Local media is letting us down

Doesn't understandRule number one in The Elements of Journalism is: “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Number three is “Its essence is a discipline of verification.” Keep those two in mind as you read this.

I recognize that local reporting is not always the same calibre as the investigative journalism we expect from national media, but in my view (and experience as a former reporter and editor), blindly accepting claims about health, wellness or science without questioning, let alone confirming them through a credible source, and then repeating those statements in a story is not responsible reporting. It’s just typing.

There’s a recent story on Collingwood Today titled, “Firefighters getting charged up by new wellness device” that strikes me as a good example of poor journalism. The story is about Collingwood’s Fire Department buying a mat,

…called a Seqex, and it uses Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy to help the firefighters detox, relax, and heal when necessary.
The device comes from Health Wellness Industries in Collingwood, where the owner and president Kim Sartor has built a business selling and offering treatments in the Seqex system.

The manufacturer is SISTEMI SRL (Italian Society of Seqex Electro Medical and Innovative Technologies), and they have numerous products all that start with Seqex, such as Seqex Fam and Seqex Radiant Mat. Which particular one this is could have been easily confirmed with a five-second internet search. Or maybe a single question. Several Seqex products were recalled in 2016, by the way, because the company didn’t have a licence to sell them in Canada until late 2017.

You already know from many, many science-based articles debunking it that detox is New Age woo hoo, not a treatment, nor a cure. It is, as Science-Based Medicine calls it, “Ritual purification masquerading as medicine and wellness.” The site also notes, “Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous” and calls it “a marketing strategy… designed to treat a nonexistent condition.” Any detoxification your body does is through your liver, colon and kidneys not through smoothies or electromagnetic stimulation. That too, a reporter could easily establish. And no, you can’t sweat out toxins in a sauna, either because of simple biology: “Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances.”

The “Seqex is a Class 2 medical device, which means it can be used without a doctor administering it – similar to a sleep apnea machine.”

That doesn’t explain what the classification means. All medical devices need to be licensed in Canada.

Class categorization is a risk evaluation, not a determination of efficacy or wellness. In Canada, “Medical devices are classified into one of Classes I to IV by means of the classification rules set out in Schedule 1, where Class I represents the lowest risk and Class IV represents the highest risk.” A licence doesn’t mean it works as advertised; just that it meets labelling and safety standards: see Section 32.2 of the law. Licensing relies on the manufacturer’s attestation that it’s safe and meets these requirements:

-certification that device is manufactured according to international Quality Management System standard.-manufacturer’s attestation that device satisfies the safety, effectiveness in MDR (Medical Device Regulations); labelling reviewed.

Other Class II medical devices include contact lenses, epidural catheters, pregnancy kits and surgical gloves.

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Collingwood and cannabis stores

Buffer zones

Credit where credit is due: Collingwood council this week voted unanimously to allow a cannabis store to open here. That came as somewhat of a surprise given earlier negative comments from come councillors, but in the end they all agreed to it. It made sense to say yes, given that pot is now legal in Canada. Saying no would have made the community seem both out-of-touch and fusty, and would have reinforced the resolutely-closed-for-business reputation that last council gave our town.

But the staff report also shows that there is still a deep prohibition-era thinking in town hall. Take a look at the map, above, showing in blue the 200-metre buffer staff thinks need to created to prevent stores from opening nearby. Like parks, for example. Although there is no logical reason to ban sales near parks, the proposed 200 meter buffer basically rules out all of the commercial space and strip malls along First Street.

And who decided 200 metres is appropriate for anything? Would anything change if it was reduced to 100? or 50? How about 1.5m, the width of most sidewalks? Is there some scientific research that says a community is safer, more morally upright if cannabis stores are 200 metres from, say, an arboretum, bench or labyrinth? I half-expected staff to show council a clip from the 1936 film Reefer Madness as the reference to back up their recommendations.*

Within those very buffer zones, the town already has retaillers selling alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. You can get drunk in a dozen restaurants and bars along First Street, but staff think someone selling pot nearby is a threat? Do staff really believe that selling legal pot will corrupt park visitors in ways that, say, legal opioids or cheap whisky don’t? Or that strollers walking their dog along a trail will suddenly be overcome and engage in crimes of moral turpitude when they inadvertently come within 200 metres of a cannabis store? I say we got trouble my friends, right here in River City… **

And as for tobacco – it’s the most insidious, nasty product you can buy legally: addictive, cancer-causing, and dirty. Our parks, streets and beaches are already heavily littered with toxic cigarette butts. Butts are the ocean’s “single largest source of trash” according to data collected by NGO Ocean Conservancy. Smokers are universally dirty – I’ve never met one in all my years who didn’t litter. Just take a look at the sidewalk in front of the coffee shops downtown, or the deep reefs of discarded butts beside Wal-Mart or other box stores where staff go to smoke. Do town staff (who do nothing about the toxic butt problem let alone smoking on public property) really think a single pot store is worse than all those smokers and the outlets where they can buy their drugs?

