by Tony Burman, Editor in Chief of News- Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), http://www.cbc.ca/news/inside-media/2007/06/paris_hilton_tony_blair_and_us.html
In a June 26, 2007 blog entry on the CBC News website, CBC News Editor in Chief Tom Burman writes about coverage of Paris Hilton's release from jail, Tony Blair's criticism of political reporting in Great Britain, and what journalists can do to report more responsibly and less timidly on the issues their audiences care about.
What do Paris Hilton and Tony Blair have in common, apart from the fact that many people are becoming sick and tired of hearing about them?Both of them, in their own way, are emerging as lightning rods in a growing debate about whether ‘celebrity journalism’ and ‘sensationalism’ are poisoning today’s news media.
This morning’s liberation of Paris from an all-women’s California jail — wearing, according to reporters, a sage jacket with white trim over a white shirt and skinny jeans — was the climax of a media circus in the U.S. that received more news coverage in some circles in the past month than the entire continents of Africa and South America in a year.
At the national conference this past weekend in Vancouver of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA,) coverage of the Hilton soap opera at the expense of other stories was cited in various panel discussions as an embarrassment to responsible journalism. It prompted a response from other delegates, including me, that Canadian media outlets actually have been far more restrained than their American counterparts in their reporting of this story. But I agree it’s undeniable that, for many, the over-the-top coverage of Paris Hilton — a young woman known for nothing other than her “well-knowness’ — has become the latest metaphor of a news media spiralling downward into a sewer. And then, as if this wasn’t enough, along comes Tony Blair.
As a prelude to his departure this week as Britain’s prime minister, Blair has been giving ‘lectures on public life’ focusing on major domestic issues. Earlier this month, he spoke at Reuters' headquarters in London and zeroed in on the news media.
Blair accused journalists of hunting like a "feral beast tearing people and reputations to bits." He said the deteriorating coverage of political reporting in particular had "sapped the country's confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions and above all else it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions in the right spirit for our future …The fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever, hunts in a pack.”
He argued that, in today’s media, scandal and controversy take precedence over ordinary reporting and that attacking people's motives is far more potent than attacking their judgment.
Blair’s British critics criticized the speech as self-serving and hypocritical, and it was notable that he only mentioned in passing his battle with the BBC over whether his government “sexed up” the case for the invasion of Iraq. In spite of the conclusions of a British inquiry — regarded by most independent observers as a whitewash of Blair’s government — events since then have largely confirmed the accuracy of BBC’s original reporting.
So, from a Canadian perspective, it’s easy to attack Blair’s thesis and it’s a simple fact that British tabloids indulge in excesses that the Canadian media — even on a bad day — would not. However, as with coverage of Paris Hilton, there’s little cause for complacency.
By most measures, the public credibility of journalists is in decline. This is particularly evident in the United States, and less so in Canada, but trends here are downward. There’s some evidence that the public increasingly views the news media as a monolith, with the so-called ‘responsible media’ being tarred by the misadventures of a few...
...So what’s the solution? Well, I’ve got one.Rather than journalists being overly aggressive with politicians, as Blair contends, I think the public feels the news media often are too timid — and that they pursue their own interests and those in power at the expense of the public’s. In this 24/7 world, it requires considerable editorial resources to keep providing high-quality, time-consuming journalism that knocks the notoriously closed doors of Canada’s governments open. And, in these tight economic times, that’s not easy to pull off.
For example, it’s hard not to wince at the news a few days ago from the U.S. about the latest cutbacks of journalists. ABC News announced that it will be cutting 35 positions in an effort “to strengthen ABC’s digital divisions.” Since this will be a cut, not a redirection, that’s a bit of an oxymoron. And NBC News recently announced a similar move.
I suspect even Paris Hilton, if not Tony Blair, would challenge the logic of that.