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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Faux balance unbalances news stories

Without realizing it, reporter Patrick Maloney made a confession in the daily newspaper. Without grasping the true importance of his words, he admitted that The Free Press committed the common media blunder of faux balance.

It seems that some years ago, feeling the need to balance its coverage of Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best's state of the city address, the daily paper chased down Joe Fontana vacationing out of town in the sunny south. According to Maloney, "Fontana ripped his old rival with unexpected vigour."

Unexpected vigour? Really? Fontana's vitriol-laced words were unexpected? I humbly suggest the newspaper sought out Fontana hoping to get some good quotes, and Fontana delivered.

It is interesting to note that the original story, as posted to the Web, makes no mention that Fontana was chased down by the paper, that he was not even at the event but was instead on vacation. The omission was not for lack of space. Fontana dominates from 40 to 50 percent of the first story, depending upon how one approaches the calculation.

Journalists have forgotten how to report straight-news straight. Faux balance does not add accuracy or objectivity. What it does add is risk, and one of those risks is the risk of being used by the person chosen as a counter-balance. Fontana welcomed the opportunity to grab some front page attention. He criticized his former opponent and took full advantage of the moment to further his own political ambitions.

Personal Twitter attack by the reporter who wrote both stories mentioned in the above post.
Interesting response to my post. What makes it interesting, at least to me, is that it is but another in a long list of rude reactions from a reporter at The London Free Press, the newspaper at which I worked for thirty some years. While working at the paper I was mainly a staff photographer but I also wrote two weekly columns -- one on photography and another, Celebrating the Thames, on the river that flowing through London.

I have kept the letters and e-mails from these journalists but I don't publish them as the writers usually request that I not publish their thoughts on my blog. I respect their wishes. I have attacked financial advisers and others but the only rude responses I have received are from reporters. Other than reporters, I don't recall anyone else attacking me on a personal level. Some of the reporter e-mails have not only been rude in content but rude in form -- written in screaming solid caps in very large, bold fonts.

I have been disappointed by the responses from professional reporters. When I worked at newspapers I believed journalists had thick skins. And they did back in the '70s when I got into the profession. Not so today.

No one working at the paper should be surprised at the tone of my posts. When I saw stuff with which I didn't agree while working at the paper, I was known to walk into the publisher's office or the editor-in-chief's office and voice my disapproval. I vented, they listened and that was it. I was never able to spur anyone into taking any action. (I believe, if asked, Paul Berton, a former editor-in-chief at the Free Press, would confirm this statement.)

Writing a blog is far more satisfying that making futile noises as an employee at a paper. I have had more than 164,000 hits and the number keeps growing. I vent and someone listens and another and then still another. Right now my most popular post has been hit more than 12,500 times.

If you are a journalism junkie, please read the story that inspired my post: London mayor hints at re-election platform with promise to keep taxes at 1% a year and then read the "balanced" story done at the time of Anne Marie DeCicco-Best's state of the city address: Mayor's race replay?

A writer for The Economist's Democracy in America blog wrote:
"Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine."

Seeing the anger my posts generate, I try to be careful when discussing errors made by local journalists. Still, newspapers are too important to be above criticism. I've decided to be careful but at the same time to be true to myself and to continue to openly discuss my unease with some aspects of how the media operates. An open, free media is a pillar of our way of life.

Discussion is called for, not personal insults.

That's not an argument.

I have some friends who like to argue. An evening spent with this group can be expected to deliver at least one example of toe-to-toe of verbal sparring. I'm ashamed to admit that in the past I've been sucked into the maelstrom, but I'm learning to keep my lips buttoned.

I decided to start clamming up after I mentioned that the insulating blinds installed in my kitchen are causing a thick build up of ice to form at the bottom of the windows. The ice, and resulting water, are damaging the wooden sills.

I thought the blinds were an example of an incomplete understanding of how insulation interacts with water vapour in a home. Buildings are facing an increasing number of problems with black mould and I believe the causes are insulation and moisture combined with ignorance.

