie of Terrace have said after the quake that landline phones and some cell phones were out, in some areas up to an hour after the first shock. Klie told CFTK’s Tyler Noble on Open Connection that after the landline phones came back up the Terrace fire department was flooded with calls from people “who wanted it now.” The ability of firefighters to get information was then delayed “because so many people were trying to get through.”
Kitimat has the advantage of being a small town. Emergency services already had scheduled a volunteer recruiting session last Monday night (October 29) for Emergency Social Services–the folks who run, coordinate and work in reception centres during an emergency–so it was easy to turn that meeting into a earthquake/tsunami warning post mortem. (Imagine that happening in New York?)
The most important issue on Saturday night was the false information on both Facebook and Twitter that the Kildala neighbourhood was being evacuated due to the tsunami warning. Other false information on social media indicated that the giant Bechtel work camp at the Rio Tinto Alcan Kitimat Modernization Project was also being evacuated.
As Kitimat’s Emergency Plan Coordinator Bob McLeod told the earthquake post mortem about the information on Facebook and Twitter:
“Your aim is to be saving people, and you’re not saving people. There was one case where someone was going around banging on doors in Kildala, telling them to get out. I think it was over when he was in the lockup that night. But this is the type of foolishness that goes on. You have people going on Facebook saying ‘Alcan’s been evacuated. they’re evacuating Kildala.’ I am going to be generous and say it is misinformation… It was a blatant lie. And that does not help.”
(For those outside Kitimat you can check the town on Google maps) As seen on this screen grab, Kildala is a low lying part of town. The area north of Highway 37 is higher on a hill. Closer to the ocean at Douglas Channel are the Bechtel/RTA Kitimat Modernization Project work camps.
After driving from the village to the town, McFarlane told the meeting that he stopped at the town viewpoint where “people were telling me they had already been evacuated out of the Kildala neighbourhood, so my first stop after that was the fire department.” The fire hall is about a couple of blocks from the viewpoint, so it was easy to get accurate information from the fire department.
McFarlane continued, “I found the night of the earthquake that no information is just as bad as wrong information. People were calling me on my cell saying why does the Kitimat Daily say we have to evacuate.” That is because the Daily republished a warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre that “said tsunami warning, evacuation for the north coast. People were saying we’re on the north coast, we got to go.”
I was about fifteen to twenty minutes behind McFarlane in reaching town. (I did not leave Kitamaat Village until after we heard the first tsunami warning.) As soon as I got to back in cell range, my cell phone started to beep with saved messages from my TV and radio news clients calling for information. When I got to my home office, my landline was still dead and would be for about another twenty minutes. The only source of information at that point was Google News, Facebook and Twitter.
I saw the initial, and it turns out general, warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Soon I was also getting what I hoped was more specific information on my marine radio from the Canadian Coast Guard Prince Rupert communications station.
But that, too was somewhat confusing. That Coast Guard advisory mentioned various zones, for example, Zone A and Zone B, but there was little specific context and that point I had no idea what Zone A meant. Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio then went on to say evacuate low lying coastal areas. (transcript below)
With that confusion, and mindful of “when in doubt, leave it out,” I did not mention the zone system in any information I posted on Facebook and Twitter that night. I only retweeted official information or tweets from reporters I knew and trusted (and I did not see any tweeted official information from the province with a link to the page that identifies the official tsunami zones)
From the interview on CFTK, it appears that both the Kitimat and Terrace fire departments were also getting inadequate information.
“We went to our normal place to look EM BC (Emergency Management BC) and there was nothing there,so we went to Plan B to get information and went on from there,” Bossence told Tyler Noble.
Klie said: “We struggle with that every disaster big or small. Social media, I think emergency organizations are trying to tap into more and more. Up north we may be a little behind the eight ball but sure enough Twitter and Facebook information is out there instantly. Looking at Facebook with my son, I saw that they were evacuating whole cities and I knew that was not true. Because of my experience I can filter some of the information, but there is so much information out there that it’s hard to filter what’s real and not real. It’s an area where emergency coordinators have to get into because its the fastest way of getting information out.”
“Once the phone system came back online at the Fire Hall we got a flood of phone calls,” Bossence told CFTK, “it was nonstop and it was people wanting to know. ‘What’s going on? What are we going to do? Are we leaving?’ and they’re giving us ‘This is what is what I’m reading, this is what I’m being texted, on Facebook they’re saying we’re supposed to evacuate’ adding to that we had an individual going around claiming he was a fire department, he was going door to door and telling people to evacuate. That was the added issue we had to deal with. It was definitely misinformation and a sense of urgency that was coming out through the social network (and eventually the media) was big problem for us.”
In Kitimat, I was told about the man going door to door with inaccurate information and as soon as I confirmed it with reliable official sources, I posted that on both Twitter and Facebook, emphasizing there was, at that time, no evacuation order.
But every situation is different. In contrast, in Superstorm Sandy, another story about men going door to door in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn was not true, as can be seen in an article summing problems with Twitter in New York, where Jared Keller of Bloomberg reported
I experienced this firsthand during Hurricane Sandy. After retweeting a message warning about muggers in Williamsburg dressed as Con Ed workers as an experiment, I received two sceptical responses checking the claim within 15 minutes, both from people who work in the media industry and spend a significant amount of time on Twitter. Within an hour, I received a mass text message from friends of mine who aren’t completely plugged into the social Web with the same warning: “I just read a news alert of two separate reports of people posing as coned workers, knocking on people’s door and robbing them at gunpoint in Williamsburg. I just want to pass along the info. Stay safe and maybe don’t answer your door.” Two other friends responded with thanks.
Keller goes on to stay “I know a lot of people, especially on Facebook, who end up believing whatever they see first,” says Kate Gardiner, a social media journalist. “It’s almost impossible to track something back to its point of origin there.”
With the earthquake and tsunami warning Saturday night, Twitter misinformation spread internationally. The first hashtag I saw was #bcquake, but as the the tsunami warning gained traction (especially after the warning was extended from BC and Alaska to Washington, Oregon and California and then to Hawaii) the more common hashtag #tsunami became prominent. As people outside BC began tweeting, they began using #Canadaquake and soon #prayforcanada also began to trend. Completely inaccurate information spread on #prayforcanada (believed to have originated in Indonesia) that it was Vancouver, not the north coast that had been hit by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake.
Are you in the Zone?
At this point, one question has to be asked. The spread of information, first the well-intended but wrong, second just rumour and third, the deliberately misleading, has been seen in social media not only during the earthquake and tsunami on the West Coast last weekend, and during Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast but all the way back to the 2004 Christmas tsunami in Southeast Asia.
For the west coast in 2012, however, how much of the problem of misinformation on social media during the earthquake and tsunami warning was the fault of confusing information from the authorities? Just how were people going to interpret such general terms as “north coast” and “low lying areas.”?
From the BC Provincial Emergency Program you have to ask “What is Zone A?” It turns out by checking a day or so later that the province of British Columbia has created Tsunami Identification Zones.
Before October 27, it is likely no one outside of the provincial bureaucracy had ever heard of the provincial tsunami zones. At that time no one in BC, either on Twitter or Facebook or through the media was identifying the BC Tsunami Zones for the public. Later on, the television networks put up maps showing Zones A and B —but that was only good if you had power and were watching the right channel. Kitimat Daily and Terrace Daily posted an official update at 10:42 long after the danger was past explaining the Zone system. It was no good at all if you were listening to news reports on radio or to Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio on a fishing boat and had no access to the actual maps.
Compounding the confusion is that the US system appears to be very different from the Canadian.
Also the US system has two levels of warning. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sends out general warnings but hands over for a more specific warning map from the Alaska -based West Coast and Alaska Pacific Tsunami warning centre. It uses its own system of lettered and numbered zones for the west coast of North America. (See the Oct 27 tsunami advisory here Note it is a Google maps plugin.)
So in case of a tsunami warning, Kitimat is in Zone B for the province of British Columbia and the Provincial Emergency Program and in Zone BZ921 for the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre. For the much more familiar fisheries management areas Kitimat is in Zone 6 (which of course has nothing to do with a tsunami, it’s simply the coastal zone system everyone is familiar with)
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the EM British Columbia map shows Terrace, far inland up the Skeena River is considered in Zone A, along with Prince Rupert for tsunami warnings (if a tsunami was big enough to reach Terrace along the Skeena River valley, then I can only assume that much of the west coast of North America would have already been wiped out).
The Monday Post mortem
At the Monday, October 29 post mortem, when McLeod outlined the events of October 27, he began by looking back three weeks, saying, “I have feeling of frustration about a couple of things. October 7, I took 4,000 brochures [How Prepared Are you if Disaster Strikes?] down to the post office to mail out to the residents of Kitimat, They were all delivered by the post office. On Sunday, I had people coming to me and saying what are we supposed to do in the case of an earthquake? It is really, really difficult to get people interested.”
