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JONESIE: You can't criticize local news media

January 30, 2019 - 12:21 PM

 


OPINION


Well maybe this proves it: You can’t criticize local news around here.

For a brief moment last week, we nearly achieved it before it got misdirected, confused and then, of course, it completely disappeared. And it was all a little silly anyway.

Wayne Moore of Castanet broke a story earlier this month that Costco has leased Westbank First Nation land. That’s a significant event in an ongoing news story of the major retailer looking for additional space and being unable to find it in the City of Kelowna.

The Kelowna Daily Courier followed that with a signed editorial by editor James Miller — but note the column inches he used to explain the confines of his opinions.

"The purpose of this editorial is not to criticize another news outlet, but instead explain why we chose to ignore a story that seemed to be growing legs.”

Why not criticize another news outlet? If journalism is about holding the powerful accountable, why would news be any different? Who else would? Who else should? Who else could?

The Courier editorial got shared around Facebook a bit and the misplaced indignation was a little disappointing. They call this a ‘rumour’ that shouldn’t have been elevated to news.

Well that’s not what I read. Wayne Moore reported that he was shown land transfers showing that Costco invested in three parcels on the Westside.

That’s news, that’s a story. There's a few mistakes in there sure but the biggest was overselling it and saying it was ‘official’. Miller also points out that Moore didn’t cite his sources, which is not always required but does compound the mistakes in this case. My guess is Moore kept his sources purposefully vague so the media horde can’t follow him so quickly, but there’s obvious risks in doing that. He’s essentially asking readers to trust him. Wayne is a good, honest, experienced reporter, properly motivated to serve the public. I believe what he actually reported, if not the conjecture. (Also just because that’s what we do in the Okanagan, fill great land with strip malls and box stores, but that’s another point.)

I think Wayne probably agrees with me on all of this because some time after the story was published — and all the clicks soaked up — (perhaps in response to some of the criticism), he amended it heavily without any notation, including the offending line: “It’s official." 

But I wouldn’t even publicly quibble with this story at all because it pales in comparison to some of the greatest crimes of journalism committed in the Okanagan on the regular.

Want a few examples? In 2016, two of the biggest stories to come out of Kelowna were complete fiction. One was a tall tale told by a local woman and accepted eagerly for the value of the story which briefly went national, even got local MPs involved and could have had great legs — if it were true. There was not a shred of verification before the story was published or after. It didn’t even pass the sniff test by a decent reporter. The other story was about a convicted pedophile moving to Kelowna, except that he wasn’t.

Did I mention we're talking about millions of page views? Do you see that connection yet?

A few years ago, news came out about a late night stranger sexual assault in my own neighbourhood. The outlet said a young girl was raped by a man at 2 a.m. and my neighbours understandably lost their collective minds — except it wasn’t true. The reporter quoted an anonymous neighbour and when I later tried to confirm from police — berated them for withholding the information — they said they had no reason to believe it was true and therefore didn’t release it.

A few years ago, one news outlet published anonymous unverified information that a Vernon child who was hit by a boat had died in hospital. Sad. Sadder was the comments section on Facebook where the mother of that boy and her friends and family were losing their minds because he was still alive. Mom was told by doctors hours earlier that she had to make an impossible decision about life support (likely where the news 'tip' came from) — and now had to deal with this.

You won’t find a lot of evidence of these things unless I can find the old screenshots because they are erased — gone. That alone is astounding. But if that Costco story bothered you, well, these stories happen every day and I am just scratching the surface here.

Kelowna is a pretty unique place for news and media — perhaps one of the most saturated media markets in the country. Lots of innovation is playing out before a savvy web audience and business community. We can’t complain like many other places in the country about a lack of local news coverage.

But it’s well past the point that we discuss the quality of that coverage and perhaps some well-reasoned, informed criticism of it.

I know better than most the repercussions of criticizing them but this next story cemented in my mind that the power of local news deserves scrutiny. I interviewed a local business woman a few years ago who got turfed from politics. She railed on about the B.C. Liberals, once an ally of hers, and she railed about the B.C. NDP, also once an ally. She was taking on all comers, powerful people who could seriously impact her business. But when I asked her about my suspicions of skullduggery from a local news outlet that got her punted — she drew the line. She wouldn’t even discuss it.

She’d take on the entire provincial political establishment but no damn way would she take on the local news outlet.

I have tried in various ways and forms to call out these issues and have been quite rightly accused by my colleagues and others of a conflict of interest because I am the editor of this news organization. To which I say, fair enough. As always, take it for what it’s worth.

Another pervasive thought in the news business is that readers — you — just don’t care about this stuff and numbers confirm that. If you are interested in reading more about the news media, I need to hear it. Please let me know. And if there’s a journalist or someone out there who wants to take on the subject of local news and media criticism in the Thompson-Okanagan and is qualified to do so — contact me. I’m interested.

When we cover local government, police, courts and other institutions, we do it with the understanding and a little hope that criticism will make them better, that exposure would keep them from over-reaching with their power.

That’s something we could definitely use more of in local media.

— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca

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