Category Archives: Blog

Caught in the headlines – how Canadian journalism failed MMIWG

Red Dress

The red dress is a symbol to remember and honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. These earrings were made by Bryson Syliboy. Photo courtesy Bryson Syliboy

One year on from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG),1  the world has changed but too much of Canadian journalism has not.

Even as news reports offered extensive coverage on the publication of the conclusions and recommendations, commentary focused on one word: genocide.

The response by major Canadian news outlets remains a source of shame and embarrassment, but it was not a surprise.

“The report on missing and murdered Indigenous women was searing and important, marred only by its inaccurate genocide charge” (Globe and Mail, June 4, 2019)

“’Genocide’ appropriation makes reconciliation harder” (National Post, June 11, 2019)

My personal belief is journalism means reporting, not commentary. A particular problem last year was editorials and commentaries. They weren’t needed and were at the expense of critical reporting of the inquiry’s findings.

“Critical” doesn’t mean criticising the inquiry’s very existence. There are countless questions we could have asked before about racism and its consequences within Canadian borders. And there are endless questions we should ask about how the “calls for justice” could be implemented, why they weren’t decades earlier and how they’ve been ignored in the past 12 months.

There were demands for action worthy of journalism’s attention in the hundreds of pages in the final report, such as safe and affordable transit (4.8) or an annual liveable income (4.5).

Both of those are now being discussed widely because of the coronavirus pandemic, i.e. only once it affected the majority, not a minority. That is a hallmark of racism, that we care about a problem only within the context of the white majority.

One passage that particularly stuck out for me last year was this, on page 10 of the executive summary of the final report:

In describing the relationships that were important to understanding the violence experienced in their own life or the life of their missing or murdered loved one, families and survivors drew attention to specific moments in those relationships they felt were especially important to understanding the circumstances, causes, impacts, or details of that violence – what we have characterized as “encounters.”

This concept of “encounters” refers to powerful moments that occur within relationships that families and survivors showed to be significant. These encounters represent a time and space through which the vision, values, and principles that shape families, communities, and individual lives are created. We see these as transformational moments, too; in other words, these encounters can lead the way to harm or to healing, depending on the context. To engage in encounters like these represents an important responsibility and an opportunity to shape the terms of a relationship in a good way.

That sounds like good journalism to me: we interview people about their encounters, good or bad, to report a truth based on what we are told and what is known.

Whether because of racism or their comfort with judging certain peoples, groups or nations as less newsworthy, columnists and editorial boards last year failed to recognise that the inquiry report met higher standards of journalism than most papers hold daily.

My profession should always aspire to be as thorough as the inquiry. With more than 2,380 people taking part, that is more than read many of our stories now. Even fewer will read or engage with Canadian news organisations after last year’s failures. It was a missed opportunity that would take years to rebuild from, if it was possible at all..

The very idea that some columnists and editorial voices carried more weight than 2,380 is the definition of privilege, and a superiority complex which underlies the hundreds of years that preceded the MMIWG report.

I was trained in journalism in the UK, outwith the obsessive concept of “objectivity” in North America. Walking Eagle News was entirely correct last year when, even in satire, it pointed out Canadian news outlets would look for pro-cancer voices.2

We have accepted there is no need now to offer the “other side” of climate change. Why is it still necessary for murder? Why does genocide require only one side when elsewhere in the world but not at home?

Then as now, I accept the findings of the inquiry, and the conclusion of genocide. I appreciate whether I do or don’t accept it doesn’t matter to the truth of the experiences shared with the inquiry or its conclusions. But as a reporter, particularly after the response from privileged white voices in Canadian media last year, I feel it remains important to sit apart from their positions.

Reporters, I believe, must comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent. That means we must report on loss, murder, racism, genocide AND what is being done in response to it, or not.

It is complacency that has ensured the genocide of Indigenous peoples within Canada continues long after the language of politicians changed to ones of apologies, even if their actions didn’t match up.

And commentators or editorial boards who argued against the word genocide seemingly decided their creed is to “comfort the comfortable, afflict the afflicted”.

