What is a journalist's responsibility when reporting on death? A private list with a lot of Canadian journalists discussed this issue last week. It turned out to be a prescient subject. As the week went on, and journalists covering the Montreal Massacre continued naming the mass murderer instead of his victims, I got more dismayed. Given this, I thought I'd share my thoughts with blog readers about the kinds of questions reporters need to ask about their stories. Please let me know what you think in the comments below.
As a baseline, I think that journalists and everyone else reporting on deaths have a responsibility to decide whether they should publish something or not. If their work does more harm than good, they need to remain silent.
Figuring out this line can be difficult depending on the situation. I have three rules: begin by asking questions that determine the level of public interest and harm a story might do; focus on commemorating people; ask whether someone is manipulating you and if so, why; make sure that you are reporting news not propaganda; and remember that your responsibility is to the public interest, not the private one.
As people who work in the public, journalists have always faced a hierarchical set of three questions that change whether a story will be published or not.1. Does a story have a real public interest?
2. If it does, can publishing a story increase the likelihood that someone will act in the public interest?3. Who gets harmed if a story gets published? Does the public interest supersede that harm, and if so, how? Answering these questions can be tricky, but anyone publishing something should not only ask these questions, but they should refrain from publishing something that clearly does more harm than good. How does that apply to reporting death? That's when the base rules really matter.
I just read a captivating article. In Complicating the Narratives, Amanda Ripley explains that journalists can learn about behavioural science to ask better questions and help us to agree to disagree respectfully.
She published her work in The Solutions Journalism Network a year ago June. I only saw it this week when a journalist friend posted it in an electronic chat discussion.
This article showcases important concepts from leaders in behavioural economics thinking. It also explains how mediation experts use their understanding of these concepts to ask questions that de-escalate conflict.
…I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.
I love how Ripley used notable nonfiction techniques to tell this story. Notice that she began her article with an anecdote from an event that would probably interest most people.
The anecdote makes readers care about an issue that many hadn’t considered. Then she takes us into her personal investigation into mediation. Then she widens again to explain how her lessons could be applied in her profession. She widens even further to explain how anyone can use what she learned in their own lives.
She suggests journalists ask questions to show that those they interview have conflicting ideas about issues. We should emphasize emotional connections if they take place. We also need to listen carefully and repeat our understanding of ideas in our own words back to the person, something that mediators call “looping.” If we do this when interviewing people, we can demonstrate how issues we are trying to explore are more complex than anyone generally believes.
Ripley outlines how research from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt applies to political division, such as that experienced in the United States, and to a lesser extent, here in Canada.
Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition…If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators.
Rather than harping on diverse opinions, Ripley suggests that commentators explore why people believe what they do so that underlying values and experiences can be understood. She says that when this takes place, people don’t necessarily change their minds. Instead, they become more open to hearing what someone else believes, even when they disagree.
As Canada heads into a federal election this autumn, I think this is very good advice for all of us. Our politicians are going to try to convince us that they know what should be done to run this country.
I doubt anyone has all the answers. It’s more likely that each of us has insight into a few of the things that need to be done. Perhaps we can talk about that for a change.
Press releases are not news.
The best press releases read like invitations for a news story rather than the news story itself. They include enough information that can be used “as is” for a short news brief and yet also hint at bigger features.
Remember that bloggers, journalists and other influencers are creators. Keep it simple so that the people using your press release have room to make the story their own.”
Some companies use press releases and blog posts interchangeably, but I recommend keeping the two types of communication separate.
To make it easy on a journalist, make sure that every press release contains 10 elements:
Press releases include two parts: a public portion and a private portion. The public portion can and should be used as a news brief. The private portion includes information that helps build a relationship with the author of the press release and the news media, bloggers or other influencers. Press releases that provide enough information for creators to do a bigger story build trust.
Unlike all other written material, writers of press releases want the public portion of their press releases to be copied as is. These items are the single exception to the plagiarism rule. They enter the public domain immediately.
Publishing the private portions of press releases, however, breaks trust. Journalists who release stories before an embargo time, or publish the names of media contacts to the general public won’t get access to press releases in future.
Who are you and why should a journalist believe you? Who does the news your press release features affect?
These are the two who elements that go into the private and public portions of press releases.
Press releases must clearly come from a credible source.
Business letterhead from a registered company helps make this clear, especially if it includes a public address, public websites, director names and public registration numbers so a journalist can check who runs the company, who owns the property it uses and other such tests of credibility.
Creators, solopreneurs and students without business letterhead can establish credibility by linking to published work or providing a CV or resume for further information.
The public title or first line of a news release should make it clear whether the news affects a single person, a collective or a group of people in the wider public.
