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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Political Reporting

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Things that are not really news.

The speculation about the federal election has gone too far. I can't handle it anymore. Yes, I totally GET that you are a reporter and that you work in Ottawa. Sadly, this does not impress me. Let me know when there's going to be an election. Your moronic speculations are not significant, interesting or new. They boil down to this: "There MIGHT be an election!" or "There MIGHT NOT be an election!". *Obvious pause so I can appreciate how smart and "in the know" you are.* Hrm. I'm not sure how this type of news contributes to any sort of national dialogue. I do see how it helps you fill your five-minute news hole at the bottom of the hour, but that is of limited benefit to the 30 million or so people in this country who are not you.

The latest supposed election news from this part of the country is that a variety of local politicians (including the premier) are not ruling out the possibility that they might possibly run in the federal election, or might possibly not. Maybe. The news is abuzz with this story. Please click over and read it. I will wait.

Everybody back? Good. Now, let's evaluate this important piece of political journalism for actual news content. Fortunately for you, I have been following this story, so I know what's new. I will put the new bits in bolded text:

1. The premier is not ruling out the possibility of running. Sorry, this is not news any more than it would be news if he was not ruling out the possibility of ordering pizza for supper.
Suggested course of action: Report on actual news, like that the premier is announcing his candidacy. Or, you know, ISN'T.

2. People who are with the Liberal Party and people who are with the Conservative Party have asked the premier about running. I'm not sure what this means. Has he been formally courted by two political parties? Or did people on the street who vote Liberal ask him if he is going to run? Is this the real story? He's so popular that both teams want him?
Suggested course of action: Ask a follow-up question to really get to the difficult issues here. I recommend using a really piercing question like "Can you explain what you mean by that?".

3. There is speculation that the premier has joined the Conservatives, but he won't confirm or deny that. He says he will not run as an independent. Okay, I'm not sure what to do with this. What are you trying to say? Who is speculating about the premier's political ideology? Is this like the time you quoted your neighbour as an "insider" because you wanted to look really cool? Shouldn't you be more surprised at the fact that you apparently are not able to look at the premier's political record and figure out for yourself if he is likely to be a Conservative?
Suggested course of action: Figure out what you're trying to say here. Then say that. Actually, say anything but this.

I'm wondering if the point of this story was not in any of the new (but non-news) bits above. I suspect that the real purpose of this story was to set up some confusion and then slip the last paragraph in. The one that mentions casually that the former premier wants to run as a Liberal (this is not news either, but in this case, it's not news because it has already been reported). You see, this sets up a new/old Conservative/Liberal showdown. How exciting! Or at least it would be if, you know, the hypothetical candidate decided to run as a hypothetical Conservative in the hypothetical federal election. Or if, you know, the reporter would be a little more open about this suggestion. Or if -- this is just crazy talk now -- the reporter would wait until there was a real story to report before rushing to air with this silliness.

I do not mean to pick on the CBC here. Everyone appears to be doing this story, and nobody is doing a very good job of it. I say this with the greatest respect for the CBC reporter who called me today and addressed me as Little Miss Know-it-All.

This might be a good place to mention that I do not do these media critiques out of any level of dislike for the media. I do them out of a sincere appreciation for the role of the media in our society and out of the affection I feel for most of the reporters I deal with. I do them because I know the media can do better. And I do them because it seems like nobody else is doing the same thing. Everyone's a media critic these days, but this often seems to come from a sense of entitlement, anger or snobbery rather than a sincere desire to see the situation improve.


Cin said...

Stories such as this make me want to jump from the reporter's cube to the editor's desk.

BTW, the head copy editor's desk at a major daily is where you belong. You know that, don't you?

I speak from experience here -- I worked with some of the country's best copy editors at the provincial daily in, of all places, New Brunswick.

It's time to unleash Little Miss Know-it-All on the nation's unwashed readers.

Steve & Megan said...

I really enjoy copy editing. My skill set is particularly limited, so it is nice to have a few things that I'm good at. (No, there's no need to say "at which I am good".)

I look up to celebrity copy editors like Pat Myers and Bill Walsh at The Washington Post. I would love to be able to fix bad stories. The one I've described in this post could have been a lot better. I respect reporters so much that it is almost painful to see stories like this.

Sadly, I've now reached the point where it would be difficult to make the jump back. I've been away from the CBC for five years.