That approach also fails principles of accuracy, justice must be seen to be done, promote responsible debate and mediation, and more.

As the pandemic has pushed some news organisations to close and others to even further cuts to their journalism, the same voices who refuted the word “genocide” last year have survived. Columnists who spout hate always do.

I absolutely want more resources for reporting, but not if it’s going to break what should be basic pillars of our work. If we can’t recognise the reporting inherent in the MMIWG inquiry, then we have no business doing journalism ourselves.

Meeting the demands for change of the TRC and MMIWG inquiry requires much better action than my profession has shown. That was true in 2019 and remains true 12 months on.

Journalism must survive the pandemic. But it should change fundamentally from the profession that allowed or encouraged racism for more than a century against Indigenous nations within Canadian borders.

Canadian journalism has to do better. We have to report the ways to make lives better, and report on those who stand in the way.

Death and the Newsmen: The weight of reporting pandemic loss

Glasgow's empty streets

Glasgow streets have been empty or quiet during its lockdown (Photo: Tristan Stewart-Robertson)

In the film Citizen Kane, summarising the mystery of “Rosebud”, Thompson says:

“Mr Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, I don’t think it would have explained everything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”

I spent a few hours recently going through more than 120 pages of intimations in daily regional and local papers, as well as weekly papers. Known as “hatches, matches and dispatches”, they are far fewer in number than they once were now that social media affords the opportunity to alert everyone to a loved one’s passing.

Some of the dispatches are on page 2, commanding a front corner of a paper. Some are hidden after international news and before endless comment pages. Others are buried in the back, after classified ads and before the currently near-empty sport.

Most of the words used to notify of death don’t say coronavirus or Covid-19, but we know from the increased numbers and from some press reports that these undoubtedly are part of the pandemic.

“Due to current circumstances …”

“When circumstances change there will be an opportunity to celebrate David’s life.”

“We cannot be together at this time but will remember with joy many happy memories.”

“Suddenly but peacefully …”

“It is with regret that due to the current health restrictions, the cremation will be private. We ask that you remember Margaret in your own way. R.I.P.”

“Midwife, skier, walker, camper, poet and dog lover, a life well lived.”

“A celebration of his life at some point in the future.”

“A remembrance service will follow when times allow.”

“Eileen finally lost her battle with life.”

“Peaceful in the fondest care …”

“Peaceful in the loving care …”

“You deserved a better farewell.”

Some of the intimations refer to the “government restrictions” or “guidelines” forcing funerals to be private. Some families have invited friends and the community to stand, almost as guards of honour, spaced six feet apart, along funeral routes as the safe and acceptable alternative to gathering huddled together in churches or clinking glasses together in memorial toasts.

Reporters have assisted in letting communities know about those arrangements.


We are often accused of running towards accidents or tragedy. It is a necessary part of journalism, and more so now.

On my first trip back to my Canadian home after moving to study and work as a reporter in the UK, I explained the term of the “death knock” to the shocked faces of my siblings. It is an accurate term for a horrible task, but one that is part of our jobs. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t do it at all. It’s harder to explain why, and perhaps I didn’t explain my profession well enough back then or frequently since — and that’s why it’s so hard for some to accept anything journalists do.

To knock on someone’s door after a death is the worst part of any reporter’s job. During a pandemic, we can’t do it. So we have to make the approaches online and over the phone.

We have all put our foot wrong at some point in these requests but overwhelmingly do it with the care and compassion we would want if someone came to our own door.

Death does sell papers, it’s true — though nowhere near what we once did. But to suggest we morbidly want death to knock presumes reporters don’t have families, don’t love, and don’t miss our own departed friends and family.

Many others have celebrated the art of the obituary writer, a formal position that has largely been lost from anyone below large daily newspapers. But many of my profession take very seriously the act of writing a tribute piece, of marking a life.

When I directed a Holocaust play while in university, I told the cast and crew to imagine swimming down into a pool. There’s a penny at the bottom but you have to swim into the darkest depths to be able to grasp it and then return it to the light above. In reporting on and writing about death, we are not wallowing at the bottom of the pool — we’re reaching for the value of light at the top.

