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Monday, June 29, 2020

The thoughts of a dying photojournalist: Part II

Let me be clear. I have a very bad heart. It is failing. But, that said, I watch my diet, I stopped jogging and have eliminated all exercise that causes a heart to race and I lost all the extra weight I was carrying.

The result is that I am doing far better than many would have foreseen. I am now on my second pacemaker/ICD and my granddaughters are rooting for me to get a third.

On the downside, I have my off days. Yesterday was an off day. My limbs felt like lead. When I took my blood pressure it was clear why I felt so sluggish. My blood pressure had dropped to 79 over 50. My pulse rate was at 50 bpm, my pacemaker's lowest setting.

I am a little panicked about getting my thoughts out and I'm finding it far harder than I had ever imagined. Journalist do not want to hear, let alone consider, any criticism. Damn but they are thin skinned. I have had very little push back when it comes to facts. But I have endured a lot of nasty insults, many lies have been hurled my way. After tweeting an insult, the nastiest journalists cut our connection and block or mute me.

This is a reaction that I believe would make Donald Trump proud. If journalists want to be taken seriously, journalists have to respond to serious criticism, thoughtful takes on the problems facing the industry. They must respond with measured words and not angry, emotional insults reminiscent of the childish insults of a school yard bully or an orange-haired president.

Speed kills

I like to say news stories are put together at warp speed because the speed, often demanded by a fast approaching deadline, warps the stories. Sometimes to the breaking point. Reporters strive to tell the truth, to be fair, to stick to the facts. But how does one recognize truth, recognize a fact? This can be harder that you might imagine, especially when your time is limited.

When I was working as a journalist for an online digital publication, I covered an Ann Coulter talk at Western University. When she cancelled her next night's talk at the university in Ottawa,  I wrote a piece on that as well.

My report drew a lot of flak from a local journalist, a very good journalist I might add. He is one of my reporter heroes. I found it very upsetting that he took such strong umbrage at my article.

As I recall, he wrote an opinion piece saying Canada had been embarrassed by the cancellation of Coulter's talk. Universities should not be places where free speech is blocked by mob action.

Coulter had claimed she was forced to cancel by the large number of unruly protesters who had gathered a short time before she was slated to speak.

He challenged me to a debate in the weekend paper. He said he could back up every fact as he had checked them all with other journalists at other publications.

I agreed to debate him. I had a different take because I'd take a different approach. I knew I was right. I'd contacted the Ottawa university, the police tasked with providing security, I tracked down people who attended the event, or non event as it was cancelled, and I talked to Ann Coulter's people as well. And I downloaded some unedited images of the crowd I obtained thanks to the Coulter team.

I was able to prove the talk had been cancelled many hours earlier than was being reported. It was cancelled before any large group, any mob, had gathered. Coulter's own unedited photos disproved her claims. The journalist begged off. We would not have a debate in the weekend paper.

The lesson here is that it is very dangerous to get one's facts from other publications. When I got into the news business, this might not have happened. We had more time to chase down facts in the early '70s. Good journalism takes time and the business has always short-changed journalists when it comes to time but today the problem is worse. Hedge funds don't care about news.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The thoughts of a dying photojournalist.

I was on my first pacemaker/ICD when this was taken.
As I write this post, I'm publishing the developing piece online. If any journalists have suggestions, I'm listening.

Soon, I will be 73-years-old. Will I see my 74th birthday? I hope so but I am not sure. I have a relatively rare, gene-based, heart disease: ARVC. This is a progressive condition where the heart's right ventricle muscle slowly converts to fat and fibrous scar tissue.

Strenuous exercise aggravates the condition by causing the heart to expand. The heart tears under the stress. The tears heal with fat and scar tissue. As this continues, heart failure ensues.

In my case, my expanding, deteriorating heart stretched its electrical system to the breaking point. As a result, I have a 100 percent heart block. I'm on my second pacemaker/ICD. Without a pacemaker, I'd be dead.

But, today I am alive and I'm going to make the most of it. I'd like to spend some of my now very valuable time by attempting to improve the profession I've spent a lifetime dancing about the fringes: journalism.

More than a half century ago, I was introduced to photojournalism by reporter/photographer Andy Whipple. Andy opened my eyes to the magic offered photographers by a long lens. Using my 300mm lens he created images I had never dreamed possible. When Andy died from Parkinson's disease, the Bulletin in Oregon did a lovely piece on their Renaissance man.

Andy was just the first of a long list of inspired and inspiring photojournalists I have had the good fortune of knowing. Many of those photojournalists were men and woman with  whom I worked at The London Free Press. Others were dedicated members of the NPPA in the States, or the ONPA in Ontario.

For many years I had the honour of running the annual ONPA photojournalism seminar held at Western University in London, Ontario. It was thanks to my time running the popular seminar that I got to know world-famous photojournalists like Eddie Adams, the man who took the photo of Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong on the streets of Saigon with a shot to the head.