Later in the press release, you’ll outline who else is involved in your story. If you quote others, provide clear source information so that a journalist can follow up easily. Consider a joint press release to save journalists time.
Make sure that your press release format doesn’t raise more questions than it answers.
Why should the public care about your news?
Make sure your press release makes the public interest clear.
Journalists serve the public interest first. They’re looking to inform, entertain and inspire readers. They don’t aim to improve shareholder value; they don’t want to help private companies sell products; and they don’t want to start trends, even if that sometimes happens. Think of news as accurate gossip. Describe your story the same way you’d tell it to your next door neighbour.
Make sure the date and time of your news is extremely clear. Include the year please. Press releases have a sneaky habit of reappearing after they’re stale.
If your news covers multiple times and dates, it’s worth including a full list. We all make mistakes with dates and times. Check the calendar twice.
List the full address with rooms and directions as necessary.
Yes, these days many of us have smart phones, but our applications don’t always steer us properly. The CBC building in Montreal, for example, has an official address of 1400 Boulevard René-Lévesque East. If you’re driving there, however, using the address 1058 Rue Wolfe instead will prevent you from getting lost.
Why is your news important now? Where is the urgent need to inform the public? Why should people think about this issue now? The media cover the present. You can write a press release about something in the past or future as long as you clearly identify why people need to learn about it now.
Include one or many good quotes from experts to show the human side of your news. Ideally, you’ll quote the person who cares most so that the public will also care.
Provide an email, text and mobile phone number for a person that a journalist can interview about the story. They’re on deadline. Make sure that someone can be reached.
Journalists love to know about stories before they can be made public. Tell them the date that they can publish by saying something like: “for immediate release” or “embargoed until 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 4, 2019.”
Provide high definition photos, audio or videos via link to an online folder or using a USB key.
Make sure your press release separates the public portion from the private portion clearly. I use the old-fashioned -30- from the telegraph days, but others use hash tags or a private note.
I love Blue Met’s press releases. They’re never more than a page and they include everything you need without too much. Most of them aren’t public, but here’s one that’s on their website about the appointment of their board chair.
Santropol Roulant, a local non-profit, has wonderfully-clear press releases. See the one about their new elevator here.
The Canadian Alliance on Mental Health also produces very clear press releases, something that’s got to be a challenge considering how many partners they have. Check out their latest local champion award winners here.
Public companies have to be very careful to make sure that their press releases fulfill public market regulations as well as informing people. CP Rail makes the most complicated news easy to read. Check out their latest debt offering.
Hundreds of people spent Sunday afternoon on February 24 talking about the 50- hectare plus Lachine East Development at the Maison du Brasseur.
“Finally we have the developers, government and citizens all in the same room,” said Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic. “Now we can create the neighbourhood of our dreams together.”
Montreal’s public consultation office (OCPM) organized the open house and information session as the first part in a process that will continue through April 7. This is the first time that a borough and the city have asked for a public consultation prior to a private development plan submission.
Three commissioners will be in charge of a report due out next summer. Marie Leahey, a coordinator from the Régime de retraite des groupes communautaires et de femmes, leads the commission. She is joined by cultural manager Danielle Sauvage and Les Tourelles Milton Park cofounder Joshua Wolfe.
Hopes remain high for what might be built on the former industrial land over the next twenty years. Several of the organizations that want to be involved in the project staffed tables during the open house.
One of them contained people from a new non-profit association called Imagine Lachine-Est, which wants to ensure that the new Lachine East development becomes an eco-district. More than a hundred citizens have joined so far. UQAM urbanism professor Jean-Francois Lefebvre serves as their president.
“I started working with the group as part of an internship, but I’ve been volunteering with them ever since because I really believe in this project,” said Imagine Lachine-Est coordinator Charles Grenier. “Eco-districts are the hope for the future.”
Grenier handed out pamphlets inviting visitors to the group’s Lachine-East summit. Organizers have added a series of talks in English to make sure that everyone who wants to learn about eco-districts can do so. The summit takes place on Saturday March 9, from 9:15 until 5 at the Guy-Descary culturel complexe, 2901 boul. Saint-Joseph. For more information, visit their website.
At another table were Inass El Adnany and Vincent Eggen from Revitalisation Saint-Pierre. They asked visitors to complete a survey about their vision for a bicycle path to link Lachine and Saint-Pierre through the former industrial area.
Yves Comeau from Villa Nova stood in front of his table to talk to everyone passing by. He said that the company looks forward to continuing to develop its land, despite the clean-up costs, which turned out to be much higher than they once anticipated.
We carted truckloads of contaminated soil from the property,” said Comeau. “There’s going to be a lot of clean-up necessary on the rest of the land as well.”