A care home boss, in refusing to confirm how badly it had been affected by the virus in the past two months, told me recently:

“The death of anyone in any situation for whatever reason is deeply distressing for everyone.”

Of course it is. I replied that I did not enquire to cause further upset, but merely as a matter of public interest on where lives have been lost and how carers have been coping with that. The boss then emailed:

“I understand that you have a job to do and you see it in the public interest, however I see the reporting of the number of deaths, even if one, as cruelly distressing for the relatives of residents who are unable to visit. It is distressing enough to see daily deaths counts in the media.”

I struggled for a while with what to do with such a statement. Should all deaths be ignored? Should the press pause because the pandemic is too distressing?


The public will read or watch war reports from abroad for months and years — the difference is an audience can and does comfortably ignore the victims because of race, nationality or distance. A pandemic brings an almost war reporting style directly to your street. The terminology is one of the “front line”. And we rely on journalism because the majority must stay at home and can’t see or appreciate what that front line looks like.

Reporting every aspect of that, even with so many restrictions against us, is such an essential task that a great many of us feel it in the bones. We feel the professional need to get out and report, with the personal need to stay home to protect our own health — I’m a diabetic, for example — or to protect our families.

Do I fear death? Of course, riddled with the fear of not accomplishing enough in whatever I have left. But I have also written about death so much in recent months, including the weekly localised statistics, half of them in Scotland coming from care homes.

Yet not all have been Covid-19 fatalities.

Interviewing the father of and then writing about the 15-year-old boy who died of cancer1 was perhaps the most heartbreaking day of my career. But that’s my job.

I interviewed a woman about the passing of her 96-year-old aunt in a care home2 but down to age. I had met her when she was 95 and a victim of theft and wanted to follow-up to paint a picture of a long life well lived before she was ever a momentary statistic of crime. That’s my job.

And I interviewed a care home manager about how she has coped with loss3

 — 11 from suspected Covid-19 but denied access to tests by what some might call those “government restrictions” in newspaper intimations. That is my job.

The home was kind enough to pass a request to those 11 families for interviews should they wish us to celebrate the lives lived. I said there what I repeat again: newspapers are memory.

Newspapers are a jigsaw puzzle of memory, each piece the imperfectly shaped life that fits together to form a community. Look closer, and each piece is its own jigsaw made up of the events of a single life. The reporter’s job is to choose the words to summarise those pieces, its colours, its flaws. No single word can explain a person’s life, but journalism tries to get as close as possible.

In our pandemic world, the puzzles seem endless in number, and the challenges of fitting the pieces together are great.

But unless we focus on those pieces, unless we report them to the world, how will we ever see and appreciate the portrait that was, as well as the bright and living images around us now.

***

This blog was originally published as part of The Pandemic Journal4 of journalism experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic around the globe.

Cairncross Review: Can local journalism be saved?

Newspaper journalism

Newspaper journalism is under threat

The Cairncross Review from the United Kingdom government1 has been taking evidence on the future of “high-quality journalism”.

Though the review is deeply problematic because it lacks working reporters on the advisory panel, and because they don’t define their starting point for “high-quality journalism”, I believe it was important to include my voice.

Read the submission to the Cairncross Review

Reporters are the workers on the ground largely ignored in government inquiries and commissions, televised debates on regulation or ethics, or Twitter arguments between politicians and columnists. We are the ones most often cut by rounds of redundancies, blamed for falling circulations, and directly confronted by members of the public online or in person.

If there is to be any discussion of the future of “high-quality journalism”, you must consult those who do it day in and day out, not merely their employers, campaigners for enforced regulation, celebrities seeking revenge or over-paid columnists.

This is a personal statement only and may not be representative of the beliefs of any current or former employer.

Summary of Recommendations

Education:

If the government considers any financial levers, they should include a specific mandate for reporting staff to regularly deliver training and instruction at every grade level of school. This must be immune from standardised testing and instead focus on the vocation of producing and understanding journalism.