McLeod said that after he felt the earthquake, he went online to check information and then went up to the fire hall, which is Kitimat’s emergency coordination centre. There he met Fire Chief Bossence, his deputy, the RCMP detachment commander Staff Sergeant Steve Corp and representatives from Bechtel and the Rio Tinto Alcan modernization project.
“For the first little while we were going on line trying to get information. The usual method of dissemination getting information it comes from the West coast and Alaska tsunami warning system, then it goes to Victoria, Victoria gives it to the geophysical specialists and they will confirm or deny what ever the information and then it goes to the Provincial Emergency Program and they shoot it out to coastal communities.
“While in this case you’re working with what you find out from different sources and you are trying to determine how reliable these sources are.”
“In our case, for me the first thing you do when you get word of an impending tidal wave [tsunami] action is check the tide. If you’re on a high tide, it’s a different situation than a low tide
“The movie version of a tidal wave is this 50 foot mountain of water roaring along and this is not what is going to happen particularly in Douglas Channel because of the depth. So you are going to see a surge such as we saw in Japan and it will be an increasing surge of water.
“We were told that potentially some sort of surge hitting Langara [the northern most island in Haida Gwaii) at 9:16, 9:16 came and went and there was no notification of a noticeable surge of water. So were down to a non event and we were on a receding tide.” (See advisory below)
“Misinformation going out is not helpful,” McLeod said. “You’ve got to set up a stream of how you get information out to people and it’s a valid point. The District Website, the Facebook page, something like that can get information out. But again if you lose power where do get it? Text can work even locally with cell phones. if you’re in a dead area with a cell phone, you can still get text”
McLeod then asked the audience, mainly people ranging from their thirties to seventies if they text. Only four or five people put up their hands. “You people are going to be saved, the rest of us…” McLeod quipped.
If a conclusion can be drawn from the earthquake and tsunami warning in the Kitimat region on October 27, it’s not just that in an emergency inaccurate, incomplete or malicious information can spread a the speed of light on social media, it’s worse that incomplete, inadequate and confusing information from the authorities is amplified and distorted by rapid posting on social media. That concept is not new for anyone who has tried the phone chain game where the outcome is often completely different from the start.
If Gardiner is correct when she says “I know a lot of people, especially on Facebook, who end up believing whatever they see first,” the BC government delays made everything worse. People Tweeted the first thing they saw and the first thing people saw came from multiple and often conflicting sources. Add that to those Tweets that were exaggeration, rumour and lies.
The problem in 2012 it is not one person talking to one person talking to one person, it is a Tweet or Facebook posting that go out to thousands, or millions of people and that’s a lot more dangerous.
McLeod said the post mortem who said emergency services is trying to get more information out to public, but he added. “The unfortunate part is that if you publish it this week, by Christmas no one will remember. If you start throwing it out every week, it becomes like a stop sign at the end of the street. Nobody sees it.”
(Coming next. If Kitimat had to evacuate)
Transcript of Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio tsunami warning.
Pan pan. Pan pan. This is Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio, Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio. Warning for coastal British Columbia issued by Environment Canada on behalf of the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program at 2057 Pacific Daylight Time Saturday 27 October. Tsunami warning for Zone A, the north coast and Haida Gwaii,Zone B, the central coast and including Bella Coola, Bella Bella and (unintelligible). A tsunami warning has been issued, if you are in a low-lying area coastal area, you are at risk and must move to higher ground or inland now.
Do not return until directed to do so. Closely monitor local radio stations for additional information from local authorities. Please minimize phone use in affected areas, for further information contact the provincial emergency program at website www. papa echo papa period bravo charlie period charlie alpha.Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio over.
TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 003
PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER/NOAA/NWS
ISSUED AT 0341Z 28 OCT 2012
THIS BULLETIN APPLIES TO AREAS WITHIN AND BORDERING THE PACIFIC
OCEAN AND ADJACENT SEAS…EXCEPT ALASKA…BRITISH COLUMBIA…
WASHINGTON…OREGON AND CALIFORNIA.
… TSUNAMI INFORMATION BULLETIN …
THIS BULLETIN IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY.
THIS BULLETIN IS ISSUED AS ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. ONLY
NATIONAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO MAKE
DECISIONS REGARDING THE OFFICIAL STATE OF ALERT IN THEIR AREA AND
ANY ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN IN RESPONSE.
AN EARTHQUAKE HAS OCCURRED WITH THESE PRELIMINARY PARAMETERS
ORIGIN TIME – 0304Z 28 OCT 2012
COORDINATES – 52.9 NORTH 131.9 WEST
DEPTH – 10 KM
LOCATION – QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS REGION
MAGNITUDE – 7.7
NO DESTRUCTIVE WIDESPREAD TSUNAMI THREAT EXISTS BASED ON
HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA.
HOWEVER – THE WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER HAS
ISSUED A REGIONAL WARNING FOR COASTS LOCATED NEAR THE EARTHQUAKE.
THIS CENTER WILL CONTINUE TO MONITOR THE SITUATION BUT DOES NOT
EXPECT A WIDER THREAT TO OCCUR.
THIS WILL BE THE ONLY BULLETIN ISSUED FOR THIS EVENT UNLESS
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE.
THE WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER WILL ISSUE PRODUCTS
FOR ALASKA…BRITISH COLUMBIA…WASHINGTON…OREGON…CALIFORNIA.
PUBLIC TSUNAMI MESSAGE NUMBER 2
NWS WEST COAST/ALASKA TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER PALMER AK
834 PM PDT SAT OCT 27 2012
THE MAGNITUDE IS UPDATED TO 7.7. THE WARNING ZONE REMAINS THE
…THE TSUNAMI WARNING CONTINUES IN EFFECT FOR THE COASTAL
AREAS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA AND ALASKA FROM THE NORTH TIP OF
VANCOUVER ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA TO CAPE DECISION
ALASKA/LOCATED 85 MILES SE OF SITKA/…
…THIS MESSAGE IS INFORMATION ONLY FOR COASTAL AREAS OF
CALIFORNIA – OREGON – WASHINGTON AND BRITISH COLUMBIA FROM
THE CALIFORNIA-MEXICO BORDER TO THE NORTH TIP OF VANCOUVER
ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA…
…THIS MESSAGE IS INFORMATION ONLY FOR COASTAL AREAS OF
ALASKA FROM CAPE DECISION ALASKA/LOCATED 85 MILES SE OF
SITKA/ TO ATTU ALASKA…
A TSUNAMI WARNING MEANS… ALL COASTAL RESIDENTS IN THE WARNING
AREA WHO ARE NEAR THE BEACH OR IN LOW-LYING REGIONS SHOULD MOVE
IMMEDIATELY INLAND TO HIGHER GROUND AND AWAY FROM ALL HARBORS AND
INLETS INCLUDING THOSE SHELTERED DIRECTLY FROM THE SEA. THOSE
FEELING THE EARTH SHAKE… SEEING UNUSUAL WAVE ACTION… OR THE
WATER LEVEL RISING OR RECEDING MAY HAVE ONLY A FEW MINUTES BEFORE
THE TSUNAMI ARRIVAL AND SHOULD MOVE IMMEDIATELY. HOMES AND
SMALL BUILDINGS ARE NOT DESIGNED TO WITHSTAND TSUNAMI IMPACTS.
DO NOT STAY IN THESE STRUCTURES.
ALL RESIDENTS WITHIN THE WARNED AREA SHOULD BE ALERT FOR
INSTRUCTIONS BROADCAST FROM THEIR LOCAL CIVIL AUTHORITIES.
EARTHQUAKES OF THIS SIZE ARE KNOWN TO GENERATE TSUNAMIS.
AT 804 PM PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME ON OCTOBER 27 AN EARTHQUAKE WITH
PRELIMINARY MAGNITUDE 7.7 OCCURRED 25 MILES/40 KM SOUTH OF
SANDSPIT BRITISH COLUMBIA.
EARTHQUAKES OF THIS SIZE ARE KNOWN TO GENERATE TSUNAMIS.
IF A TSUNAMI HAS BEEN GENERATED THE WAVES WILL FIRST REACH
LANGARA ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA AT 916 PM PDT ON OCTOBER 27.
