News Reporting – the search for quality

News reporting, print, radio and TV, has morphed into another form of entertainment with actual news buried in other content including advertising. The 24 hour news cycle is the result of radio, TV and internet delivery which needs material to fill a greatly expanded carriage capacity. But because there is not enough genuine news to fill the space available, the carriers create or invent news and views to fill the pipes. By genuine news, I mean items which are of interest to viewers interested in topics typically found on the pages of a printed daily newspaper. Of course there are many other interests such as the hobbies which people enjoy and which could and often do fill the space, but the delivery of traditional news has taken a turn for the worse…in my view.


There are some redeeming features. The 24 hour news cycle has spawned programs like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, delivered on the US Comedy Channel (available on CTV in Canada) and using material from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC to highlight the often biased and ridiculous nature of the reporting by these news channels. These tend to fabricate news if it does not exist. John Oliver does a similar program financed by HBO. Unfortunately English-language Canada has no such show. Rick Mercer operates in a somewhat similar vein but without Stewart’s bite. This is a bit surprising in that Canada has produced probably more comedians per capita, but they often make their name in the US, such as Sandra Bee and Jason Jones On the Daily Show, and others on Saturday Night Live.


News reporting is and always has been mixed with commentary, with the comments often reflecting a particular political or other viewpoint. One difference now is that the news channels look for people who will be deliberately provocative, which is fair game, but their provocation can come in such a biased or unbalanced way that it undermines any value their comments might have, and casts doubts on the reliability of the delivery channel as well as the commentator.


I suppose it is time to provide names to illustrate my view. In Canada, I find the commentary and reporting of Andrew Coyne, Geoffrey Simpson and Christy Blatchford amongst others to be well researched, argued and presented, even when I don’t agree with the position taken. Accordingly I am inclined to read the general editorials of the publisher or broadcaster who would hire such journalists.


At the other end of the scale, when I read the rants of Michael Harris in various news outlets, I read the contributions of a man who could not see a good conservative if one was placed under his nose, and would be unable, perhaps unequipped, to examine the implications, good as well as bad, of conservative policies past and proposed. Some may like his reporting. For me he is a disgrace to the profession of journalism, if that is his calling. Accordingly, it casts a shadow on the news outlets which carry his and other materials.


Another scribe with similar attributes is Robert Fife who moderates Question Period on CTV. A moderator’s role is to poses question about issues of the day and to ask informed panelists for their opinions. CTV’s panelists are usually well informed but they are presented with issues where the moderator exposes his own opinion instead of just the question. The panelists often try to provide balance but constant interventions are made by Fife to guide them back to his viewpoint. The consequence for me is that Question Period is no longer a useful Canadian news program. Fortunately there are other news sources to interact with, increasingly on the internet, which compete with the established news channels.


There is an alternative model operating in Canada and the US. Steve Paquin, the moderator of TVO’s The Agenda performs in a manner which appeals to me. He selects tough issues, assembles an informed panel, often with opposing views, and poses questions to them without inserting his own opinion. Perhaps this is why he is often chosen to moderate leaders’ debates at election time. In the US, the PBS Newshour and Washington Week in Review provide balanced reporting overseen by an informed and intelligent moderator. Charlie Rose is another hour long interview program on PBS which has the interviewer asking the questions and the guest rather than the interviewer answering them.


While the 24 hour news cycle is responsible for the reduced quality of news reporting on traditional channels, there are bright spots. Individuals rather than large news organizations can post material on the internet which is instantly available. It is a challenge to determine who is worth reading or listening to, but the menu of reporters and commentators is expanding and word of mouth directs members of the audience to quality reporting and commentary. The world has changed because of technology, but this is a good news story which can improve the operation of news reporting as well as news organizations.


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