Accountability: 

Any government funding should include the introduction of citizens’ juries for journalistic accountability. Existing funding to communications offices and press officers must include an end to anonymity for those giving statements to the press and public.

Presence:

Funding can be provided to deliver office space in the communities we report on. These spaces need to be public, accessible, safe, inviting and local.

Government inquiries, reviews and commissions into journalism are not new. The Leveson Inquiry was as massive as its recognition of the digital world was almost non-existent. It was 10 years late and its conclusions pointless in a world that is moving on from print.

If the Cairncross Review is to be worth more than the cost of expenses for panel members, for the cost of printing final reports, for the space it will take gathering dust on shelves, then it must do something new: it must listen to reporters, to subs, to photographers. It must listen to those who are still working and those who have left the profession, not the publishers who have driven them from it.

I cannot guarantee the survival of my local paper, nor those I have worked for in my career. But I can assure you the majority of the journalism of those papers was high-quality. And its producers will remember that.

  1. Cairncross Review call for evidence, last accessed September 16, 2018

Factual sovereignty: The end of reporting, history and discourse?

INSTEAD of the world being “post-truth” or politicians claiming “alternative facts”, what’s happening is declarations of “factual sovereignty”.

I proposed this notion to explain how individuals know what is “true” about others, about the news of the day, and how reporters should confront it.

At the London Conference in Critical Thought 2017, I acknowledged journalism is at the heart of the “post-fact moment”, blamed by the public and political leaders.

Many outlets have blurred the lines between fact and comment and their relative value.

Instead of considering the current situation as a devaluing of facts, it is a rampant assertion of individuality, of interpreting feelings or “gut sense” as “truth”.

Your own factual sovereignty allows an individual to make treaties or war with others or even oppose previous personal positions because they are a sovereign entity determining facts.

Factual sovereignty also turns the definitions of subjectivity and objectivity inside out, with your own person “truth” beyond question by anyone else.

A vision of the factual sovereignty multiverse. Graphic by Liam Pollock. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

And rather than a post-fact moment, it creates a post-singular-fact moment and a virtual string theory of multiple and co-existing facts – a multiverse. At its most extreme, lies, hypocrisy, law and order, hate and love all become impossible.

As everyone declares factual sovereignty, the result is fear, the root of bigotry, racism, sexism and any other-ism where individuals decide the existential facts by which others live.

The solution which must come from journalism and more widely is diplomacy: mediation and peacebuilding. Only through being able to understand the position of others, the factual shoes in which they claim to stand, can a virtual United Nations of agreed facts re-emerge.

For too long, journalism has been, yes, subjective – driven by ourselves as the subject or by the building up or tearing down of another person as the subject. The new objectivity should, instead, mean our goal: to be mediators, and communicators, ethically and factually.

If it takes years of one-to-one treaty making to repair the damage wrought by millions of clicks of opinion pretending to be reporting, then that is the task lying before journalism. The need will only get greater.

Read the full factual sovereignty paper.

Are you willing to see journalism wed mediation?

Resolution

Resolution, by artist in residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

Journalism has to change – this is something I’ve argued for years and tried to put into practice since launching Tomorrow.

One of those changes is in the way we react to stories of conflict in the community. Sometimes we report on the fights, sometimes we ignore arguing neighbours. But instead, what we could do, is be mediators.

Huh? Reporters solving disputes? That usually gets a chuckle. But it is no great stretch of the imagination because we do it all the time.

North American journalism has seen the rise of the concept of “solutions journalism” while local papers around the world routinely make calls on behalf of the “afflicted”, with a call from the press frequently resolving a problem before it ever makes it to print or to broadcast.

I wrote mediation into the core principles of Tomorrow because I believe journalism can more proactively help people solve problems. I took an introductory training course with Sacro1 in 2015 and am even more firmly convinced the two spheres are complementary.

But the Mediate 2015 conference2 in Scotland raises further questions beyond initial ones for the practicality. Two issues in particular apply to journalism and the goals of this site: theory and power.