ESTIMATED TSUNAMI ARRIVAL TIMES AND MAPS ALONG WITH SAFETY RULES
AND OTHER INFORMATION CAN BE FOUND ON THE WEB SITE
TSUNAMIS CAN BE DANGEROUS WAVES THAT ARE NOT SURVIVABLE. WAVE
HEIGHTS ARE AMPLIFIED BY IRREGULAR SHORELINE AND ARE DIFFICULT TO
FORECAST. TSUNAMIS OFTEN APPEAR AS A STRONG SURGE AND MAY BE
PRECEDED BY A RECEDING WATER LEVEL. MARINERS IN WATER DEEPER
THAN 600 FEET SHOULD NOT BE AFFECTED BY A TSUNAMI. WAVE HEIGHTS
WILL INCREASE RAPIDLY AS WATER SHALLOWS. TSUNAMIS ARE A SERIES OF
OCEAN WAVES WHICH CAN BE DANGEROUS FOR SEVERAL HOURS AFTER THE
INITIAL WAVE ARRIVAL. DO NOT RETURN TO EVACUATED AREAS UNTIL AN
ALL CLEAR IS GIVEN BY LOCAL CIVIL AUTHORITIES.
PACIFIC COASTAL REGIONS OUTSIDE CALIFORNIA/ OREGON/ WASHINGTON/
BRITISH COLUMBIA AND ALASKA SHOULD REFER TO THE PACIFIC TSUNAMI
WARNING CENTER MESSAGES FOR INFORMATION ON THIS EVENT AT
THIS MESSAGE WILL BE UPDATED IN 30 MINUTES OR SOONER IF
THE SITUATION WARRANTS. THE TSUNAMI MESSAGE WILL REMAIN
IN EFFECT UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION STAY TUNED
TO NOAA WEATHER RADIO… YOUR LOCAL TV OR RADIO STATIONS… OR SEE
THE WEB SITE WCATWC.ARH.NOAA.GOV.
Did the media over react to the earthquake and tsunami warning?
There were also numerous Tweets on October 27, accusing the media of over reacting. The Haida Gwaii quake was 7.7 magnitude. Compare that to the Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010 which was 7.0. The Christ Church, New Zealand earthquake on February 27, 2011 which caused major damage was 6.3 magnitude. So the Haida Gwaii earthquake was a major event. The tsunami warning that eventually reached as far off as Hawaii had to be taken seriously.
Fortunately Haida Gwaii is sparsely populated and there was minimal damage largely because most of the houses and buildings are wood and can absorb some of the shaking from an earthquake.
Given the tsunami damage in Southeast Asia in 2004 and in Japan in 2011, no media organization could ignore the developing story.
If there is justifiable criticism, it is that some media over hyped the story in the beginning, rather acting to reassure the public in a responsible manner. But the media that over hyped the earthquake and tsunami are the kind that would over hype any story. That is generally the result of management listening to “TV doctors” and media consultants who urge over hyping to increase ratings. (It often works). But those who, quite early in the event, who tweeted that the media was overreacting, were themselves guilty of overrea
I am going to make a radical suggestion that just might save the dying newspaper industry (for a while).
Fire all your columnists.
Newspapers should do the one thing they used to be good at–original reporting. Anybody can sit down and whip out an opinion piece and post it on the web (as I am doing now).
Fire all the columnists.
Use the money to hire a bunch of eager and smart young reporters from the tech generation. Given the bloated salaries of most ageing, out-of-touch columnists, the newspaper business could probably get three entry-level reporters for every fired columnist. Instead of a stupid “last hired, first fired” policy, the young reporters could keep the industry on life support for a while longer until one of those young people come up with a solution that saves the industry from itself before it collapses entirely.
(One proviso here. There are a few, too few, writers labelled as columnists who actually go out and do frequent original reporting. I’d keep them and make them get out in the field even more than they do now, because they’re actually reporters. There are also innovative reporters/live tweeters/live bloggers like Andrew Carvin @acarvin (personal website) in the US and Kady O’Malley (CBC Inside Politics blog) @kady in Canada. I’d keep them as well. I would not keep tweeters/columnists who just send out their opinions without any actual reporting).
Why fire the columnists?
One. The world wide web is full of opinionated bloggers and tweeters.
In terms of the opinion marketplace, opinion, especially ill-informed opinion, is at the market level of a t-shirt made in China and brought over to North America by the container load, dirt cheap and available in any colour you want. If opinionated columnists helped attract a newspaper audience in the 1980s, today a columnist is a penny a dozen (and we all know what’s happening to the penny).
On the other hand, a large segment of the population seems to be eager for real, on-the-scene, informed reporting. But since having columnists sit on their fat asses in offices, never going out, never even making a phone call or moving a mouse to check a fact, are, in budget terms, cheaper than actually sending reporters out in the field, newspapers are firing reporters and promoting columnists. It’s the same with political panels on television. The panels cost little, fill up air time and add almost nothing substantive to a news broadcast.
How many of today’s audience actually care about columnists? Last fall, I was teaching a continuing education class at a university on social media. There were about 30 students, ranging in age from 20 to 65. I mentioned the CBC and National Post’s Rex Murphy, (I know from my days producing The National’s website that Rex was quite popular then among the CBC audience). To my shock and surprise, blank stares. No one. No one in that class had ever heard of Rex Murphy, even though he hosts Cross Country Check Up, he once wrote a column for The Globe and Mail and now gives his opinion on CBC’s The National and in The National Post. An anomaly perhaps, an indication of the decline of the CBC, perhaps. But those students did talk about how they got news, yes news, from Twitter and Facebook and how links led them to the media that originated the story.
Two. The majority of columnists, left, right or middle, are completely out of touch with reality.
Most columnists today are ageing boomers, or members of Generation Gekko (the spoiled generation between the WWII Greatest Generation and the Boomers) and most haven’t had an original thought in at least a decade. Nothing proves that more, here in Canada, than the near unanimous condemnation of the student protests in Quebec by columnists in almost all the major media across this country. One has to wonder if these columnists talk to their kids (if they have kids). They rant about today’s generation of students as “spoiled brats.”
Compare that blanket condemnation with the intelligent discussions I have seen among several Facebook friends and their followers over the issues in Quebec. Even those who oppose the students stand on tuition fees and are disturbed by the marches disrupting their neighborhoods and businesses are more measured in the Facebook discussions I have seen than what you read in the columns or heard in the television news political panels.
Why read the pontification of a columnists, when you get a wider view of opinions and experiences from a thread on Facebook (where I should note, people use their real names and are known personally to at least some of the people taking part in the discussion)?
None of those columnists, when they were starting out, had to go through four or five unpaid internships to get their first paying job (and unpaid internships are not only standard practice in the media but in almost all industries that also pay their CEOs millions in salaries and bonuses). None of those columnists are burdened with life-long debt for getting a university or college education. The columnists seem to have forgotten the fear we all felt as kids at the prospect of nuclear annihilation over our heads when they dismiss as nonsense, the completely justified fears the current generation of young adults have about the future of a planet facing drastic climate change.
None of those columnists ever seem to bother to read the news wires available on their computers (or even their reporting colleagues on their own newspaper). If they did, they would know that the discontent among the current student and young adult generation is worldwide. There have been student protests in Chile over high tuition and debt for the past two years. There have been student protests across Europe, even before the debt crisis. Then there’s the Arab Spring (conditions may be different but it’s the same generation) and yes, the London riots, even the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the G20 disturbances in Toronto. I’ve seen tweets and Facebook postings that students in the UK are going to adopt the Quebec students’ red square symbol in their struggle with the government of David Cameron. If it happens that would show the power of social media and the networking power of the new generation.
To quote the old song from the 60s, which I am sure most of those columnists sang in their day, “something’s happening here” but unlike a few reporters, the columnists never bother find out, they just sit at their keyboards and create “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Even in terms of a business model, if you’re running a newspapers and you want to attract a younger audience ( the younger audience is a mantra in television, even though the executives don’t really mean it) why have your newspaper columns shit (and I meant that) almost every day on your potential next generation of customers? Yes, most newspaper readers are older (but even those are giving up on newspapers) but why ignore a potential market of millions that could save your business? Perhaps because the newspapers executive are cut from the same obsolete cloth as their columnists
To expand on this, since I returned to my old home town of Kitimat, centre of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, my once high respect for the Ottawa press gallery is in free fall and now near zero. Most of the reporting on this British Columbia pipeline and tanker issue from Ottawa and Toronto, is only 20 per cent accurate, if that. (That is why I founded my own news site, Northwest Coast Energy News). Almost all of the columns on the Northern Gateway issue written east of the Rockies are so inaccurate that they are worthless.
