Yes folks there is such a thing as journalism ethics. Even textbooks on the subject such as Deadlines and Diversity published in 1996. It contains an essay by veteran journalist Pierre Mignault that begins:
Public confidence in journalists is based on a simple premise: “Trust me, I was there, I saw what happened, I heard it from the horse’s mouth.”
Except that, as Mignault pointed out, journalists increasingly cover stories hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away using a technique known as a “melt-down.”
When Mignault was writing nearly two decades ago, the term applied to television news where pictures and interview clips from a variety of sources were “melted down” into a single report narrated by a reporter who did not need to leave the office. The technique saved money while conveying the impression that a news outfit was on top of the story when, in fact, it was actually far away from it. And the reporter who told the story was not actually reporting, but using wordsmithery and production techniques to package the work of others.
CBC Radio’s melt-down mania
Years ago, CBC Radio news programs like World at Six prided themselves on what were called “direct reports” from on-scene reporters, correspondents or freelancers. Poor-cousin current affairs shows such as As It Happens, on the other hand, had to make do with cheap, phone-out interviews conducted by studio-bound hosts.
Today, at the cash-strapped CBC, melt-downs are flourishing, even in radio, the blind medium where listeners depend on reporters to be both their eyes and ears. Yeah, trust me, I was there. Well, not quite.
On tonight’s World at Six, for example, listeners heard a two-minute report on the the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in Pretoria, South Africa voiced by Peter Armstrong. His report began with sounds from outside the courthouse that ran underneath his opening script: “Oscar Pistorius arrived at court this morning locked in the back of a police van.”
Later, Armstrong took listeners to “the other side of the country” to the funeral of Pistorius’s girl friend, Reeva Steenkamp. He reported that her uncle had said she should be remembered “as an activist fighting to prevent violence against women” followed by a seven-second clip of an incoherent and distraught Mike Steenkamp. Where Armstrong gathered his sounds, clips and information, he did not say though none of it could have been based on his own reporting. His final words: “Peter Armstrong, CBC News, Toronto.”
Loneliness of long-distance reporting
A few minutes after the Armstrong report, CBC Radio’s National Reporter for the Maritime Provinces, Stephen Puddicombe, told the story of the grim search for five missing fishermen from Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia, nearly 300 kilometres south of Halifax.
Puddicombe’s report included clips of George Hopkins, father of one of the young fishermen who “sits at his kitchen table, tapping, trying to stem the tears.” The report also had sounds from the wharf where a friend remembered he had coached most of the missing fishermen in hockey, adding that they were “just hard-workin young men, trying to make a livin.”
In the best CBC Radio tradition, Puddicombe’s reporting took World at Six listeners to an isolated community where they could share intense feelings of grief and loss. Yes, CBC listeners may have been taken to Woods Harbour, but, judging by his signoff, Puddicombe himself never ventured outside the CBC studios in Halifax where he “melted down” the work of his provincial CBC colleagues.
“Trust me, I wasn’t there and these are the facts I didn’t hear from the horse’s mouth!”