Read our news coverage of the Mediate 2015

The first is, like mediation, Tomorrow is founded on principles and core beliefs that define journalism and its practice. But, theory “is not your sales pitch”, as Professor Elizabeth Stokoe told the conference.3 Tomorrow practices what it preaches, but that doesn’t yet mean readers understand or value both. This extends to trying to explain how mediation would work within and alongside journalism, something I will continue my work to develop as a theory but more importantly practice.

The second issue is power. Language is the biggest one perhaps, and as Dr Tamara Relis4 told the conference, it is one aspect of lawyers operating in “parallel worlds” to people hoping to resolve disputes through mediation.

And her language used to describe this problem was equally from a position – an academic one – of power.

She said: “In contrast, the litigants, who are most often paying for these services – who are, at least theoretically those that the civil justice system is there to serve, to assist, – in contrast to the professional actors, are predominantly unsophisticated in litigation and mediation and thus do not know in advance what they should be doing or what they can be doing during the processing of these cases, which in my examples are life altering cases.”

In the news coverage of the conference, I trimmed that quote down to its base level, because the original is a dense description of a dense legal language and system. It has to be unpacked twice. I have the power to report, accurately, but the responsibility to report in a way that will engage anyone, regardless of their background.

Reporters are in positions of power – we are educated and trained to arranged words to tell stories, and those have power. We have access to situations, locations and experiences many others wouldn’t. There are already types of power dynamics in any mediation, so for journalism to insert itself into the process makes it even more complicated and potentially dangerous.

But is a marriage of mediation and journalism worth pursuing? Yes. Because the alternative is one of standing only to the sidelines to observe. We don’t do that anyway, with columnists telling communities what to believe and how to vote, and with approaches such as solutions journalism, where we tell readers, listeners or viewers the way to solve problems. We are in the heart of communities but we frequently assume that means we know best. Mediation means the community knows best and then journalism could, in many cases, report that.

Prof Stokoe said the word “willing” most often got people from “no” to “yes” about the potential for mediation. So, are you willing to consider how reporters could solve problems in communities? Are you willing to help us balance our power and that of others? And are you willing to view journalism in new ways? I hope there is power in these theories.

  1. Completed mediation skills (40 hours) course delivered by Scottish Community Mediation Centre and awarded five credits at SCQF Level 6. The centre is part of Sacro (Safeguarding communities – reducing offending).
  2. Original conference website.
  3. Wired talk from November 2015 of similar but shortened content to that of the conference
  4. Website listing some of Dr Relis’s publications.

Scots law for most vulnerable hides behind closed doors

LSA website

Screen grab of LSA website. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

A major annual “conference” is taking place in Glasgow, UK, next month, covering how UK and Scots law affect the disadvantaged in Scotland.

Legal Services Agency’s (LSA) 26th annual conference, “Protecting Fundamental Rights in Scotland”1 will cover human rights, campaigning, housing, mental health and human trafficking – all areas of considerable concern to government and campaigners and affecting some of the most vulnerable in society.

But despite the importance of these subjects, reporters are not allowed to attend.

The LSA, promoting, the event states:

This year’s annual conference aims to discuss what is next for protecting fundamental rights in Scotland and what effects this may have on social welfare law, and some of society’s most vulnerable people, in Scotland.

“The day is intended to give an opportunity, through plenary sessions and workshops, to look at most, if not all, of the areas of concern to those in disadvantage in Scotland.”

Who is the conference for? The summary explains:

“This conference is for everybody who is interested in tackling the unmet legal needs of those in disadvantage in general and in particular the areas of law covered by LSA and partner organisations. If you are interested in mental health and incapacity law, housing, asylum and humanitarian protection and human rights, this is the event for you. The conference is aimed at updating everybody’s technical knowledge, promoting discussion and in particular working out the issues for the future and how they should be tackled. The conference will be of key interest to solicitors, advocates, advice workers, WROs, policy makers and community activists.”

