Island Watch Dogs: Why P.E.I. Needs Bold Journalism

  #islandwatchdogs   - 4 December 2017 -  By: Jason MacGregor
 

At the beginning of journalism school you’re given a scenario that determines if you have what it takes to be in the trade. The situation: a family has just lost a loved one. You, as a journalist, need to knock on their door and talk to the family about that person.

I have a friend who immediately closed her book. She put her hands in the air and said “nope, fuck that. Not for me”.

 University of King's College.  Home of  "nope, fuck that,"  since 1789.

University of King's College.  Home of "nope, fuck that," since 1789.

I’ve also sat in a semi circle in a tutorial and had one of my classmates spit a response out of left field. “Of course they would talk to me,” she said arrogantly. “They would have to. I’m the journalist.”

When the professor asked her to clarify her point things started spiralling. Myself and my classmates sat there awkwardly, averting eye-contact, as she defended her position and her authority as a journalist. She had it confused for her teenage arrogance. At the end of the tutorial she was asked to go speak to the program director. By the end of the day she was out of the department.

But journalism is a lot more than knocking on doors and getting in peoples’ faces. After paying tens-of-thousands-of dollars to learn about this trade--which may or may not be dying out, I learned that journalism is really fucking important. And here’s an insider's secret. This is about the place in the article where the “nut graph” goes. That’s the paragraph that explains why this article matters and will hopefully keep you interested enough to keep you reading for the next few minutes.

That tidbit was free. Just for you!

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But in all seriousness, journalism is really fucking important. It’s journalists who carry the title of being the watchdogs of democracy. That sounds pretty badass. And it is. A democracy depends on a dynamic, sometimes hard-to-understand set of checks and balances. One of those checks is a free media.

As defined by the American Press Institute: “Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed. The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments”.

Ever heard of Watergate? You’ve probably heard of something-gate because the American media wants to name every stupid little scandal after it. The essence of that historical event is that  journalists did...well,  journalism.  And doing that brought an end to Richard Nixon’s presidency.

In more recent history there’s Wikileaks. When many people hear that name they think threat to national security, treason, or enemy. Those presumptions say a lot about the messages we’re taking away from the current media environment.

Before I heard the word Wikileaks I saw a video on the internet. It was in the computer lab in Dalhousie University’s library. I watched a black and white video where an American military pilot kills an innocent Reuters journalist and his camera man in Iraq. It was clearly wrong. A few minutes later I heard someone behind me ask his buddy if he had seen that video from Wikileaks describing what I had just watched. His friend had. It was one of those weird moments in life where everyone is suddenly privy to something groundbreaking at the same time.

But people were conflicted. The video was classified.Yet what took place in it was very wrong.

At its core Wikileaks is journalism adopted to the modern age. It’s ugly, but that’s real journalism at work. It’s keeping those in power accountable for their actions. Even if those in power try slapping a security classification across their dirty deeds.

It only took a couple months of Intro to Journalism for some of my classmates to have that fleeting moment of clarity where they realized--fast and hard, that journalism really wasn’t for them after-all.

I faced my own moment of truth on the way home for thanksgiving that first year of journalism school. One of my neighbours happened to be in Halifax to visit her brother and had a free seat on the way home which she kindly offered to me. On the way out of the city just after nightfall, she asked why I wanted to be a journalist.

It was such a simple question, yet it caught me off guard. I had to really think about it.

Like when Ted Kennedy was running for President of the United States and he was asked on CBS why he wanted to be president. Until that point things looked promising for him. Like his two late brothers before him, it seemed destined that he would sit in the Oval office if he survived the election.

Kennedy stumbled. He searched for the words but they weren’t there. You can almost feel the epiphany rolling over him in that instant. In that same moment, millions of people began seeing Ted Kennedy from a different perspective. Like that, with one very simple question, a journalist indirectly threw-off the course of the election, and ultimately, history.

But on the highway through Nova Scotia that evening, as I quickly did some soul searching, I couldn’t say I was in it for the power, money or fame. Even in the years before the Great Recession of 2008, it was obvious that the industry was dying a slow, painful death. The financial collapse only sped up the process.

“Probably because there’s so much gossip on the Island,” I said. “I supposed I just want to know what the real truth is about things,” was my answer.