My statement found no agreement at the table. In fact the fellow beside me said I was failing to credit these new, insulating blinds with delivering great energy savings during hot, summer nights.

Soon I found that no matter what I said I was going to be contradicted. I felt like I was entering the world of Monty Python -- and I was right. I had entered the Argument Clinic.

Part of the pleasure of this sketch is derived from the undeveloped meta-argument put forth. Meta-argument: An argument about an argument.

Embracing the meta-argument position, one soon understands not even getting into an argument in some situations is the rational thing to do. More to the point, arguing strenuously with others whom have all gathered to enjoy a fine dinner is simply bad manners. (I hang my head in shame for my role in the minor dinner table brouhaha.)

Emily Post suggested on try to change the subject the minute a discussion feels like it is escalating into an argument. (Now, how do I get my friends to read this post?)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Being rich isn't bad -- but being a leech is.

Kevin O'Leary has made a career out of pulling the chains of Canadians, especially those who watch CBC. Recently The Lang & O'Leary Exchange touched on an Oxfam report: Working for the Few. The report reveals that the 85 richest people on earth have a combined wealth equal to that of the entire bottom half of the world’s population. According to Oxfam: "Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy."

O'Leary's unthinking, by rote response was to applaud the news. "What can be wrong with that," he asked. The small time business man, but big time self-promoter, went on to say it was wonderful to see this happening. It encourages people to work hard, to get ahead.

Mr. O'Leary doesn't seem to realize many of those in the third world already work damn hard. Many possibly harder than Mr. O'Leary. Millions of children in the Third World are Born To Work. This is the title of a book by GMB Akash, a Bangladeshi photographer.

It should be noted that the percentage of people living in dire poverty around the world has been declining over the past decades. It must also be noted that, contrary to O'Leary's statement, in countries with the greatest income inequality an expanding GDP does less to alleviate poverty than the same growth in a country with a more equal distribution of wealth.

Amanda Lang mocked O'Leary as she imitated a Third World worker getting up in the morning. I can get ahead, thinks the worker: "I just need to pull up my socks. Oh wait, I don't have any socks."

At least, Ms. Lang gets it. For instance, some 10,000 people, including over 2500 women and 1000 children, earn a living collecting stone and sand from the Piyain River in Bangladesh. The average wage is less than $2 US a day. Times may be tough for these folk while they are working but for four months a year it gets even worse. Work is suspended during the annual rainy season. Click on the link and check the pictures. Lang is right. Many of these workers don't have socks.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Falls from beds injure children

I'm a bit of a worrier, even my granddaughter thinks so. When she has a sleep-over at our home, I worry. The guest bed is about 80cm off the hardwood floor. That's a long drop in my estimation. We push the bed against the wall and then I insist that someone sleep with the 4-year-old, keeping her sandwiched between the wall and a sleeping adult (usually mommy.)

The other night the little girl slept over. She was excited. Sleep-overs are fun. She climbed onto the bed and rolled back and forth in glee. I moved in close to the edge of the bed, warning her that what she was doing was dangerous.The words were hardly out of my mouth when she had rolled too close to the edge of the bed. She was sliding off and could do nothing to stop it. Her face filled with fear -- and then relief. I had reached out and caught her in mid-air.

"Gaga!" You caught me!" This was not the first time I've been in the right place at the right moment to catch the very active little girl. I've been told that I can't always be there. This makes me smile. She won't always need me to be there. She's four. It won't be long until the falls will be, for the most part, out-grown. I'm not putting a six-year-old in a shopping cart seat.

But my relatives seem to be sending me an underlying message: She should fall. It would do her good. She'll  learn a lesson. Kids don't get hurt falling, I am always being assured. Kid are resilient. I'm not convinced.

It didn't take a lot of research to confirm my worst fear: The proportion of kids injured by short falls is small but the extent of the injuries among those children injured is major. Knowing the exact proportion of children injured is impossible. Children who are not harmed in any way are not taken to the hospital and therefore there is no record of these incidents. But among the relatively small number of children taken to emergency, the number of injuries is surprisingly large and the extent of the injuries frighteningly major.