Tensions between the government and Villa Nova have eased since tests discovered that the land had not been properly decontaminated despite receiving certification from the Quebec Environment Ministry. The borough itself tested the land after Vodanovic raised concerns. City, borough and company discussions got so heated that the company went into bankruptcy protection while the clean-up took place.
During that same period, co-owner Paulo Catania faced fraud charges. They were dropped last May. A month later, Catania made more positive headlines with his announcement that half of the Villa Nova units on the Jenkins property sold within six hours of coming onto the market.
Comeau said the company remains confident they’ll be able to duplicate that success on the rest of their property.
During the information session that followed the open house, residents expressed concern and hope. One resident asked how the borough could protect local heritage if they couldn’t stop the recent Dominion Bridge demolition. How does the city justify building 4,000 units in a sector that has few transportation options? How much community and social housing will be built? What about schools, day cares and grocery stores?
The next sessions during the OCPM consultation may answer some of those questions. Anyone interested can sign up for small group design workshops at two different libraries.
You can also present a written or verbal submission to the commission. Written submissions are due in March. Hearings will take place during the first week of April. To register, go to the website.
Note: This article appeared on pages 1 and 11 of the February 27 issue of the West Island Edition of the Suburban.
Trottier’s childhood passion for electro-magnetic technology has him to create:
The Montreal native holds unfailing love for his city. He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2006. His nomination as an officer took place in 2017.
When I met him, he spoke honestly about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, the brilliant researchers he supports and the issues on which he’s changed his mind.
“When we started, there was no venture capital,” he says about Matrox, the 600-employee company he co-founded with partner Branko Matic in 1976. “What helped us is that we picked a product to develop that we were able to sell within six months. We kind of bootstrapped and grew slowly in the beginning, not necessarily by choice.”
Matrox peaked in the late 1990s and 2000s with its graphics cards. Trottier says the company couldn’t sustain that level of leadership over time and “kind of flamed out.” Still, he’s proud that the company has not only stayed in business through forty years of high technological change but remains flexible enough to continually develop new products that put the latest research into practical use.
“Today, we have three basic areas of strength,” he says. “With computer graphics, we’re strong in display walls and public information displays. With television production, when you watch any sports on the nightly news, sports or election results, our cards are in the bowels of what you see. We’re also strong in machine vision. The latest flavour there is deep learning and we’re getting into that via the algorithms we’re developing.”
Trottier says that he likes meeting the Matrox senior researchers to make sure that the company continues to benefit from significant technological breakthroughs.
That drive to keep current in basic science also has him funding researchers like René Doyon. Doyon runs the Director of the Institute for Research on exoplanets at the Université de Montréal.
“René Doyon is among the world’s top research in exoplanets,” says Trottier. “He’s developed a sensitive spectrometer to be able to read the biomarkers of atmospheres around planets, including water vapor, carbon dioxide and perhaps methane or oxygen. It’s one of the instruments on the $8 billion telescope called the James Webb Telescope that will launch in the fall of 2018. They want to find earth 2.0.”
When asked about vulnerabilities, Trottier says that he’s “more of a geek and not very people-oriented.” He’s also “very stubborn and dogmatic.” He says his attitude sometimes prevents him from appreciating public trends.
When his youngest daughter was studying environmental studies, for example, he was less than enthusiastic about the issue of climate change.
“I probably said some things about those protesters that I would be ashamed of now,” he says. “Skeptic is too strong a word, but I was not convinced that there was anything beyond showmanship.”
After his daughters convinced him to take a closer look at the science behind climate change, he brought eminent scientists from around the world for a public symposium on the issue in the autumn of 2005.
What he learned turned him into one of the top funders in the field with a $15 million grant to McGill in 2011 to create two climate change research institutes. The Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design promotes engineering, architecture and urban planning research. The Trottier Institute for Science and Public Policy, which is run by soil-expert Tim Moore, was set up to expand the contribution of science to human welfare.
“If it hadn’t been for my daughters, I might still be on the sidelines with the climate change issue,” says Trottier. “If you have an open mind, you can change it about anything.”
The experience also wanted him to help change other peoples’ minds about science. Since 2007, Trottier has funded annual public symposiums at McGill. Many are webcast and permanently available at https://www.mcgill.ca/science/outreach/webcasts/trottier-symposium.
Trottier likes Canada’s modern attitude and its cultural duality.
“Canada is a modern country,” he says. “I like the fact that we have two basic cultures here.”
In his private life, Trottier says he’s still the same boy who began exploring technology through a ham radio set with a buddy. Only today, he’s fooling around with radio-controlled airplanes instead.
Please note that this conversation took place in 2017.
This episode of Unapologetically Canadian is brought to you by Thrive Themes.