In the old days, when Canadian newspapers actually did reporting from across the country, there would be someone out west to tell the Ottawa or Toronto columnists and their senior editors, hey this column is completely wrong. (There are only three national level reporters in Canada whose reporting can be trusted on the Northern Gateway, Mike De Souza at Postmedia, Jeffrey Jones at Reuters and Nathan Vanderklippe at The Globe and Mail and even they tend to write too much from an energy sector point-of-view. As for the energy columnists, their opinions are worth about as much as molecule of shale fracked natural gas)
The press gallery, especially the columnists, exist in an inside-the-Queensway bubble, listening to politicians, war room strategists, spin doctors and pollsters and have come to believe that is reality. It seems that to the Ottawa press gallery, the only thing that counts is electoral politics. Everything else is, to use the term from economics, a political “externality” and not worth reporting. Discontent across Canada and political turmoil around the world mean nothing, unless it can be factored in to whomever wins the next parliamentary, congressional or presidential election.
Three. Let them blog.
It is interesting that most of the columnists, many of them conservative, many hired in the 1980s, when newspapers decided that they only wanted to chase the well-heeled, upper middle class and upper class market that advertisers craved, worship the free market but are completely insulated from it, especially on newspapers that are loosing money (unlike the young people they scorn who are subject to the marketplace every day.)
So if these columnists are so in favour of the marketplace and if they are fired, as I suggest, then let them put their ideas out in the marketplace as a blog, and see if they can actually earn a decent living at it. Most won’t of course, but there are a few who do, like Andrew Sullivan. More power to those who do succeed, and perhaps a lesson for those who fail and who are currently condemning today’s students and young journalists for their struggles.
Four. The paywall issue.
Newspapers are rushing to create paywalls. Some reporters say paywalls are needed to produce good journalism.
Wrong. We’re getting into a chicken and egg argument here. Paywalls aren’t going to work and not because the internet has worked on free information since 1993. Paywalls won’t work for the simple reason that 80 per cent of newspapers today are not producing anything worth paying for whether it’s online or mobile; they’re not producing anything even worth paying for and picking up the dead tree printed edition. Many newspapers have already fired most of their reporters and photographers or those reporters and photographers have got fed up and quit or taken early or full retirement. Now the newspapers are going to put up a paywall, with even fewer staff doing the reporting and expect that public to pay for that diminished product?
With wire service reports available for free on sites that don’t have paywalls, why then fill up your news site or newspaper with wire reports that people can get elsewhere for nothing and then expect them to pay for it? As well as the wire services there are now the citizen newspapers, from paper.li. I subscribe to a half dozen daily feeds as a sort of wire service for Northwest Coast Energy News and often those compilations give me three or four sources on a new story, so if a story is behind a paywall, there are always alternatives. As well as my own original content, I use Storify to keep my readers up-to-date with issues I can’t cover myself. (Example here)
One has to ask “what are they thinking” in the media’s ego-driven, consultant-plagued corporate board rooms? (Consultant-plagued because all the media companies are repeating the same failed strategies over and over instead of trying something innovative). Why would anyone under the age of 35, in these days of austerity, whip out their credit card and pay to be told by a columnist who hasn’t picked up a phone to check a fact since they were first appointed around 1990 that these readers/viewers are spoiled brats and that their worries about the future are of no consequence.
As I said above, with so much opinion available for free on the web, why pay for the rants of the 95 per cent of columnists whose writing isn’t worth it and only serves to raise your blood pressure (no matter where you are on the political spectrum).
Hire the kids, lots of them
On the other hand for the same current limited budgets, if newspapers got rid of the columnists and hired a whole generation of new, young reporters, with guidance from some open minded senior editors (and checked by good copy editors—you really need to bring copy editors back, firing copy editors is another media corporate stupidity), that would bring “new blood” to use the cliche to the news web sites and news pages. We would see original reporting on issues that everyone, not just the younger generation, care about. A century ago, reporters started in the business right out of high school around 16 to 18 and the newspapers, of the day used their energy to create audience and profits. Even with today’s demand for higher education, a 25-year-old reporter has the energy and eagerness to shake things up. It is possible, perhaps, that they then could produce stories that would be worth paying for, whether by attracting advertisers or even making a news site so good that people might actually penetrate the paywall with their credit cards.
To use a term from one of my generation’s favourite TV shows, Star Trek, The Original Series, in 2012, a columnist on a newspaper is a Dunsel. (Dunsel is a term used by midshipmen in the 23rd century to describe a part which serves no useful purpose. From Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. )
Getting rid of columnists is just an idea, one of many as the news media, an essential part of any free and democratic society, struggles to to survive and find a way to pay to produce its product. There are many blogs and reports out there on the issue of media survival, too many to link to. My idea of getting rid of columnists would just be one stopgap measure.
Unfortunately most media executives these days are also Dunsels, earning huge salaries, running around believing it’s still 1985 and rejecting any new ideas from no matter what source (except expensive reports from their consultants) and thus serving no useful purpose, so it is likely that the newspapers’ downward spiral will continue until nothing is left.
Related See Jeff Fraser’s piece If they build it, will they pay? on the Canadian Journalism Project site where he says the New York Times paywall is working, because the Times is emphasizing quality original reporting and most paywalled papers are not emphasizing quality reporting.
Independent bookstores across North America are in trouble. The business model is changing as more and more readers move to tablets and e-readers, with competition from video games and the lure of all that is available on the Internet.
When an independent bookstore finally finds that its business is no longer working, and it announces that it is shutting down, part of any community dies with that bookstore. The death of the local independent bookstore, general or specialized, mom and pop operation or bibliophile specialized, is always news.
My local bookstore in Kitimat is about to close.
It wasn’t the marketplace (as such).
It was murder. Murder most foul. It was killed by Bell Canada.
No, this wasn’t a case of Bell wanting to increase the number of downloads of e-books and magazines on smart phones and tablets. Bell is a big, dumb corporation and the left hand doesn’t talk the to right hand that way.
In Kitimat, the store is Bookmasters/The Source. Now you begin to understand. As well as the local book, magazine, toy and souvenir shop, the store is a Source franchise.
It’s not that this was an unsuccessful franchise. The Source (Bell) Electronics (the corporate entity) last week suddenly cancelled the franchise contracts of 10 small mom and pop, hybrid Source stores across northern British Columbia, putting 10 small businesses out in the cold, out of pure, stupid corporate greed. The Source (Bell) Electronics plans to replace the mom and pop stores with the kind of high pressure sales “full service” stores you see the major metropolitan areas.
So before going back to the issue of the bookstore, let’s look at the decision by Bell’s corporate headquarters and ask, does it even make business sense?
The question that you have to ask up here is: will there be enough business in the small communities of northern BC to sustain a full up The Source with its obnoxious high pressure sales people, most of whom actually know very little about electronics, other than what is some sales manual? Given the uncertain economic conditions here, I doubt very much if a corporate Source store will succeed in the long run. Interestingly The Source is still promoting hybrid stores under The Source Express franchise, so the question is why are they killing the stores in northern BC? Is there any solid business research behind this move? Or it is an ego-trip from corporate?
There is already talk across northwestern British Columbia of a boycott of the new stores, in protest to this high handed corporate action.
A boycott might actually succeed. There is, of course, fierce competition in electronic retailing, both from national chains and from locally owned electronic stores. In northwestern BC, there is a decades long tradition of mail order, going to back to the time when there was little available at retail due to relative isolation and transportation problems. Now it is easy to order via Internet or on E-Bay. Almost everyone I know up here provides regular work for Canada Post and FedEx or UPS.
(An aside: When the old Radio Shack stores became The Source in Canada, the electronic parts and gadgets that were once carried by Radio Shack disappeared. When, as a TV news freelancer, I needed some gear, I was told by Bookmasters/The Source that they carried it when they were Radio Shack but it was no longer available via The Source. I bought the gear I needed on E-Bay from California)
Another reason that I am pissed off at this. It is going to cost me money. Bookmasters/The Source carries magazines not available on the racks of Overwaitea or Shoppers Drug Mart. With no bookstore in town, if I want those magazines, which are not available electronically, I am going to have drive 60 kilometres to the next nearest bookstore in Terrace once a month or pay postage fees which, for American magazines, are often higher than the subscription fees.
I found about the store closing on the weekend from a friend, I visited the store today (unfortunately all the bookshelves had already been sold).
Today, the more I think about it, even though it is an example from a small town, Bookmasters could actually be a viable business model to sustain independent bookstores, by combining paper books with electronics.
Yes, I frequently buy e-books from Amazon or Apple for my iPad. I see a review or a mention in a news story or on a website and I can download the book with a click.
When it comes to the simple joy of reading, the trouble with Amazon/Kindle or Apple is that often there is not enough information provided that let’s me decide to buy a book. That’s where browsing the bricks and mortar bookshelves comes in.
Take science fiction, unless I read a review in Analog (which will no longer be available in Kitimat after Bookmasters closes) I can’t tell from the one or two sentences on an e-book page whether or not this book is worth buying. Browsing the small science fiction section in Bookmasters let me look at the cover, look at the blurb at the back, perhaps the first few pages and then decide whether to buy and I often do buy.
