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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Journalists should not be storytellers

Recently I read a tweet from a former editor at my local paper. He is now delivering his thoughts on journalism to students at a nearby college. He tweeted that he was training young people to be storytellers. I replied: Journalists are not storytellers but reporters.

He disagreed. A story lies at the heart of what a reporter tries to convey, he tweeted. Who's right?

According to Lee Wilkins, professor and communications department chair at Wayne State University in Detroit, faculty emeritus and curator’s teaching professor at the University of Missouri:

Journalists are not storytellers but reporters.

According to Wilkins, a local government reporter before she began teaching: "When we started thinking of ourselves as storytellers was when we ran into a problem." The problem? Journalism changed from an "objective process" to one focused on "storytelling." Wilkins believes this emphasis on story over reporting entered American newsrooms in the 1980s. And I concur.

Sadly, when a journalist puts the story first, all too often it means facts become subservient to the story. I can give a solid example of this but, if I do, I risk losing you. You will immediately know I am wrong because you have seen and heard the story on television, maybe on 60 Minutes, or CBC Marketplace. You have read it in your local paper and in magazines. You know the truth. You know the story. And I will have a damn near impossible time changing your mind.

The story? The threat posed by the urea formaldehyde foam insulation or UFFI was created by the media. Before you quit reading, think about this:

Source: The London Free Press, Saturday Homes Section

When homes with UFFI were tested, the tested homes were found, on average, to have formaldehyde levels slightly below that of homes of similar age without UFFI. Also, there was no UFFI caused damage to house framing nor were other UFFI-caused defects found.

Why was the true story not told until years after the damage had been done? Because stories, good stories have legs and when told by good storytellers, journalists, such stories are hard to resist. I believe it was 60 Minutes in the States that originally broke the erroneous scare story. Then CBC's Marketplace, not to be outdone, did their take on the same story. And the UFFI wildfire was lit and fanned. Newspapers across North American felt forced to run UFFI stories as well.

I covered a lot of UFFI stories and I am ashamed of the part I played in promoting that story. I met a lot of people, many seniors, who had massive amounts of their life savings tied up in their homes and the media-spread myth was destroying the equity that had accumulated in the family home. All too sad. Now, there is a story. Will it displace the mythical stories? I doubt it. Marketplace is still bragging about their major contribution to the original UFFI coverage.

Marketplace is proud of the part it played in the banning of urea formaldehyde foam insulation.
As I edited this, I wondered if scare stories involving UFFI were still being printed. It took but a moment to turn up this story from the Cornwall-Standard Freeholder on "toxic spray foam insulation."

I shake my head and a feeling of shame washes over me. I had a hand in pushing this story and the story is still influencing decision making. This is despite the fact that, and this is from the Freeholder story, "Canada is one of the only countries in the world that bans the use of UFFI . . . it (is) being used widely in many other countries including the United States."

If the reporter every decides to focus on that last sentence and explain why a "toxic" foam is only toxic in Canada, the reporter might have an award winning story and an easy one to tell.

According to CMHC, "UFFI is not a source of over-exposure to formaldehyde . . . Houses with UFFI show no higher formaldehyde levels than those without it."

So, are high levels of formaldehyde ever found in homes in Canada today? Not often but, again according to CMHC, "in new or other well-sealed houses, significant indoor formaldehyde levels may still occur (thanks to) new carpets." If the folk in the justice building are worried, maybe they should concentrate on new carpeting and not decades-old insulation.