I thought it was a good response at the time. When I returned to King’s after thanksgiving and stayed the course, I learned that journalism is more powerful than just beating back gossip.

At a meeting for Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), the power of the trade hit home. It was in Toronto. The other chapter presidents and I were sitting with the coordinator who worked at Head office. Ben, the executive-director was also there. Something had happened that JHR was involved in but they weren’t willing to talk about it.

Finally, with Ben leaning back against a table, they told us.

In one of JHR’s workshops in west Africa, the local journalists were told about what rights they were “entitled” to under their country’s constitution. One of the journalists took it to heart. On his radio show he explained that women were not just the property of men. And that actually, each women had rights under the law, and if those rights were being infringed on then they could report it at the local police station. Many of them were being sexually assaulted and abused.

Hearing this, many of the local women lined up at the police station. The chief was not happy. Shortly afterward the journalist who had so diligently made that announcement was found dead in a nearby lake.

 1262 journalists have been killed since 1992. This year (2017) 34 were murdered...

1262 journalists have been killed since 1992. This year (2017) 34 were murdered...

Some movies and TV shows make journalists out to be wealthy, glamorous and witty people. In reality it couldn’t be further from the truth (except for being totally sexy, of course).

For those who take the trade to heart, the pay sucks. The benefits suck. The hours suck. And the possibility of making any real change is almost impossible. It can be soul crushing. There’s a good chance of becoming an alcoholic or picking up smoking. Depending on the outlet, the fulfillment may not be there after all that hardship.

“We as journalists have personality flaws,” one of my professors said in a booming baritone voice one day. But as least we own it, he said. “Not like most people. That’s what lets us go out and do the things we do that no normal person would.”

So maybe it’s just evolution. Is it that journalists are going the way of blacksmiths? It’s just another trade that’s no longer needed in today's society.

The business structure may be dead, but journalism isn’t. The industry as we know it just needs to hurry up and fail. What’s needed is a clear picture of the way forward.

Still, so what, people will say. Let the industry die once and for all. Journalists are considered to be the worst kind of people. According to the stats, only 18% of people say they trust journalists. That’s slightly above telemarketers and used car salesmen.

It would be understandable if Ted Kennedy ever once held a grudge against journalists for upsetting his chance of becoming president. But even he could not have imagined the state of affairs like we see today with President Trump and his approach to the media.

It’s the age of fake news and alternative facts. It so absurd it’s funny. Among my own friends, saying “nah, fake news” has become a common way of saying “you’re full of shit.” Meanwhile, George Orwell, the author of 1984, is rolling in his grave.

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But the thing is, it’s fucking terrifying. Not for journalists, but for society. When the US president--the so called “leader of the free world”, starts trying to undermine the legitimacy of journalists, there’s something very wrong. And at a time when the journalism industry is on its knees, it's even more vulnerable to those attacks.

In today's world, the amount of information we have our hands on is humongous. But that also means the amount of misinformation rolling down phone and computer screens is daunting. A lot of that misinformation has been feeding hatred towards a lot of different people.

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That misinformation isn’t an American problem or one started by Donald Trump. He may be president but he’s just another pawn in the bigger picture. A fat, orange pawn.

So what does all this mean for Islanders? Well, here’s tidbit number two. When it takes so fucking long to get to the point that’s called burying the lead. That one’s free too. Hope you’re still with us!

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The majority of Islanders--even seniors, are on social media sharing photos, tagging people, and making #tbt (throw back Thursday) statuses about that trip to Mexico three years ago. Among us are those who have seen something pop-up on their feed that got their blood boiling. Something that made them angry.

I’ve sat down to visit relatives to have them send a link to my phone from the other side of the room. “Read that and tell me what you think,” they’ve said.

I have tried explaining clickbait so many time it hurts.

“These are young kids from Macedonia or Turkey raking in about 2500 bucks--American, a day  to make stuff like this, “ I’ve said. There is a lot of money in clickbait. Especially for tech savvy kids from Eastern Europe. "But there’s a video too," they’ve responded.

Islam is a cult.

Lazy Millennials.

You’re either born a man or a woman. That’s it.