The other point about a physical, bricks and mortar bookstore is serendipity. Amazon may have recommendations based on past purchases, but there is no way Amazon can tell that a book I see on a shelf in a store will grab my interest. I seldom leave a bookstore without some serendipitous purchase that would never appear on my Amazon profile.
The book business is increasingly moving toward the electronic. Some bookstores are already selling iPads and Kindles. At the same time, some publishers and business analysts are saying (hoping?) there will still be a demand for a physical book.
It seems to me that if we want the independent bookstore to survive as a viable business model, that there should be serious consideration of a hybrid store that sells both books and electronics. A store could sell either hard copy books or e-books through some sort of download station. That way the customer has a choice. That store could also a sell a selection of tablets and other e-devices, selected software and who knows what is around the corner.
Consider the camera store. In the past decade, the camera store has gone from selling film cameras, film and darkroom equipment (remember darkrooms and chemicals?) to what is essentially an electronics store, selling digital cameras (and camera accessories), software, tablets, memory cards and all kinds of accessories. The old film camera shops that refused to move to electronics are long gone. (But the surviving stores still sell used film cameras to enthusiasts)
Who knows what the future will bring in e-books? The explosion in tablets in the past few months is probably only a hint of things to come. Independent bookstores that stick with the old model will die. But, as I said, communities thrive on bookstores. Independent bookstores have to be on the front lines of e-innovations. Surviving independent bookstores should perhaps start looking to the camera retailer as a possible model for adapting to a fast changing future, just like a camera store does today, selling “content” and “content delivery” in multiple forms, including the good, old-fashioned books first brought to us by Johannes Gutenberg..
So for now, the closing of Bookmasters/The Source in Kitimat will usher in another example of the current corporate monoculture. Bell#FAIL
But perhaps, the silver lining in this cloud (and it is overcast and snowing in Kitimat today) is that the hybrid electronic stores in the small markets of northern BC could be resurrected across the world as way of saving the independent “content” store.
About two weeks ago, with the usual great fanfare pioneered by the late Steve Jobs, Apple unveiled its Ibook 2 e-book software. The software has great promise, according to Apple, allowing the user to create the kind of e-book that authors have been waiting for, adding graphics, video, photo galleries, even 3-D.
The euphoria was short lived. A tech blogger named Dave Wineman did what many people don’t do, read Apple’s End User Licence Agreement (EULA) and the alarm bells rang (if alarm bells can ring on Twitter). (I saw a tweet about Wineman’s initial post, retweeted it and posted it on Facebook)
Use Apple ibook software and create a work, and ask for money, and they own it and they own you.
For the past two weeks, the debate has raged, largely within the tech community and that’s the problem. While a couple of the tech writers may have written a tech book, it is absolutely clear that most of the people debating Apple’s move know absolutely nothing about the long struggle by creators to have some form of control over their work, to maintain the integrity of their work and not to get screwed.
The Apple ibook EULA is the road to serfdom for writers and if it succeeds, it is another blow against creative writing around the world.
After the initial post, more tech writers and bloggers took an even closer look at Apple’s EULA and it got worse. Unlike conventional paper publishing, if Apple rejects and refuses to distribute the work, you can’t sell it elsewhere.
Here are the key clauses in the Apple Ibook 2 EULA.
B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.
Then Apple adds
Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including
without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.
It quickly became apparent that Apple’s restriction also meant the author couldn’t sell the book (“the work”) as a printed book, without Apple’s permission and Apple presumably taking a cut.
Use Apple software and you become a serf, a serf to Apple, obliged, like the medieval peasant, to sell your product to your overlord, in this case, Apple.
Those blogs in the tech community that raised the alarm said that this could set an incredibly dangerous precedent, that a software company can use the licencing agreement to restrict or control what is created by that software or, like that medieval baron, take a cut of your production.
An Apple support document notes that “¦iBooks uses the ePub file format” and later refers to it as “the industry-leading ePub digital book file type.” But iBooks Author will not export its output to that industry-leading format.
With iBooks Author, Apple just made a hideous play to kill authors’ rights over their work… it affects every single person who wants to use Apple’s new tool to get their word out. Like iBooks Author? Apple now owns you…
I’m feeling a personal terror here because I make my living as a writer. I’m writing this column now in Apple’s TextEdit. If Apple took the same approach to TextEdit as it does to iBooks, I wouldn’t be able to put my columns in PCMag’s Digital Edition (sold through Zinio). Apple would control how PCMag does its business.
My wife is an artist; she creates some of her work on a Mac. Could Apple then forbid her from selling it on Etsy or through an art gallery with a little-noticed clause in a licensing agreement? That’s what iBook Author heralds.
Up until now, Apple has kept creative tools divorced from the means of distribution… Apple has always made a distinction between enabling the creative process and selling the product of that process.
Apple’s iBooks Author erases that distinction. Apple owns the creative process of anyone who uses the tool.
One tech writer who comes to Apple’s defence is Paul Carr in his Pando Daily blog, seems to have a “get over it” attitude by saying Apple Restricting Sales Of Ebooks? Uh, Yeah, That’s What Apple Does by saying that the free Ibook 2 software is designed to attract a critical mass of new content into their iBooks store,” then Carr predicts “the company will probably relax their EULA restrictions, like they did with DRM in the iTunes store.”
Carr (and others) point out that there is a lot of e-book software out there and authors are “more than welcome to boycott Apple’s awesome new free software” but he adds: “But we won’t. We’ll pick Apple, and we’ll like it. Because this is Apple, and that’s what we do.”
If you don’t like it, don’t use it! Duh.
You’re missing the point. The issue is that this is a software EULA which for the first time attempts to restrict what I can do with the output of the app, rather than with the app itself. No consumer EULA I’ve ever seen goes this far. Would you be happy if Garage Band required you to sell your music through the iTunes Store, or if iPhoto had license terms that kept you from posting your own photos online? It’s a step backward for computing freedom and we should resist it.
And the rule of software is this: Software does not get to dictate the use of output. Period. Software does not get to tell you WHERE you can sell what you’ve created, only that you have the right to sell it (in the cases where software requires a commercial license if you are producing for profit).
Software does not get to tell you, “If you create this work on our software and we don’t want to distribute it, we own the rights to the version our software created, and if you want another version, you will have to disassemble this one, and rebuild it from scratch on other software.”
A few days later, came the backlash from the Apple tech community. In the Apple blog Loop Insight, Jim Dalrymple asked what the fuss was about.
The fact is, none of it is true. I’m not sure if they just misunderstood or they jumped on a juicy headline, but here’s what the EULA is all about, as I understand it.
Apple is providing free tools for authors to create books. If you want to give away your book for free, you can do that. For example, if a teacher makes an iBook for students, they can give it to them at no cost and Apple doesn’t care.
If, however, you create an iBook using Apple’s tools and you want to sell it, then you have to use the iBookstore and give Apple its cut.
That sounds fair to me. Use Apple’s tools, sell your product, and give Apple the money it deserves for providing you with a way to make and sell a product.
He concluded with a complete and utter display of ignorance by saying:
The hubbub over the EULA seems like a whole lot of nothing to me, perpetuated by people that didn’t understand what they were reading.
That of course lead to a lively exchange in the comments section.
Actually it’s Dalrymple who doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Apple’s demand is unfair, unfairness that authors have been fighting for a century or more and, were, for a while, winning. Now the threat is back.
George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The problem with the tech writing/blogging world is that many believe in a continual reinvention of time, not exactly Groundhog Day but more like a Star Trek type temporal loop where everything begins again and again and again, but slightly different each time.
The techies, believing each new day is a new universe, don’t remember the past, and therefore are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
First, let’s take the argument that because a good portion of the population likes Apple products, authors will willingly give up their creative rights to this super-controlling mega-corporation. A mega-corporation that we now know from The New York Times produces those products in horrendous conditions in dark satanic mills in China.
I don’t want to use a stereotype but I have to wonder how many geek writers know anything about the history of professional sports. With Apple and the creative community, we’re getting into a similar situation that happened for generations in professional sports. Let’s take the oldest professional leagues: baseball and hockey. Young athletes wanted to play in the “major leagues.” The young athletes started in the minors, and to get into the minors they signed contracts that essentially made them into serfs, owned by the team and team owners. Even when they reached the major leagues, the original six in the NHL, for example, and became stars, they were still serfs. Many NHL stars (and some baseball stars) had to take off season jobs to make ends meet. They finally got so fed up they formed unions.
Now those players with the support of their unions get multimillion dollar contracts from the team owners. While a few say the athletes are overpaid, it’s a lot better situation than being underpaid serfs, owned by the team owners.
