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Saturday, October 11, 2008

"I think I've been slow to understand your question."

The election's in a few days, and Canadians are buzzing about this video. Stephane Dion is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Conservatives say it shows that Mr. Dion is not ready to lead. Liberals say it shows that Mr. Dion, who has hearing problems and was working in his second language, did not understand a question that was a bit harder to understand than it needed to be.

The question, as asked by Steve Murphy: If you were prime minister now, what would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

This is your standard "what would you have done about this problem?" sort of question, although my version of the question is definitely simpler than the way Mr. Murphy phrased it. The leader of any national party should be able to answer this. Mr. Dion did answer, but as you can see from the video, he had several false starts.

I am interested in this video for what it says about journalism ethics. (Yes, I've been writing about this topic a lot lately. I'll move on to something else eventually, I promise.)

This is called a "do-over". In taped TV and radio interviews, it's common to ask questions a second time if the person asks to start over. There are no real rules about when this is appropriate, but in general, it is done if the person does not understand the question or catches himself in an error that was only a slip of the tongue. ("Did I just say there are fifty dogs at the shelter? That was wrong. There are only fifteen dogs at the shelter. Can we start that again?") There is an agreement between the interviewer and the interviewee that the flubbed bit will be edited out of the final product.

In this case, the CTV team agreed to start again. Not just once but several times. Then the producer decided to break the agreement with Mr. Dion.

It could be argued that one do-over would have been overlooked, but that in this case, it was news that the candidate asked for so many do-overs. I think that's why CTV did this.

But still, this is a clear example of a network breaking its word. Interviewers need to be above that. If Mr. Murphy and his co-workers felt they were taking part in an interview that itself was news because of the way it was conducted, they should never have agreed to edit those parts out.

Journalism relies on trust. The public must be able to have faith in the news media, but trust is earned, not given away. If the reporter agrees to edit certain things out, he has to do that. If one do-over is permitted but three are not, the reporter has an obligation to say so: he can't make any agreements that would lead the interviewee to believe otherwise. CTV screwed this one up from the start.

I honestly don't know what this video says about Mr. Dion's ability to lead, but I do know what it says about CTV.

Elsewhere on the Interweb:
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Zach Bell said...

Dion may have screwed up but I disagree that this was a standard question. Some one with this much experience in the news industry should be able to understand why it's ridiculous to pose a question to a French Canadian speaker that has past and present tenses mixed in a way that doesn't make sense.

I am of the firm belief that CTV set Dion up. They way they played this clip over and over and over and over again after the fact and the continuous commentary provided by CTV on it...that showed a clear intentional bias to me.


Anonymous said...

I feel bad for Dion.
It's a language issue.
Good on Dion for asking Murphy to repeat.
Pooh on CTV for rebroadcasting.
I doubt they rebroadcast when Murphy fumbles.

Zach Bell said...

Actually, it's also a huge breach of ethics to have made an agreement after the interview to not air the material only to turn around and then air the material afterwards.


Way Way Up said...

I'll play devils advocate here. It's interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes. Politicians love to put forth a nice polished image. Its g ood to see the reality with all the warts and bruises. Heaven forfend he should actually have to answer a moderately challenging question.

scribe said...

I'm just flabbergasted that Dion and Harper are considered the best "leaders" of their parties. They're both awful. In fact, I can't think of one world leader with the gravitas to lead us out of this mess.

scribe said...

I've watched this video over and over and dicussed it with a couple media friends in TO. We all agree that Murphy was not making sense at all and we think he knew it. Anyone for whom English is a first language would have difficulty understanding the question "what would you do now, back then?"

jen said...

The question in English was not terribly hard to understand. But I do sympathize that the interviewer was using a wacky sentence structure set-up for a French speaker. He also changed the way he asked the question each time, which could make it hard to understand. I don't think this was so terribly scandalous on Dion's behalf. I don't like the way CTV made it look like he had just drowned a bunch of kittens. Meanwhile I don't think it's going to help his party out much.

Karen said...

Having just spent a month living in a language other than my main language while in Quebec, it is interesting how their media played it out. Even Gilles Duceppe came to Dion's assistance. The question as originally posed by Murphy was convoluted and did a weird thing with verb tenses - I think the pluperfect might be in a clause there somewhere. To do this to someone who is working in their second language is nothing better than a set-up. Duceppe hit the nail on the head when he spoke about how easy it is to make anyone look bad when using their second language - if you stuff a question full of sub-clauses, verb tense shifts, and toss in some colloquialisms, no one will have any idea what's going on. And then do that to someone with a hearing problem on top of it all? I suspect these journalists who reveled in making the do-over the story also pull the wings off flies and push kids out of wheelchairs. Amateur hour.