In one study involving 104 children, there were eight skull fractures among those children who fell less than 60cm. When the child fell more than 60cm but less than 120cm, the number of skull fractures jumped to 23. When all factors were accounted for, the researcher concluded:

  • It is common for children to suffer fractures from falls.
  • Significant, but not life-threatening injuries, are common in short falls.
  • Children tumbling from low heights can suffer unexpectedly severe injuries.
  • The greater the height of the fall, the more common it is to suffer a skull fracture.

  • Stairs
  • Beds, especially bunk beds
  • Playground equipment
  • Shopping carts (Store floors are often hard, non-energy-absorbing surfaces)
  • Wooden floors are more dangerous than carpeted floors

One last, sad note. The figures may be skewed by child abuse. Sometime the injuries don't mesh with the details surrounding the incident and the care-givers are suspect. For this reason, I didn't go into too much detail with numbers and links, etc.

Source: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Big isn't bad; Bad is bad.

When I was a boy jams, jellies, pickles and other assorted products were made by small, family-owned producers. Today, not so much.

When Heinz announced the closure of their plant in Leamington and Free Press columnist Larry Cornies wrote an apology for big business, I decided I had had enough. Cornies wrote about "The deal we make with them [Big Business] in the free-market system."

Cornies was wrong, in my opinion, about the deals we make but he did start me thinking. I don't want to make deals with big companies. Before Heinz announced the closure of its Leamington operation, I thought of Heinz as a pretty fair company with which to do business. Now that has all changed.

The headline above the Cornies column read: Answer lies in understanding, not boycotting. Cornies tells his readers to understand the pressures facing big business, to clearly understand the issues facing departing manufacturers — rather than reflexively boycotting certain brands.

I feel these companies are breaking the free-market deal I personally have with these businesses. Cornies may not agree but he sees the world differently than I do.

I'm not exactly boycotting big brand name food products, but I try not to buy them. Think of Kraft cheese. It's O.K. but I like Brights or Thornloe better. I always try to pick up some Brights Cheese when passing through Bright, Ontario, on the way to my sister's in Wellesley. Closer to home, I buy Thornloe cheese from Angelo's Italian Bakery and Market just a short drive from my London home. The Thornloe aged chedder is wonderful. Far more flavour than the Kraft product.

As I began writing this, I began wondering just whom I was supporting. I looked into the stories attached to a couple of the companies. I learned, Brights Cheese has a history going back to 1874 when a group of dairy farmers began working together to make cheese. Brights is still a cooperatives today.

Thornloe is also owned by a farmer-owned cooperative. Five years ago a global dairy producer, Parmalat, announced it was closing what is now the Thornloe operation. A local dairy farmer led the move to save the plant. Today some 3 million litres of milk runs through the plant annually.

I looked through my fridge and checked out the kitchen pantry. No Smucker's jams and jellies in my home. Smuckers bought Bick's pickles and moved production from Dunnville, Ontario, to Ohio. I now buy pickles made by Lakeside Packing Co. Ltd. located in Harrow, Essex County, Ontario. For a treat I love to pick up some Kosher dill pickles from Moishes Kosher Foods, Montreal.

It is interesting to note that to buy the Moishes I must go to Costco. Costco may be big but it is a fair employer. They pay their staff well and offer decent benefits. Do I have anything purchased from Walmart? No, I have nothing. Big is not necessarily bad. It is bad that is bad.

The truth is Mr. Cornies, we all make our own deals with Big Business. The deal that I have struck seems to be quite different from yours.

Sadly, all too often we are not given the option of not buying from Big Business. When I moved to London, kitchen ranges were still being made in town. Today I have no choice. My stove, fridge and dishwasher all come from Mexico.

The other truth, Mr. Cornies, is that all too often we do not make any deal with Big Business. Big Business dictates the terms and we have no choice but to go along with whatever is offered.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Urban sprawl: A worldwide problem

Homes, Isle of Wight, garages at front but off to the side. Google Street Views.