Authors have always been at odds with publishers over rights, over payments, over how a book is designed, published and sold. That will never change (unless publishers disappear altogether, which is possible).
For authors, unions are not a solution, especially in the United States, when court decisions in the 1930s, when creators were fighting the movie studios, ruled that to be unionized, creators must be employees. Laws in other countries are not as restrictive, but then Apple is in California, where those precedents were set.
The problem, ignored by the tech community, is how just how bad things are in publishing today, compared to say 25 and 60 years ago; how conditions for many authors have gotten worse through the years, problems that have little to do with the technical revolution of the past two decades.
For most of the nineteenth century and the first six decades of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of publishers, some small and some large, general and specialized, competing to sell books to the public and therefore competing for authors.
An author still had to have a good manuscript to sell to a publisher. If the publisher liked the manuscript, then the author had to make sure that the publishers’ boiler plate contract didn’t take that author to the cleaners. The publishers’ contract always tried to control as much of the rights as possible, and keep as much money from the author and in the publisher’s pocket as possible. There were always the young and naive authors, like eager jocks with an offer from the major leagues, willing to sell themselves to a serf contract just to be published. Hard lessons brought the rise of the literary agent as well as countless articles advising authors how to avoid being ripped off. It was all part of the game, tough contract negotiations are an accepted part of the free enterprise system.
Things began to change about a quarter century ago with the rise of the chain bookstore. The main problem for authors was that publishers no longer sold books to the public. They sold books to the chain bookstores. The chain bookstores tracked sales and decided, often on the performance of one single title, whether or not an author’s next book should be picked up. If a chain indicated that it wouldn’t pick up an author, that publisher wouldn’t look at that author. (Imagine that in sports, a pitcher has one bad inning, a goalie lets in a few too many balls or pucks in one game, a quarterback has a bad day and throws interceptions and that’s it for their career)
Then came the corporate consolidation, hundreds of publishers shrank to a handful, all owned by large transnational media corporations. While the famous names of publishing houses remained, they were usually shells, each one a branch of one of the mega-corporations. That reduced the choice authors and their agents had in submitting manuscripts.
The combination of corporate consolidation and the chain bookstore raised the always difficult barrier to entry for new authors to almost insurmountable heights. In the long past, a publisher would take a risk on a new author as a long term investment, counting on the fact that a few of those authors would break through and repay that initial investment thousands of times over. And oh yes, those publishing houses were in business, so even the thousand of so copies printed of that new author’s book were designed so there was an easy break-even point.
All of that is long gone. No wonder kids want to get published for free these days, often it is the only choice they have.
The demands of the corporate bean counters at both the publishing house and the chain bookstore also meant the death of the “mid-list” book, the book from an experienced author which would usually makes the publishing house a small but healthy profit. The trouble was both the publishers and chain bookstores no longer wanted healthy profits, they only wanted hugely profitable mega best sellers.
With the rise of new technology, authors were faced with new problems. As first music and later video downloading hurt the bottom lines of the big media corporations, there was increased pressure for even more profitable best sellers from the hard copy product, books. More authors were dropped. Publishers put minimal efforts into books, especially minimal copy-editing and, of course, the public blamed the author, not the publisher, for all those typos.
By mid-decade after the millennium, new technology had begun to hit the book business. Independent bookstores were almost all gone. Now the chain bookstores and their overwhelming power is going. Publishers are left wondering what to do. Almost everyone now working in publishing have spent their entire careers in the business model of selling to the chains, not the public, They don’t know what to do as they face this brave new world and thus they go out of business.
By this time, most authors no longer care much about publishers. If publishers hadn’t been screwing all but their biggest best selling authors for more than a quarter of a century, the publishers might have had allies. They don’t.
Amazon brought the promise of e-books. E-books would liberate the author from the publishers. If publishers no longer did good overall editing, no longer did copy editing, no longer helped clear picture rights, no longer did even minimal publicity, and advances were dropping, why did an author need a publisher? Why not invest in the book yourself, pay for a copy editor, do the publicity, which the publisher left up to you anyway, take the complete risk in the marketplace and, if successful, reap all the profits (even when Amazon took its cut)?
It appears that the promise of e-books is not as great as authors hoped. The spectre of corporate control is once again haunting world of creative writing.
The tech writing community is failing to learn from history, long years of history. I wonder how many of the tech writers who ask what the fuss is about on the Apple EULA have ever read a boiler plate contract from a book publisher that comes close to asking for your first born?
It’s not just the EULA for the iBook software, that EULA is a precedent that leads to a road to author serfdom.
If Apple, which has the most attractive platform at the moment for selling e-books, gets away with that clause in the End User Licence Agreement, the idea will spread. Right now it applies to “free” software. How long before it applies to software you pay for, buried in a corporate EULA?
Right now Apple and Amazon take a cut of the book price. How long before they start demanding, just to get on the platform, as publishers used to do, a percentage of other rights?
The choice could soon be, work for free using free software (and somehow pay the rent, mortgage and grocery bills, an increasing problem anyway for creators that those well-paid tech writers always seem to say doesn’t matter ) or, if Apple succeeds, get your work on a platform that has the potential buyers, but at a likely increasing cost as years go by in terms of both income and rights.
That’s no different than the naive author who signed publishers’ boiler plate (or even worse work for hire) and then got nothing when the book became a hit movie.
That’s no different than a medieval serf forced to sell all their produce to their liege lord.
That’s no different than the farm kid who signed a serf contract so he could play in the NHL or the major baseball leagues.
That’s no different from the merchants in a neighbourhood paying a “percentage” to the local crime boss for “protection.”
The worst case scenario, and one probably no science fiction writer ever imagined, an author who creates a book has to pay a percentage to the software company and another percentage to every electronic platform, not only for book sales, but for every other rights sale.
It hasn’t happened yet, but history has shown time and time again that this is the kind of rights grab that corporations try for.
Tech writers and tech bloggers get real. Learn from history, before you’re screwed as well.
That’s what the fuss is about.
(Disclosure I have an iMac and iPad, also three PCs and an Android phone).
Last Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, the District of Kitimat sponsored an “educational forum” here at Mount Elizabeth Theatre on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project which, if approved, would carry bitumen from Alberta to the port of Kitimat and on to Asia.
There was an hour of presentations covering all sides the debate, followed by a question and answer period.
The Enbridge educational forum in Kitimat, Sept. 20, 2011. Left to right, Ellis Ross, Chief Counsellor, Haisla First Nation, Mike Bernier, mayor of Dawson Creek, Greg Brown, environmental consultant and John Carruthers, President Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. (Robin Rowland/ Northwest Coast Energy News)
Throughout those two hours, the word used to describe the substance that could come to Kitimat through that pipeline was the word “bitumen.” Panelists Ellis Ross, Chief Councillor of the Haisla First Nation, John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines talked about “bitumen,” so did environmental consultant Greg Brown, they all spoke about “bitumen.” The questions from the audience were about “bitumen.”
Of course, after a couple of years of hearings,briefings and educational forums on the Northern Gateway pipeline project, with more to come (especially when the Joint Review Panel’s formal hearings begin here in January) the people of Kitimat are used to the word “bitumen.” Everyone from grade school kids to seniors know the right words to use, especially since Kitimat is also the site of proposed liquified natural gas projects (which introduced a whole new set of terminology.)
When we talk about (and sometimes debate) the Northern Gateway project on the cross trainers and treadmills at the Riverlodge gym, the word used is “bitumen.”
While the Kitimat meeting was underway the rest of the continent, and especially the media was focused on another pipeline project, the proposed Keystone XL project that would carry bitumen from Alberta down to Texas to be refined there.
Type in “Alberta tar sands” into Google, and you get 852,000 results. Perform a search for “Alberta oil sands” instead, and you end up with 334,000 results–not even half that. And if you change “Alberta” to “Alberta’s,” the gap widens even further.
So why do most media outlets tend to default to the phrase “oil sands”? Is “tar sands” pejorative? Or do both terms carry their own bias?
Pritchard pointed back to an article in the Tyee posted after the Calgary Herald attacked the late NDP leader Jack Layton for using the term tar sands.
Tyee quoted the Calgary Herald editorial (no longer visible on the web)this way:
Interestingly, the Calgary Herald didn’t so much take issue with the statements themselves, as it did with his vocabulary.
“It’s not what Layton said,” read an editorial from early April. “It’s the loaded and inaccurate language he used repeatedly, referring to the oil sands as ‘dirty’ and ‘tar sands’ — a word that’s part of the propaganda lexicon for radical environmentalists.”
Nearly two weeks later, the Herald was still ruminating about Layton’s and Obama’s language choices.
“Tar sands is inaccurate and pejorative,” wrote columnist Paula Arab.