Speakers include Lord Wallace of Tankerness, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a former deputy First Minister of Scotland. He will be speaking on “the forthcoming proposals in the UK Parliament”. Other speakers include LSA solicitors, Glasgow University lecturers, Glasgow City Council housing staff, housing association staff, homelessness campaigners, and a director of Amnesty International.

A member of the House of Lords is paid by the taxpayer. Council officials are paid by the taxpayer. Most cases involving society’s most vulnerable don’t pay except through legal aid – again, covered entirely by the taxpayer. Under both Tomorrow’s principles of championing accountability and openness, what happens on the public purse matters.

I asked to report on the “conference” via a private Twitter exchange. I was told:

Hi Tristan, Just had a meeting with CEO. Unfortunately he has said we don’t really do spaces specifically for reporters. We work on Chatham House rules (sic) and value the ability for our speakers to be able to speak freely at our events. Really sorry about that, it is of course open for you to just come in your personal capacity!”

Chatham House rule,2 created in 1927, states:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

Now, the identities of speakers are already public on the website. They are individuals in positions of privilege and power and they are sometimes the last hope the most vulnerable in society have of achieving justice, protection from the state or private parties, or help when they most need it. These are issues of profound public interest affecting thousands of people in Scotland and beyond. Scots law and wider UK law is changing and debate about how new rules are implemented is crucial to understanding the actions and choices of politicians who enact them.

Without an understanding of the law by the general public, they are in positions of even more vulnerability because they are at the mercy of professionals who hold all the cards of distinct language, procedure, privilege, etc. Those professionals may be acting in the best interests of clients, but the clients will still have to place trust in those professionals because they have no background from which to ask questions or raise concerns. The role of the press is to provide information, however superficial sometimes, of what might affect any individual in the community. That includes, especially, the law.

Solicitor friends have argued these events must be closed to reporting because lawyers may discuss individual cases to help learn best practices, etc. A professional reporter could not quote a half-detailed legal case anyway – quite apart from possible legal issues if vulnerable individuals are involved, a good reporter doesn’t relay half a story when they can’t confirm facts such as a person’s identity, when the case took place, the outcome, etc. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons immigration cases don’t get reported in the UK, because their outcomes are sent in private to clients, not read out in open court. Any attending reporter is left with half a story, so they wouldn’t bother.

The issue is whether solicitors would speak “frankly” about cases or the law if they knew a reporter was attending. That would generally be the case with any situation – it is why reporters attend government hearings, courts, war zones and anything in between.

Do reporters get to go anywhere and everywhere? No. One form of journalism, usually self-declared “guerrilla journalism” involves frequently undercover and aggressive projects on subjects considered to be hidden. Other outlets talk of “adversarial journalism”.

In the case of the immigration courts and tribunals, almost universally ignored by the press, I take an approach of reporting and pushing for greater openness. That doesn’t require hidden cameras or being confrontational, in my view.

In the case of this “conference”, I asked to attend. Reporters generally do not and should not pay to attend events, whereby money goes to the organising body. We should remain as distinct observers. So attending and paying in a “personal capacity” but not allowed to report is pointless and absurd. It ensures the law remains in the hands of those with power, in this case power affecting for good or ill, those “most vulnerable people”.

The LSA is entitled to refuse access to a reporter, as they are to refer to this event as a “conference”. But “private meeting” might be more accurate.

UPDATE (Nov 23, 2015): Through the conference website, I formally applied to attend, as did another reporter. We identified ourselves as reporters. The response was an offer of a place, an invoice of £85 and the statement: “Can I particularly draw attention to our standard condition including application of the ‘Chatham House Rule’.” I rejected this place for the same reasons outlined above.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.
  1. LSA website conference page. And screen grab of the page here.
  2. Explanation from Chatham House.

Election polls blurred independence of news media

In April 2012, just after the provincial election in Alberta, Tomorrow declared a position on Facebook that requires repeating after the 78-day Canadian federal election.

Between the start of the campaign on August 7 and election day on October 19, there were a staggering 347 polls, or an average of more than four a day.