These are some of the phrases I’ve heard from Islanders--including young people. PEI, like the rest of the world, is being fed misinformation that is teaching Islanders to hate total strangers or even fellow Islanders based on random posts from the internet.

It’s a brave new world and these are some of the problems that journalism needs to deal with in today’s society.

Journalism can be rather universal. American examples are used in this article to highlight how journalism has the power to check  government officials and others, but its the very same for PEI and the rest of Canada. Afterall, the United States is the most powerful country to have ever existed on the face of this planet. And if journalism still has the ability to affect that government than it should prove to the rest of us how much of a force it really is.

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PEI is in a unique position in terms of journalism.

One of the main issues behind most people’s hate of journalists is that they don’t personally know any. On the Island most people either know a journalist or have at one time or another been in the papers or on CBC for an event they took part in.

On PEI the media industry revolves around chronicling what’s happening on the Island. There’s no real investigative journalism or exposes. There are editorials in which people complain about things but rarely offer solutions. For the most part the Island media is tame and respectful.

This is where I walk a fine line. With Mayzil the goal is to enter and be part of the Island’s media environment. If there was ever a better example of “frenemies” it’s between competing journalism companies.

The outlets we have on P.E.I. are relatively good. I mean, I can point out a fault with each. Like the CBC doesn’t need to worry about their quality because they’re supported by tax money . Or The Guardian shouldn’t endorse political parties because you’re meant to be objective. It’s pretty wild for a strictly news reporting entity to endorse a political party. But Justin Trudeau is a pretty handsome fella.

I was doing a work placement in Alberta a few years ago at the military base in Wainwright. One day a reporter from the local paper joined us. We were chatting as we drove along in the car and I brought up that I was from PEI. He was slightly surprised.

“I know someone from there,” the reporter said. “Paul MacNeil. He’s the publisher of a paper there in Montague.”

I was happily taken aback. He went on to explain that he met Paul at a weekly-publishers conference and that he was rather impressed by him. That reporter wasn’t the only time I heard good things about Paul MacNeil. The work he does, he does well.

At their core, the media outlets on PEI today have all the best intentions. But they aren’t going the rest of the way with their work. Largely, the outlets we currently have mostly chronicle events and issues as they unfold. They ask questions in an effort to dig for more information, and they editorialize and offer criticism on a multitude of things. On their worst days they will just copy and paste a press release from the government without questioning it.

But Island media rarely takes a stand on political or cultural matters that affect people. Few solutions are put forward and endorsed. For a long time now that has been a heated topic in the traditional media. For traditionalists the purpose of the media is to report things--factually and quickly. That's it. 

Today as the business structure of journalism as we know it is crumbling away, so is the type of work that journalists are expected to do. The way forward is unclear.

But to every problem there’s a silver lining.

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British Columbia offers a possible solution to this giant problem. As David Beers explains:

“Here, a cluster of digital outlets have flowered by paying for top notch investigative and solutions-focused reporting. They are forging new business models and training the next wave of journalists.

“Taken together, they form a news media ecosystem in which surviving means competing but also collaborating. Yes, each vies to break stories and attract money. But they also sometimes republish each other’s pieces, pool resources or team up.

“‘Coopetition’ is one way to describe this style of ecology.”

In the last decade the area in and around Vancouver has seen the launch of several hard hitting outlets that belong to this new wave of journalism. The Tyee, Megaphone Magazine, National Observer, DeSmog Canada, Discourse Magazine, Hakai Magazine, and Vancouver Observer: The Global Reporting Centre now offer viable alternatives to Sun Media and other transnational corporations based in central Canada that have long dominated small markets across the country.

And in this lies the key word. Solutions.

In today's very fast-paced and complex world we’re aware of more problems than ever before. It’s not exactly that they are more troubles in the world today, it’s just that technology has made us aware of them all.

It’s important that we know about the issues people face because being informed means being empowered. But in order to make a change to the status quo for the better, possible solutions also need to be broadcasted to help society fix these problems quicker.

The very same is needed on PEI. Today’s media needs to be more than watchdogs of democracy. They also need to be its guide dogs--not just barking when there's danger in site, but also pointing Islanders in the right direction. 

One of those solutions is having a diverse media environment. 

And so, Mayzil is here.

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