In today’s polarized world, you might expect the Calgary Herald, in the centre of the Alberta oil patch, to be in favour of the term “oil sands”
However, most of the mainstream media seem to have bought into the idea that if the sandy hydrocarbons found in northern Alberta are called “tar sands” (it certainly looks and smells and feels like tar) it is pejorative, while “oil sands” are neutral. As comments on both the Tyee and Open File stories show, those who tend toward the environmental point of view consider the term “oil sands” energy industry spin.
Open File asked the Canadian Press for their take on the subject, since the CP Stylebook (like its equivalent from the AP in the United States) is considered the usage Bible not only for the Canadian media for most non-academic writing in the Canada.
Senior Editor James McCarten responded:
Canadian Press style calls for the use of the term “oilsands” (all one word), as it is both the official term used by the petroleum industry and the least susceptible to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. It is also in keeping with accepted style for terms like “oilpatch” and “oilfield” — consistency is a critical element of any effective writing style.
It’s also important to choose the most neutral term available.
“Tarsands,” while at one time the industry’s chosen term, has been appropriated in recent years by opponents of the oil industry and has taken on political connotations, so we choose to avoid it.
So let me get this straight: CP deems the term preferred by the petroleum industry “neutral,” while the term “appropriated” by opponents of the oil industry isn’t. They obviously have misconceptions of the meaning of the term neutral.
An hour after I read the Open File story, I turned to CBC TV News and watched Margot McDiarmid’s item on the Keystone debate. In her first reference to the Keystone pipeline, McDiarmid used the term “oil sands bitumen” to describe what would go through the Keystone to Texas. Relatively accurate. But then at the end of her item she said “oil” would be flowing through the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat.
Even though I worked in radio or TV for three decades and know the necessity to keep things as simple as possible in a short item, I was appalled. To describe the bitumen that is going through those pipelines simply as “oil” is misleading and inaccurate.
If you’ve sat through briefings, attended hearings and read the documents, it is clear that bitumen behaves differently in a pipeline from conventional oil, whether it is crude oil or refined oil.
That difference is at the heart of the debate over both pipelines. It appears that no one outside of the local media here in Kitimat and media along the Northern Gateway route seems to understand that difference, not even at the centre of the current debate about the Keystone XL in Nebraska.
So I checked. What term is the media using to describe what will flow through the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines? The media is all over the place, calling it oil, crude oil, crude, tar sands oil, oil sands crude, oil sands bitumen.
An Associated Press story today, (at least as it appears on the Forbes site) is totally inconsistent, with the web friendly summary speaks about Keystone XL carrying “tar sands oil,” but the main body of the story calls it “oil.”
On first look, it might seem wrong to allow TransCanada Corp. to build the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
It goes on to eloquently describe the situation in Alberta’s sandy hydrocarbons
What’s more, a new conduit would seem to only encourage the further development of the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta. This is a dirty business, to be sure: Vast tracts of spruce and fir are cleared to make way for open-pit mines, from which deposits of sticky black sand are shoveled out and then rinsed to yield viscous tar. For deeper deposits, steam is shot hundreds of feet into the earth to melt the tar enough that it can be pumped to the surface. Then there are the emissions associated with mining Canadian oil sands: It produces two and a half times as much carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases as oil drilling in, say, Saudi Arabia or west Texas.
Bloomberg as you might expect from a business site, goes on to give the argument for building Keystone XL in terms of jobs and the economy (and in a much more measured way than the strident columnists in the Postmedia chain here)
Keep in mind, the U.S. is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of pipelines carrying crude oil, liquid petroleum and natural gas. One of these is the Keystone 1 pipeline, which already carries crude from the oil sands. Yes, these pipes sometimes leak — spectacularly last year when almost 850,000 gallons of oil spilled from a ruptured pipe in Michigan. Far more often, when leaks occur, they are small and self-contained.
After the public hearings, the U.S. should give TransCanada the green light — and then make sure the company manages pipeline design and construction with care.
Get the picture. As far as I can tell, no one, no one in the major news media is accurately describing what will flow through the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines. Again the accurate descriptions come from the local media in northwestern BC who have attended years of local briefings and hearings.
Oil comes from oil sands, right? Here is where the use of the term “oilsands’ leads to misleading coverage. It is where senior editors at CP and other senior editors at other news organizations are wrong. Saying oil or crude will flow through these specific pipelines does lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding and it comes directly from the ill advised use of the words “oil sands.”
Say “oil” and, although it is a generic term, most people think of the substance you put in an engine, ranging from the thick, black gooey stuff that goes into a two stroke boat engine, through the lighter oil that goes into your car or the even lighter oil used by model makers. “Petroleum” would probably be a better generic term.
Say crude and most people would think of James Dean covered in the crude from the gusher in Giant or similar movie scenes. Or for those old enough to remember, they think of the opening of the Beverly Hillbillies when the “bubbling crude” comes out of the ground at Jed Camplett’s farm.
So what is going through the pipelines? While Enbridge uses the term “oil” in its promotional brochure on Nothern Gateway (pdf file), in the briefings here Enbridge officials always talk of “bitumen.” They know that the people living in Kitimat, again whether supporter or opponent, have done their home work. Everyone here knows it won’t be “oil” in the pipeline. But it seems that the public relations branches of Enbridge and TransCanada still believe they can spin the media into reporting the pipelines will just be carrying oil.
So what is going to be in the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines? Read the documents filed with the Joint Review Panel and you find out it is “diluted bitumen” (The bitumen from those sandy hydrocarbons in Alberta has to be diluted or it won’t flow through the pipeline.)
Documents filed with the Joint Review Panel by Stantec, an environmental consulting company based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, hired by Enbridge, and frequently retained by the energy industry uses this definition:
diluted bitumen A hydrocarbon consisting of bitumen diluted with condensate in order to reduce viscosity, rendering it suitable to be transported via a pipeline. In addition to condensate, other subjects can be used as a dilutant (naptha and synthetic oil)
So what is condensate?
Again as defined by industry consultant Stantec condensate is:
condensate: A low density mixture of hydrocarbon liquids that are present in raw natural gas produced from many natural gas fields or which condense out of raw gas if the temperature is reduced below the hydrocarbon dew point temperature of the raw gas.
(Another angle the media has ignored about the Northern Gateway project. While it carries diluted bitumen west from Alberta, there is a twin pipeline that carries the condensate east to Alberta.)
What to call the pipelines and the product?
So let’s talk about Northern Gateway and Keystone XL first. These pipelines are different from the other pipelines that Bloomberg and other media say crisscross North America.
These pipelines will be carrying diluted bitumen, not oil, not crude.
When the public think of oil they think of a lubricant that enhances flow, not a gritty substance that has to be diluted before it can move. Diluted bitumen is a mixture of sand and soil and crude hydrocarbons, with various petrochemicals added to so that that mixture can actually get through the pipelines.
The use of diluted bitumen is raising all kinds of questions. There were questions at last week’s forum on the effect of the friction from the sand on the stability of the pipelines. There were questions at the forum about the corrosive nature of the condensate added to the bitumen on the stability of the pipelines.
These questions do not arise when it comes to conventional pipelines which have been built for the past century.
While there have been major oil spills for decades on land and sea, there has never been a major spill of bitumen in either a pristine watershed or the ocean. There has never been a major spill involving this mixture of bitumen and condensate.
Unfortunately, the ultimate answer to the question of how dangerous such as spill could be, will only be found out if there is disaster.
A photo map of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (in yellow) showing its route close to the Kitimat River, site of the town’s water supply. (Enbridge. Filed with the Joint Review Panel)
The Northern Gateway Pipeline follows the route of the Kitimat River. One of the most frequent questions is what happens to the town’s water supply if the pipeline breaks.
There are thousands of pages on the Joint Review Panel website that show that Enbridge and their consultants have done all kinds of tests, modelling and contingency planning to support their stand the pipelines and the tankers are as safe as possible. There are documents from environmental groups and others that take the opposite position.
So to maintain its already shaky credibility the media must be accurate. Accuracy is the best form of neutrality.
So here are my style/copy suggestions:
The media should call what is going into the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines “diluted bitumen” on first reference and “bitumen” on subsequent references.
It is NOT accurate to call it “oil.” It is not really accurate to call it “crude.”
It is crude oil mixed with sand and the condensate chemicals. To call what will go through the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipeline simply as oil or crude is leading to gross misinterpretation and complete misunderstanding.
The media should continue to use oil when they are referring to conventional oil flowing through a conventional pipeline.
The public isn’t stupid. If you ask a Grade Three student in Kitimat about bitumen and condensate you’ll get a pretty good answer. If the media has to produce sidebars, graphics, interactives, explainer items, to explain what bitumen is, the sooner the better, so that those taking part in the debate and those reporting it know what they’re talking about.