This included:

  • 113 national polls
  • 167 individual constituency polls
  • 67 polls on leadership preference and perception1

There were even more done privately by political parties but never released to the public.

Some, such as polls from Nanos Research,2 have been daily and some have been sponsored or organised with major media firms. They became the basis for much of the narrative of the election.

CBC’s poll aggregator, for example, always flagged up who was leading and which party had the biggest change, up or down. So the first thing a reader saw was the top party and who was losing. And that created a trend. Then opinion writers questioned parties who don’t accept the “reality” of polls.

Media can gauge public opinion in a number of ways. The most direct is the “vox pop”, quizzing around four to six people for their opinions. Sometimes we identify them by name, age and occupation, sometimes just as faces on a TV screen. This is usually somewhat balanced and expresses viewpoints with occasionally nuanced positions.

The other way is to commission a poll from a wider sample of hundreds or even thousands of people with set questions and potential responses.
These approaches are used to both fill space and time for a media outlet but also to appear relevant: “We know what ‘the people’ are thinking – here it is.”

But they also allow the media to dictate narratives. As has been better described by Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, Fox News uses comment in the morning to drive news to drive comment to drive news to drive comment throughout its daily cycle.

Similarly:
“Polls say the party is sliding.”
“People say the party is sliding.”
“Reports have the party sliding.”
“A new poll says the party is sliding.”3

The polls drive comment to drive news to drive further polls. And in this most recent election, they became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even worse was unethical abuse of “polling” public opinion on election night when a CBC reporter announced he had told voters waiting in line to vote in British Columbia that they, as a media outlet, had declared the winner based on the rest of the country’s early results. That used incomplete numbers to sway further results.

And it is a breach of the third principle, “independence and accountability”. Even though our ninth principle is “observe and engage”, attempting to direct results through the power of the media is a step beyond engaging.

In 2012, we stated:

The Alberta election results, wildly different from pre-election polls, prove the flaw of polling and the dangerous media addiction to said polls. To meet our own commitments to accuracy, Tomorrow will not commission, use, or comment on political polling as a sole basis for news. Polls may be referenced in features but should not be taken as fact. That a poll was conducted is a fact. Percentages of small samples for polling do not guarantee the facts of eventual electoral results.

Without core principles, there can be no core journalism strength.
Tomorrow reasserts this position. It is the correct one for maintaining independence and it ensures our focus remains on asking important questions and presenting original and exclusive news coverage, particular of politics, as we did during the 78-day election without needing a single poll.

  1. Wikipedia lists public released polls here and here.
  2. Nik Nanos, who was involved in the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992 was interviewed by Tomorrow in 2012 and his website can be found here.
  3. These are not direct quotes from any news source, just impressions of the tone.

Balibo Five remembered to afflict the complacent

Malcolm Rennie

Malcolm Rennie, 28, from Neilston, Scotland, was murdered on October 16, 1975, by the Indonesian military in East Timor. Image courtesy campaigners.

As a young reporter starting at the Barrhead News more than a decade ago, I got a phone call or letter in the mail – I can’t remember which now – about the murder of a reporter from Neilston, East Renfrewshire, on my patch.

Malcolm Rennie was 28 when he was killed during a “terror-and-destabilisation” campaign by the Indonesian military in East Timor. He and four colleagues with Australian TV were brutally shot and stabbed, then mocked up to look like armed and legitimate targets, and then supposedly victims of crossfire between opposing forces.

It was neither. It was murder, and in 2007, after years of delays and campaigning by families, a New South Wales coronial inquest heard from 66 witnesses and concluded that the five men were “shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah”. The government was advised that Australia had jurisdiction to prosecute. It has not. The UN has also refused to issue arrest warrants.

Rennie, Brian Peters, from Bristol, and Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham are today remembered as the Balibo Five, for the town where they were killed on October 16, 1975. A film, Balibo, was made in 2009 and is widely available.

