I went to Quest University in Squamish last week at the invitation of Dr. Eric Gorham to speak to his Media and Politics class and answer questions about my experiences in journalism in Britain and Canada over the last (gulp) 28 years.
It was the third time I've addressed this course, the first since I joined this newspaper almost two years ago. It's always interesting to be put under the spotlight and since the early years of my career — when my best friend was the media correspondent at the London Times and we'd discuss the positives and negatives over a glass of merlot — I've liked analyzing it.
There is not enough media literacy and that is a shame. Defined by the American Center for Media Literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms," it is something I would like to see taught in kindergarten and throughout people's lives.
Why? Because it would make all of us better critical thinkers, asking the questions that need asking, not only of journalism and the stories produced, but also of government, business, any organization with authority over our lives.
I also kinda hope that this would lead to more engaged people who feel connected with and enjoy participating in the world beyond their back yards.
Twenty to 30 hours a year for students until they reach Grade 12, tailoring the level of dialogue according to the age, should do it.
Sitting in a classroom for two hours with 25 bright young adults is a good place to start, at least for me. Here are some of the questions the Quest students asked me (paraphrased) and my answers (also paraphrased as I tend to meander):
Q: Did you ever feel pressured in the course of carrying out your work?
A: This was, I think, meant to be a question about what happens behind the closed doors of a newsroom office. The answer is yes, unfortunately, but very, very rarely. Maybe five times in 28 years, generally when I was freelancing. I'd like to point out that it hasn't happened with Pique, which is one of the many reasons why I work here.
More often, though again fairly rarely, I've been aware of overt and covert attempts to shape the message by outsiders: governments, agencies, stakeholders and also John and Josephine Q Public. It can be either an attempt to keep the information away from reporters or an attempt to feed them a particular viewpoint at the expense of others.
What to do about it? In terms of a story, I try to gather as much information as I can from all relevant sources before I write. In terms of requiring support from my bosses and colleagues, I seek it when needed.
Newsgathering is not a sprint, it's actually a marathon carried out in stages, story by story. I like to think that the more a subject is covered, the more accurate a picture emerges. This is what I want readers to know.
Q: Is your role when it comes to gathering information as a gatekeeper or owner of the information?
A: I see myself as a conduit in that I am the means by which the story reaches the page. That's why I try to find out as much as I can with an open mind. I see it as a responsibility of the position. Journalists are privileged in that they are sent to talk to people and attend events that others cannot take the time to do.
I was also asked what I think of journalistic objectivity. When I was a university student, my first bureau chief (another student and still a dear friend) said to me "objectivity is an impossible myth, all you can try to do is be fair." It made sense to me and I've tried to follow it ever since.
Q: What should readers do in order to get the right information from the media they use?
A: A reader should try to get wide experience of the world and of the subjects that most interest them. They should look for writers and media they trust, and that's a relationship that is built over time. Where is the writer or media source coming from? It doesn't always have to be someone you always agree with, but someone you know who is honest and trustworthy. I read mainstream and alternative press all the time.
The more we learn about the limitations of the media in a real sense (i.e. carrying out the job, the pressures on it, etc.) the better we can ask how it can be improved.
Q: What advice would you give to a 20-year-old who wants to go into journalism?
A: Learn the craft of writing and editing — the industry is in crazy flux right now, but I still believe that talented people will find work. Become a well-rounded person and develop your general interests, along with what especially interests you in the job. Be ethical; develop that trust with your audience. Don't take "no" for an answer. Check your ego at the door.
And maybe get a trade certificate in plumbing, just in case the industry gets squeezed more than it already is.
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