Tar sands/Oil sands
It is clear that the Canadian media managers who decided in the mid 2000s that the term “oil sands” was more neutral than “tar sands” blundered.
Yes the environmentalists do use “tar sands” and for some it can be pejorative. But if you have ever seen the stuff it certainly is tar.
Just as Enbridge uses “oil” in its brochure on Northern Gateway but says the real thing “bitumen” in meetings, “oil sands” is the preferred energy industry spin term. The use of the term “oil sands” reduces media credibility.
Using “oil sands” likely amplifies the general belief that the “corporate media” is in the pocket of big business and thus reduces the credibility of the shrinking numbers of hardworking reporters left working in the field.
Here crowd sourcing and social media help. There are postings both on Open File and Tyee saying the terms “bitumen sands” or “bitumen-bearing sands” are proper neutral terms. I have used the term “sandy hydrocarbons” in this article, I came across it in a briefing document some while ago and it stuck in my mind (though I can’t remember where I saw it).
It is up to public editors, ombudspersons and style book editors to make the call here for their organizations. I believe that if the media starts using “bitumen sands” as a technically accurate and neutral term for what is found in northern Alberta, the readers and viewers will quickly accept it.
Staff of the Joint Review Panel brief residents of
Kitimat on the process, June 16, 2011.
(Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)
The big picture. Why isn’t the environment in the style books?
There is a bigger problem that I discovered when I was looking into this issue. I checked the Canadian Press Stylebook to see what the editors said about the environment and found nothing. Absolutely nothing. There are chapters on business news, entertainment, sports, even travel, but nothing on environmental coverage.
A very quick check with copy editor friends seems to have come up with same result across the media. Media stylebooks don’t consider the environment important enough to have a full chapter. (I may have missed some of course, the check was very quick) yet environmental stories are in the news every day.
The Associated Press was founded in 1848, in part so the New York newspapers could cooperate in getting the latest business news from Europe, first from ships and then from the transAtlantic cable. So business news has been essential to the media for at least a century and a half. This, I believe, has created this historical, and probably unintentional, institutional bias that favours word usage preferred by business. If media style books had environment chapters then the question of oil sands/tar sands would have been considered more thoroughly and the “neutrality” of “oil sands” questioned.
Who knows what other environmental issues have been considered only superficially because stylebooks don’t have a chapter on the environment?
Reporters in the field are often left angry and frustrated by rulings from public editors and ombudspersons who may, despite their efforts, err on the side of “neutrality” rather than “accuracy” especially in this era of extreme polarization.
Media managers often take the path of least resistance, especially if they are being inundated with complaining e-mails and letters.
A stylebook chapter on the environment should stress accuracy over neutrality. Thus it serves the public.
A rigorous chapter in a media style book on the environment (and also on science which is also lacking) would give guidance to reporters in the field, editors at the desk and allow managers to tell the complainers with agendas just how the issue has been examined.
This site has always used bitumen to describe what will be in the Northern Gateway Pipeline. From now on it will use bitumen sands in copy, and will use tar sands and oil sands in direct quotes as appropriate. I hope the rest of the media will follow.
Disclosure: I worked for CBC.ca from 1996 until I took early retirement in 2010. I have also freelanced for both Canadian Press and OpenFile.
I intend to write a longer blog on the raging debate over Kai Nagata’s now famous blog about his resignation from CTV News, Why I Quit My Job putting it in a wider and historic perspective.
Throughout my career I’ve known people who have gotten fed up in the way Nagata did and quit. So quitting is nothing new and I will include that in a future blog.
As the backlash against Nagata grows, I think a crucial point has to be made now. As I said in some Facebook and other posts, Nagata’s blog wouldn’t have gone viral if it hadn’t touched a cord with a lot of people, including many of his generation. The blog has an audience around the world that is still growing.
A lot of people are now saying Nagata is a self-indulgent egotist in his mid-20s. Maybe. Elders have attacked restless, ego-driven 20-somethings since the first agricultural settlements in Anatolia seven thousand odd years ago.
Many influential voices in journalism are saying that Nagata should have stayed and fought. One of the latest comments comes from someone highly respected in the broadcast news industry, Howard Bernstein, Quitting Solves Nothing.
Nagata isn’t the only talented young journalist who has quit the business (although it looks like Nagata didn’t hold out as long some people). I know other people in their 20s in Canada, the US and the UK who have also quit but who haven’t voiced their dissatisfaction so eloquently as Nagata. So perhaps quitting does solve the problem of knocking your head against a brick wall. It feels so good when you stop.
The first question that has to be asked is: with jobs in journalism so scarce and competition
for those jobs so fierce that the managers who actually want talent have their pick, then why are so many of the best and the brightest who can quit (not married, no mortgages, not overburdened by student loans) actually quitting?
I have seen Facebook and other postings from very talented journalists and former journalists, I know, all in their late 20s, early 30s, (and whose work I respect) all saying Nagata is right. Most of the criticism appears to becoming from an older age set, from late 30s up until retirement.
The second and more important question is where’s that all important audience that the media managers keep telling us they are trying to serve?
The audience for news among the 20 to 30 demographic is dismal. Those dismal figures go beyond the supposed disinterest that age group has in news.
This is the demographic that the advertisers supposedly hunger for, supposedly would kill for: 18 to 34. Where are that audience? Not watching TV news, that’s for certain. Why are the news ads filled with safety bath tabs, reverse mortgages, non-medical life insurance and topical pain relievers? The advertisers aren’t that dumb, if the 20 to 30s were watching the news, you’d see a lot more ads than there are now for smart phones and tablets, computers, cars, adventure vacations and eco-tourism trips, starter condos and the furniture for those starter condos. Instead the ad dollars are going to attract poor, aging, arthritic, worried boomers. At the same time, in any TV newsroom, the managers go on and on and on and on about the “younger audience” while producing the kind of news piffle that led Nagata to quit and has driven that audience away.
The 20 to 30s are also not reading newspapers, at least on paper, they browse online at the free news buffet.
It’s not just that they are part of the download generation who expect free stuff. The news media hasn’t produced anything that they think is worth paying for. After all they will pay for music on iTunes and for non-pirated software or anything else they feel has real value. The news media doesn’t produce anything that would attract an 18-34 audience that would mean advertisers would throw money at the media to get their attention.
Among my non-journalist friends in their 20s, one thing is very clear. They don’t trust the media at all. Any media. While mostly aging conservatives attack the CBC for its supposed left-wing bias, many of 20 to 34s I talk to lump the CBC together with CTV, Global and Sunmedia as “corporate media.” I am surprised and disheartened that many young people believe that all the networks, including the CBC, and the major newspapers jump to Stephen Harper’s commands. (I am sure I can hear Harper saying, “I wish” especially when he is facing Terry Milewski.)
Like the rest of the audience, the 18 to 34 are titillated by Charlie Sheen’s self destruction and they did watch some of the royal tour by William and Catherine. But they are also concerned about the future of this poor planet and the crisis that climate change will bring and know that the media on whatever platform isn’t doing enough coverage of those stories.
The current News International scandal, the closing of The News of the World (as well as the likely cynical substitution by the Sun on Sunday) and the continuing revelations about the abuses of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch (as well as the fact that Conrad Black is going back to jail in the U.S.) will do nothing to improve the trust in the media among younger people.
So it’s not just Kai Nagata that’s quitting the media. It’s the whole damned demographic.
The real story is not Kai Nagata, it’s an entire generation, that all important audience, disillusioned by the metric driven nonsense that consultants tell managers this generation (that isn’t watching or reading) want.
The journalists in that generation who are quitting and posting on Twitter and in blogs that didn’t get as much notice as Nagata’s are voicing what the rest aren’t saying (and isn’t that the journalists job?)
For my friends and colleagues who are still in the business and are still fighting from the inside, good for them, they might (might) make a difference (maybe). However, we must remember the definition of insanity, if you keep doing the same thing over and over and get the same result, and you don’t change what you are doing and keep doing the same thing, you must be insane.
While there are small victories in those internal fights, the important strategic battles are being won by the beancounters and metric mad managers (who are picking up their huge bonuses on their way out of the office each weekend).
Some of those young people, some still journalism students, and many who quit their jobs without publishing their manifestos, who I follow on #futureofnews are working to create their own start-ups or exploring new forms of entrepreneurial journalism or are struggling as two-track freelancers (both working for the current media and working to innovate).
So it is likely that if anything saves journalism. it will come from one of those quitters who are free to create a new model and mode of news delivery. Maybe that’s why Kai Nagata touched such a raw nerve with the (the cliche) main stream media.