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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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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Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

Bad journalismOne really doesn’t actually expect sterling journalism, good, investigative reporting or excellent editing from a community newspaper, but we do expect factual accuracy. And we expect reporters and editors to do at least the basics of their jobs.

Some parallel stories in the local papers show just how inaccurate – and sloppy – local reporting and editing can be. And how this is letting council get away with its secret agendas unreported.

The first story, in the Connection, is headlined, Collingwood calling on Collus Powerstream to divulge salaries of executives, employees. It opens:

Salaries paid to executives and employees of Collus Powerstream may soon be divulged, after Collingwood council passed a motion, Wednesday, asking for the information.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so – Collus is a private corporation and it may require costly legal action to divulge more than just salary ranges. But, as you’ll read below, they won’t be “divulged” to the public, just to council. And you’re okay spending tax dollars on an essentially pointless quest that will (allegedly) be kept secret?

But why should employees earning under $100K be forced to divulge their salaries? The province’s ‘sunshine’ law doesn’t require it (only municipal salary ranges below that are ever released). Why do some people think they are above provincial law?

Collingwood Council passed a shareholders’ directive on Wednesday, requesting a host of information from Collus Powerstream as part of the development of a new shared services agreement.

Okay, first it’s a shareholder’s directive, singular, since the town has only one share and it belongs to the community as a whole, not to multiple shareholders. It’s only plural when both shareholders pass it.

Why didn’t the reporter ask the simple question: what have salaries to do with shared services? In fact, they are irrelevant to the shared service agreement. It’s supposed to be about services, after all. But don’t let facts get in the way.

Why didn’t the reporter ask why none of this was ever raised in public before, or what public interest was being protected by all this secrecy? Why didn’t the reporter ask if it’s proper procedure to demand such information outside a formal shareholders’ meeting (yes, plural because there are two)? Or ask whether it’s wise to engage in a pissing match with your partner through the media?

(Does such a ‘directive’ requires both parties to agree, if so, the reporter might have asked, what happens if the other refuses?)

Why didn’t an editor send the reporter back out to finish the job? Asking why is a key part of any story. There are five Ws that must be answered to complete every good story: who, what, where, when and why. Just because council said so, or the CAO demanded it, isn’t the answer to why. Good reporters dig deeper. Good editors make sure they do.

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Lessons from the paper

Another fine messThere’s a story on page B2 of the January 1 Enterprise Bulletin (not online yet*) that offers us three lessons. Two lessons on how the local media fails us, one on cringe-worthy political ineptitude. Those lessons are:

  1. How far the credibility of the paper has fallen;
  2. How little respect there is for real reporting and investigative journalism in the local media;
  3. How pusillanimous and dysfunctional council has become.

Let’s start with number one. The article on page B2 is headlined “Business centre strategic board takes flight.” Now you might think you were reading a light piece about the development of the Clearview Aviation Business Centre (CABC). Good news, right? After all, the news about the airport has been pretty much all bad until now.

What you’re actually reading is two distinct media releases from very different sources cobbled together into one incoherent and contradictory mess. You have to read a full ten inches of copy before you get the first reference to any of it being copied verbatim from a media release. It isn’t news at all.

And even then it states the release came from “Collingwood council” when that is not true: it was released by two members of council alone (see below).

That is deceptive. The piece should start by clearly stating that the content comes from two separate media releases authored not by the paper but by the proponents. It should also clearly identify which is which and the sources of the content.

Because of their very different nature, the two items really should have separate headlines, and not doing so suggests editorial laziness. This is simply bad cut-and-paste stuff.

It’s acceptable for a paper to reprint media releases, as long as they are properly identified. We used to call this stuff “advertorials” when I was editor. But to publish it on a page labelled “Local News” in 144-point type as if it were reported by an independent, trustworthy source is disingenuous and underhanded. It discredits the rest of the material in the paper.

It’s also an editorial mess. Or rather a mess that apparently had no editor.

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