Sprawl is a global problem. Cars are popular the world over. Garages forward or off to the sides of a homes are everywhere. Years ago I was in Tunisia in a town on the edge of the Sahara desert. I saw a new home under construction. The home had a very traditional look, it fit right in with the older residences, except for one thing: It had a garage forward design with the garage jutting out from the home toward the street.

The continuing sprawl that surrounds London is sad but it is not unique. It is sadly all too common everywhere.

What is sad about London, and so many other towns throughout Southwestern Ontario, is that there are spots in the world that are experimenting with solutions to sprawl. These place are not common but there are a lot of them. Sadly, I know of no examples of London developers thinking way outside the box -- be it a fancy suburban box with its garage forward or a highrise box, a filing cabinet for people.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Warning: Insulated blinds can cause damage in winter

These blinds are causing condensation problems in an Ontario home.

When my wife and I bought new blinds for our kitchen, we bought ones which trapped a pocket of insulating air when lowered. This style of blind, ours are Duette by HunterDouglas, insulate our large kitchen windows when lowered each evening.

Thick ice at bottom of window after an extremely cold night.
By insulating the windows, the temperature of the inside surfaces of the kitchen window glass is now much colder than in previous winters. This is causing condensation to form at the bottom of each window. Last night the cold dropped into record low territory. In the morning we discovered condensation had turned into thick ice at the bottom of each kitchen window.

Some of the paint has already been damaged and is flaking off. The windows are almost thirty years old and are of the older wooden variety. They are not plastic. This constant soaking threatens to rot the wood surrounding the windows, especially the wooden sills. We may need replacement windows sooner than expected.

An unintended consequence of using insulating blinds is the condensation problem.

Homes are getting to be quite complicated. According to an architect I know, modern builders and renovators are not really up to speed on the pros and cons of the newly designed and redesigned stuff they are installing in homes. Water resulting from condensation is not just a problem on cold windows but often forms unnoticed deep within walls and ceilings, according to this architect.

"Keep the heat" in has become almost a mantra but the research, backed by good science, needed to accomplish that goal is sadly lacking. You may be keeping the heat in but also trapping structure damaging moisture at the same time. In many cases, "keep the heat in" should be accompanied by the words "let the moisture out."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A disease that needs no torquing

One of the world's most beautiful spots, the Orkney Islands, is Ground Zero for MS.

When I worked at the local paper I can recall one reporter getting into a heated discussion over the torquing a story. An editor at the top of the newsroom pecking order insisted the reporter rewrite a story to give it the expected, and now demanded, impact. This pumping up of a story was called torquing.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is not a disease that needs to be torqued. Yet, this is exactly what a recent front page article in The London Free Press did. The reporter wrote:

It's a disease that strikes down adults at their prime -- and it's found Ground Zero in Canada.

Is the above true? Maybe; maybe not. There are those who would argue that the present Ground Zero, based on the latest figures, may be the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland. Studies of the island populations indicate an MS rate possibly as high as 402 per 100,000 inhabitants in the Orkney Islands. The Shetland Islands come in lower with only 295 per 100,000 but both rates are higher than Canada's reported rate of 291.

Declaring a country, especially a country as large as Canada, the global hot spot for MS is difficult. The disease is certainly all too prevalent in Canada but not uniformly so across the country. The frequency of occurrence varies across the country with folks in the Prairies suffering from MS at a rate running at about twice that of Canadians living in Quebec.

Why does the rate dip in Quebec only to rebound in Nova Scotia? Some theorize some of this may be the result of genes. The gene pool in Quebec is different that of the gene pool in Alberta.

Even the global Ground Zero for MS does not report a homogeneous rate for the small islands. According to Dr Wilson, of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Population Health Sciences, "We saw within Orkney and Shetland there were hotspots and cold spots. Some isles and parishes and villages had a much increased rate and in other parts there were hardly any residents who had it."

Damning Canada as the global Ground Zero for MS makes a good lede but a poor beginning for a story.