These men were not the only reporters killed in East Timor – Roger East in December 1975 and Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes in 1999 were also victims of Indonesian forces. And all, for their efforts, are remembered by people of what is now the independent Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

Why do the people of Timor-Leste remember when many beyond that corner of the world do not? Because the reporters were carrying out some of the most important roles journalists have: as witnesses, as investigators, and as comforters of the afflicted.

The classic US journalism line is “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. But when I wrote the core principles for Tomorrow, I amended it to “afflict the complacent”, because complacency is what allowed Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste for a quarter century. It is what allows those responsible for anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths – potentially one in three of the population – to evade justice. And complacency allows the reporters of the start of that invasion and everything that happened after to be forgotten.

As a reporter, and admittedly a very comfortable one compared to those who throw themselves into war zones, I feel the deaths of my colleagues because they were doing what is, at its best, more than just a job. Being a reporter is who you are, bearing witness, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the complacent – those course through our veins.

And so I remember Malcolm Rennie today. And I remember his colleagues. And I remind myself why journalism matters.

But behind all journalism is people. And I give the final words to Margaret Wilson, one of Malcolm’s cousins and someone still fighting for justice.

“We are very aware of the significance of this anniversary, and I wish I could tell you that there is progress being made towards achieving justice, but I really can’t,” she told me by email.

“I think people should, and must, still care, because this remains of the most blatant examples of political and commercial expediency trouncing human rights. This administration made all the right noises over the Charlie Hebdo affair, but when I wrote to the Prime Minister [David Cameron] to applaud his support of journalistic freedom and condemnation of violence to suppress it, and to remind him that a similar outrage concerning British citizens had gone unpunished for 39 years, all I got in reply was a standard note from a civil servant thanking me for my letter.

“At the moment, we are in contact with the Foreign Office and have been promised to be put in touch with a British police liaison officer, with a view to the police here considering the feasibility of pursuing a prosecution  here, but this is a painfully slow process.”

The Art of Politics: Canadian federal election 2015

#artpoli

The Art of Politics, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on September 19, 2015. Poster by Jason Skinner

Getting to the ART of what matters in the Canadian federal election, come down to Cafe Cempoal Calavera Negra in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the morning of Saturday, September 19, 2015 and work with artist in residence Jason Skinner to create collages of what issues matter most to you.

Anyone of any age is welcome between 10am and 12pm to work with Jason. Rather than politicians making promises and the media reporting them, Tomorrow will report on public issues, through community art. This isn’t a partisan idea and we don’t want party or politician messages; it’s about trying to express what’s important through art and relaying that message to other voters and candidates through Tomorrow.

This meets our core principle commitment to promoting responsible debate and mediation, and also furthers our work earlier this year to develop new approaches to election reporting. Journalism doesn’t need to follow politicans – it needs to lead with what’s really going on the community.

Stay tuned for full coverage of #artpoli this weekend.

Morgan Bird wins double swimming gold

Morgan Bird

Athlete in residence Morgan Bird, by artist in residence Jason Skinner, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Tomorrow’s first athlete in residence is now a gold-medal winning swimmer having taken two top spots at the Para Pan Am Games in Toronto, Ontario.

Morgan Bird, who we first interviewed during the London 2012 Paralympics, broke Para Pan Am records in both the 400m freestyle S8 and the 50m freestyle S8.

In the 400m on Sunday, Morgan finished in a time of 5:19:33 to claim her first gold, then just 90 minutes later mopped up the 50m in 32:00.1

The 21-year-old told broadcaster CBC: “I did not see that coming. It’s been a busy night for me. I followed both race plans well I think. I’m really happy with the results.”2

You can read all of Morgan’s writings as athlete in residence about her training and hard work that have lead to this point. And we extend our own, acceptably biased, congratulations to Morgan and her family and friends in Calgary, Alberta, on these accomplishments.

UPDATE: Morgan won silver in the 100m freestyle S8 on Thursday evening in a time of 1:10.53. This was an improvement on her earlier time of 1:11:15, the fastest amongst the two heats and a games record time until it fell to gold medalist Mallory Weggemann of the United States.

  1. Full results from the Para Pan Am website.
  2. Video interviews available for Canadian viewers.