In the last couple of weeks, some people within Ontario’s construction industry have tipped me off about some important regional stories.I don’t doubt the sincerity of my information sources, but equally am bound by the rules: The comments they made are not for attribution to them. (I clarified on initial conversation that I didn’t regard the information as ‘off the record,’ which implies even more stringent restrictions on how I can use the information, but equally know that I cannot publish the stories without sufficient third-party confirmation.)
So I set out to investigate the issues. In one story, I discovered cryptic but public-record information from a relevant organization and I bounced my observations about the controversy in an informal conversation to an employee of that organization who doesn’t have direct responsibility for the issue. He confirmed the underlying story. In the second, I caught someone off guard and he spilled the beans — or at least some of them — in a phone interview that I didn’t tape record, but he didn’t request it to be an non-attributed conversation. So I could quote him, but this would be unfair in my opinion if I don’t have other quotes from other people.
Finally, I reached the press secretary for a politician at the centre of one of the stories. She initially set up a phone interview with the political leader (I was quite clear about what I wanted to discuss.) However, suddenly she came up with an excuse about the politician’s lack of availability, and said he would issue a statement instead. The statement avoids the issue and is full of useless (to the issue) political posturing. (But he is a politician, so I suppose the political posturing is okay.)
Eventually I’ll write stories with some semblance of the truth. However, the energy and time to write a few paragraphs of accurate genuine journalistic news will prove to be much greater than the amount of content that needs to be filled; meaning safe, fluffy or pre-packaged “controversial” materials will get more coverage. Of course, I’ll continue my policy to refer blatant commercial self-serving news releases to our advertising sales representatives; we’re happy to publish editorial-style advertising features, but want to be paid for these.
Really good journalism; that is journalism that digs into substantive issues and brings important matters to light, is both hard and expensive to do. There are exceptional circumstances where we see the craft (some assert journalism is a profession, but I’m not so sure we can use such a designation) is practiced effectively, but most of what we see, hear or read, both in print, in broadcast electronic media or online, reflects massaged messages. Politicians stay on script; PR handlers control their agenda, and even leaks and confidential sources (including the people who discussed some issues with me last week) have their own agendas. You rarely hear the whole story.
I don’t have simple or easy-to-resolve answers to these issues. In theory, well-run media outlets can sell enough advertising to pay for the real journalism that attracts readership (or viewership) but the advertising cost/results expectations in online media are much more demanding, and the funds for effective journalism are declining. This turns the journalistic task to a smaller group of well-funded organizations or, alternatively, to individuals with passion for the craft who lack professional status or even competence. (The concept of ‘citizen journalism’ and crowd-sourcing explains the approach.)