Thursday, 22 March 2012

Context is Everything

When I first started working for the CBC back in the 1970's there was an actual teletype machine in the newsroom  that would bang out stories from a handful  of news agencies like Canadian Press and Reuters. It's where the phrase "rip and read" comes from. Only broadcasters and newspapers could afford to own and operate these big clumsy machines. It will sound quaint and old-fashioned now, but people actually had to listen to newscasts or buy a newspaper to know what was going on.. Needless to say times have changed. The challenge now is to sort through the avalanche of information and opinion we have access to, and perhaps even more importantly, make sure we're not just going to sites we agree with, but willing to be challenged.

One of things I look for (and try to provide from time to time in this blog) is context.  It's a fiction the news business tries to create that dozens of "new" things happen every day.  Sure there are stories like the Toulouse gunman, fires, murders, and accidents that come and go (and at some point in every newsroom get deemed "good stories"  no matter how grizzly the outcome), because these events really are news and will always be so.  Reporters hate to admit this, but when important good/bad stuff is happening their jobs are so much easier and fulfilling. That's where the glee and excitement comes from when there's a big snowfall and roads and schools are closed, the broadcasters know they have something of value for their viewers and listeners which isn't always the case.

It's those ongoing stories, or tiny events than can cause so much trouble. Promos, headlines, even intros are  often juiced up to give stories the same sense of urgency the really important stuff deserves. The risk with this, of not allowing for some degree of proportion, is the "crying wolf" dilemma. What do you say when something really important IS happening?  CBC generally avoids this but we've all seen the Fox and CNN hyperbole (satirized beautifully on the Daily Show). For the sake of being open-minded, I've even sat through news programs on Sun TV.  I did hear things I wouldn't anywhere else. I don't mean that as a compliment.

I think what's missing in so much of the news is context. That takes time (the one thing no one has anymore) to both gather the  information, and to report it. The two minute (minute-fifteen in radio) strait-jacket usually isn't enough (not every story needs this, but many do).

A couple of examples of what context can bring to a story. Think about this week's reports and commentaries about Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank. A former vice-president and trader Greg Smith resigned and went public saying the company's ethics and values had been lost, that all Goldman cares about is profits,  that it often called its client "muppets".   This didn't come as a big surprise to anyone who's been following this story, but look at what context can do to create greater understanding of the underlying issues. This is from the blog of Robert Reich, a former Bill Clinton cabinet member:

" If Mr. Smith believes such disregard of investors is unique to Goldman, he doesn’t know the rest of Wall Street. In the late 1920s, National City Bank, which eventually would become Citigroup, repackaged bad Latin American debt as new securities which it then sold to investors no less gullible than Goldman Sachs’s. After the Great Crash of 1929, National City’s top executives helped themselves to the bank’s remaining assets as interest-free loans while their investors and depositors were left with pieces of paper worth a tiny fraction of what they paid for them. The problem isn’t excessive greed. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement. The problem is endemic abuse of power and trust."

We've also been hearing that the federal government is thinking about changing the so called "fleet separation" policy when it comes to licensing fishermen, to make the industry more "profitable and efficient.".  Guardian columnist Al Holman gave important context to this story in a clever way, using fictional characters at a Charlottetown bar, making the point that only real fishermen can get licenses now because otherwise they would slowly be controlled by people with deeper pockets.

"For instance, back in the early and middle of the last century, the Myrick family, from Boston, pretty well owned the fishery in Tignish. They owned the fish plant that bought the fish, they owned a store that supplied a lot of the fishermen, the owned some of the boats, and they owned a lot of the houses down at Tignish Run. Myrick's Shore they called it. The rents for the houses and boats, and the credit for the gear and food bought in the store, was paid off with the fish and the lobsters the fishermen brought to the Myrick's plant, at a price set by the Myricks. There was little cash involved. It was mostly chits and credit."

"If catches were down, the fishermen would fall behind in their payments and it wasn't long before the Myricks pretty well owned them, too," said Hat. "Not all of them, but a good number. They didn't starve, but they sure as hell didn't prosper. And it wasn't just the Myricks, there were families throughout Atlantic Canada with similar operations."

The same can be said about the on-going battle over the future of the Canadian Wheat Board, and supply management in dairy.. Looked at strictly in today's terms they look over regulated and bureaucratic.  History tells us something different, that both were created with great controversy, and only because pure market forces were doing nothing but putting farmers out of business, and threatening the future of rural economies. 

The television all-news channels like to say they're telling us what's happening "right now!!!"  We get facts and information, we worry and fret about the latest calamity, but are we any more wise about what's really happening in the world. 

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