After spending years giving back to the profession I love, I am now going to expand my interests to involve journalism proper. I would like to right some wrongs, force journalists to confront problems that all to often they ignore and maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to leave the world a better place.

Donald Trump has propelled the damning words "fake news" to the forefront of many discussions on media honesty. So, let me make one thing clear; I hate the term "fake news." I have personally known too many good reporters doing incredibly good work to smear the entire profession with those words. And yet, I must admit that honesty in journalism can be improved.


Consider how the media erred so egregiously when it widely promoted Liberation Therapy. For a brief time, many in the media claimed it was a miraculously successful treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). Ask  yourself, how did a fine investigative journalist like Randy Richmond, lauded as Canada's top journalist in 2020, get a story so very wrong as he did in 2011 with a piece headlined "Out of the fog"?

The partial answer is the use of the anecdote. Journalists rely on anecdotes to add a human dimension, a rich, emotional overlay, to a narrative. In doing so, all too often journalists make the error of sampling bias.

Let's examine The London Free Press story which was part of a series on the shortcomings of the Canadian healthcare system. Randy introduced us to a local London woman, Susan Skeffington, who suffers from MS and was forced to travel to the Arizona Heart Institute in search of treatment. There she had the Liberation Therapy procedure. OHIP refused to cover the cost of a procedure unavailable in Ontario.

From Randy's story we learn: "Balloons were inserted into three of (Skeffington's) veins, bringing blood back to her heart to expand the walls. The balloons were collapsed and removed. The blood flow keeps the walls expanded.

Skeffington said she immediately noticed the effects of the procedure. "When I was sitting in recovery I was looking around the room and I thought, I am really moving my eyes easily."

Back home at the beginning of March, she has noticed more improvements. Her hands still have some pins and needles, but are more nimble. She has more energy, though she is not pushing herself.

"The brain fog is gone," she says.
It's a great story but it is an anecdote and anecdotes can be unreliable. This is not science. At least two Canadians died from complications after undergoing Liberation Therapy. In the end, as CBC Radio reported in December, 2017, Dr. Zamboni concluded the therapy he devised was an "ineffective technique; [and] the treatment cannot be recommended in patients with MS." 
It turns out the London woman was given excellent advice by her doctors. OHIP was right to refuse to cover the cost of the quickly discredited procedure.

One would think a man who went on to become Canada's top journalist would know well the danger posed by sampling bias. In the end, it was clear this story was lost deep in the fog of an unreliable anecdote. To the best of my knowledge, neither The London Free Press nor Randy Richmond every corrected the original story. But, the tale does appear to have disappeared from the newspaper's web site.

Pack Journalism or Herd Instinct

Journalists hate being scooped. When I worked at the local television station, every day there was a morning meeting to discuss what stories would be part of the six o'clock news. One big consideration was what was on the front page of the local newspaper that morning. If a story made the paper, it would make the nightly newscast.

The UFFI story is an example of pack journalism at its worst. As I recall, a U.S. investigative journalism television program, possibly 60 Minutes, originally broke the UFFI story. It made for gripping entertainment. The rest of the American media hated being scooped and immediately ran their own stories on what was claimed to be a growing health crisis. The Canadian media, for instance Marketplace, jumped on the band wagon and finally the daily newspapers raced to grab a piece of the story.

The problem, and this may surprise you because the truth is still not widely known, the story was a crock from start to finish. The media did a great job at spreading the UFFI myth but has failed miserably at getting the correction out. The myth was a front page story. The correction gets buried.

I recall taking pictures of a retired gentleman living in South London. He personally removed the brick from the exterior of his home, he could not afford to have it done, he scrapped the foam out the foam filled the space between the studs, treated the empty cavity, filled it with Fiberglas batt insulation and then rebricked the dwelling.

He was angry and rightly so. He had read everything he could about the various types of home insulation. It was clear that UFFI was the way to go. He insulated his home with the foam and then, within months, the UFFI story flipped. The media was filled with UFFI horror stories. Although neither he nor his wife had had any health problems, the couple watched their home, their retirement nest egg, become almost worthless.

He knew many of the "facts" being reported were wrong and I knew it too. How did I know. I had UFFI in my home as well. And like the gentleman rebricking his home, I still had the advertising bumph. We could show beyond any doubt that the supposed promises made by the manufacturers were never made or at least were not made to either of us. We both agreed the newspaper reports were bogus.

I recall driving to Grand Bend with a fine reporter by the name of Bill Eluchok. We were going to Grand Bend for a story on bacterial contamination of the water along shoreline of the Lake Huron resort. When we reached Grand Bend, Bill introduced me to a fellow from the Ministry of the Environment and told him I thought the UFFI story was hooey. Bill was surprised when the fellow agreed with me but he only agreed off-the-record. He was not prepared to take on the entire North American media.

I've done a number of blog posts on the UFFI story. I suggest you read them. Each one reveals another way that journalism failed readers while inflicting harm.