Personally, I would prefer to see a store downtown because it would be good for the downtown economy. But I don’t think it should be the only viable area offered for a retail outlet: location should be the retailler’s choice based on their business model and own studies (and concerns like parking). Arbitrarily limiting its location might be a fine way to do things in the old Soviet planning system, but those of us who still believe in free enterprise have always found that system rather stifling.

Cannabis should be treated the same way as alcohol and other drugs. We already have zoning in place to limit where retail or commercial operations can take place. Why create artificial buffer zones when we already have all the necessary planning rules? All that will do is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the process in a town already labelled closed for business.

But maybe that’s the goal.
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Council’s financial follies part 1

This is the first in what I expect will be a long series of posts about the financial follies and shenanigans of our council.

Another fine messOur council begins its term not with a bang but a groan and the shaking of heads. To quote Oliver Hardy, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” I’m sure it won’t be the last time I get to say that to this council.

To be fair, the debacle is not the responsibility of everyone at the table – that falls squarely on the shoulders of the four re-elected incumbents. However, since most of the newcomers hitched their horses to the Saunderson Campaign Bandwagon, the continuing debacle is an albatross they too will have to wear this term.

First up, a story in Collingwood Today about the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial inquiry (SVJI) that suggests the SVJI’s skyrocketing costs are just beginning. It notes (sic):

Public hearings will take place from April 15 to 18, April 22 to 25, April 29 to May 3, May 13-17 and May 21-24. The policy phase hearings are expected to take place on June 10, 11, and 1.

(I assume that last number was truncated and should read 12 – and BTW, the story wasn’t even covered in The Connection. Surprise.)*

The SVJI was initially scheduled to begin its hearings last November, but they are running late. Five months late, in fact, and then 25 days of hearings are scheduled from mid-April into mid-June. After that the inquirers have to judge the input, come up with a conclusion, write a report and present it. Likely they will not conclude until mid to late fall. During this time the cash register continues to sing its chirpy song.

Meanwhile the number of documents continues to pile up (more than 400,000 already and more still to come… as I wrote about earlier). So many that the SVJI has had to hire two more lawyers to handle the paperwork. Ka-ching!

Last April, I predicted the SVJI would cost taxpayers at least $6 million, based on comparisons between the Mississauga judicial inquiry and the SVJI. But it now looks like that was a conservative estimate. Its original cost estimate was $1-$2 million, too. Here’s what I wrote back then:

The Mississauga inquiry interviewed nearly 100 people and collected about 35,000 documents and held hearings where 35 people testified over a period of 38 days. And cost the city $6.2 million.

Money grows on trees in CollingwoodThe SVJI has already interviewed more than 60 people (as of early November) and hasn’t even started the public inquiry portion. There are more than TEN TIMES the number of documents involved (so many that the earlier deadline to submit documents had to be extended another six weeks). This suggests to me the SVJI is going to cost us a lot more than we were led to believe. Millions more.

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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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The towering heights of the SVJI

Mountain of paperworkFour hundred and twenty seven thousand, two hundred and sixty five. That’s how many documents have been submitted to the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) to date, according to a story in Collingwood Today.*

There is no indication if more are expected after that, but it wasn’t ruled out, either.

More than 425,000 documents. The sheer volume is gobsmacking. Let’s take a look at what that might mean.

It isn’t specified if these are single or multiple page documents. We have to assume at least some are more than a single page. For the sake of easy calculations, let’s say 17% of them have two pages. That brings the number of pages up to 500,000. Now we need to do some calculations about just what the SVJI is doing to your tax dollars and the environment.

One typical ream of paper, and a cat (right).

Start with a base measurement: a standard ream of 20-lb paper is 500 sheets. It measures (in imperial) 8.5 x 11 x 2 inches and weighs 5 lb. Heavier weight paper (24 and 28 lb.) result in thicker and heavier reams. I’ll translate those numbers to metric below.**

Five hundred thousand pages is 1,000 reams of paper. That stacks up to 2,000 inches or 166.7 feet (almost as many as I have feet of books in my home). Just a little wider than an American football field. Laid end-to-end it would be 917 feet long. It would weigh two and a half tons  – about what a mid-size pickup truck or SUV weighs.

According to the Sierra Club, that much paper would take 25-50 full-grown trees (an average 8-inch diameter trunk and height of about 45 feet) to produce – not taking into account any other environmental, industrial or energy impacts from cutting trees to produce the paper. Other sites suggest about 16-17 reams per tree (or about 60 trees to make 1,000 reams)

Paper is sold by the box of 5,000 sheets and the SVJI has 100 cases worth of paper in those documents (printed one-sided). The least expensive paper on the Staples.ca website sells for $54 for a box of low-grade copier paper, but it can rise to $70 or more for better quality paper (heavier, brighter). Assuming the town buys in bulk from a wholesaler, they may pay as little as $40 a case.

The image on the left shows to scale 1,000 reams of paper  – 500,000 sheets – measured against the average male (174 cm or about 5’9″).

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What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

Continue reading “What’s wrong with local media?”