Saturday, October 11, 2008

CTV's Controversial Interview with Stephane Dion

Journalism schools across Canada must be thanking CTV News and Stephane Dion this Thanksgiving.

We at the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program
have spent the first month and a half of this school semester immersing ourselves in techniques of interviewing: we've discussed research, how to make the telephone call to request an interview, what to do when you get there, and how to frame question and direct the flow of the interview. We've also discussed some tips and tricks to try to get a politician "off message", and reviewed some of the ways politicians are trained to handle media interviews. As an example, we watched Nardwuar do the hip-flip with then Prime Minister Paul Martin

So it was a bonus when we were able to watch this campaign moment that Prime Minister Stephen Harper deftly handled, after several moments when he was at a complete loss.

I'm talking about how a journalist nearly flummoxed Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he was asked a question no one had ever put in the PM's briefing book: what kind of vegetable he would be? Journalism student Lauren Hummel helped us out by providing that link to the Harper Vegetable moment.

Here's the story on

But Harper did what seasoned politicians are trained to do: he laughed. He bought himself time. And he answered a loaded/leading question with a cute quip that turned a sticky moment into a benign, positive spin for his campaign.

So when Liberal leader Stephane Dion had his moment in the same awkward position -- this time, during that now infamous interview with ATV News' Steve Murphy Thursday October 9, 2008, our class Intro to News Reporting spent a good hour in discussion the next morning, Friday, dissecting the interview, and its ramifications.

Out of 13 students, 8 thought the wording of the question was confusing. Five didn't. One student who's French is excellent, agreed it was very convoluted in how the first attempt was worded. Many thought the question was confusion, a combination of past and present tenses and awkwardly juxtaposed.

Here's a transcript courtesy of the Toronto Star:

CTV: Mr. Dion, the economy is now the issue on the campaign, and on that issue you've said that today that Harper has done nothing to put Canadians' mind at ease and offers no vision for the country. You have to act now, you say; doing nothing is not an option. If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done.

SD: If I had been prime minister two-and-a-half years ago?

CTV: If you were the prime minister right now and not for the past two-and-a-half years.

SD: If I am elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, it's what you are suggesting?

CTV: No, I am saying if you were hypothetically prime minister today ...

SD: Today.

CTV: ... What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

SD: I would start the 30-50 plan that we want to start the moment we have a Liberal government. And the 30-50 plan, in fact the plan for the first 80 days, I should say, the plan for the first 80 days once you have a Liberal government. Can we start again?

CTV: Do you want to?

SD: Sure.

Most of the class agreed that after the question was asked a second time, the error was Dion's. Why? Because as a politician, he has been trained to be able to handle any question, no matter how confusing. If it had the words "economy" and "Prime Minister" he should have been able to spin it to his own message.

As in, "I'm glad you asked what I would do" and then go from there to his prepared message.

The class said it was a huge sign of weakness as a public figure, although one student said she felt sympathy and empathy towards Dion, because it showed he is human, and bumbles just like most people.

Eleven students out of 14 (one more had come in to class by then) agreed it was a bad redirect. We have watched David Letterman with Paris Hilton, and Larry King with Celine Dion and with Paris Hilton. Both did masterful redirects, which is when you ask the same question in a different way, in order to try to communicate better with the guest, and to get an answer to a question the guest either didn't or couldn't answer. One student said there was no reason to redirect, since the question was clear.

Are there different rules for interviewing politicians vs. ordinary people? Yes, we agreed, because public figures put themselves out in the public and invite scrutiny, and are trained with p.r. professionals how to handle any kind of interview situation: they know how to buy time, make a joke, to welcome dead air as the interviewer might jump in to save you, etc. Dion messed up.

As for the ethics of airing the uncut interview...

We read the CTV News Policy Guide. It says clearly that interviews are to be unrehearsed and spontaneous.

That all interviews can be edited. That no questions are to be given in advance, in detail, except in rare cases -- if it's a technical nature, or if the guest is so newsworthy (eg. Osama Bin Laden) that you won't get the interview unless they are not asked certain questions.

All the students agreed that if the Liberals, as rumour has it, threatened CTV if they showed the uncut version, they would have put the story on air as is, two seconds later.

Also, the students discussed the ethics of saying you would not air the fumbles, but then going back on your word.

So on this Thanksgiving weekend, thank you to Stephane Dion and CTV for giving us a great topic for discussion of real world interviewing techniques live from the campaign trail!

Thanks to Anthony Geremia for the notes about the class discussions.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Plagiarism and the Prime Minister

    The revelations about the Prime Minister's speechwriter and plagiarism this week come at a time of the academic year when I have been teaching and discussing this very issue with my students in the journalism programs at Centennial College and the University of Toronto.
    Every fall, for the past few years, I have been delivering a seminar/workshop on this: sort of like a "How Not to Dress" show, except instead of fashion tips and faux pas, I try to show students what plagiarism looks like, and how to avoid it, even accidentally.
  Why did this seminar get started? 
  Because several years ago, while correcting student stories, I came across too many quotes or paragraphs that had been "borrowed" or "lifted" from the Internet, from pamphlets handed out at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, or even taken verbatim from other students' without their knowledge. 
  So now I teach tips and suggestions on how to make sure all their stories are written properly, by themselves, and that any research or background materiel which they didn't get by their own devices, is properly attributed according to the rules acceptable in the news industry. 
  At the same time, my colleagues and I helped revamp Centennial College's Academic Honesty and Plagiarism policy for the Journalism Program, which is now in effect in January 2008. Click here to see them.
  We also drew up a pledge sheet, based on an idea submitted to the Ontario Journalism Educators group, which we ask our students who take the workshop to sign, committing them to truth telling and honesty in their journalism both at school, and out in the real world when they graduate.
  The idea also came from something similar being done at Columbia Journalism School. 
  The bottom line in my seminars is this: journalists have to work hard to maintain the public trust that has been developed with readers/ viewers over the years, and the only way I know to do this is to be truthful and transparent in their storytelling and reporting. And besides, I say, plagiarizing -- can get you fired. Either directly -- if you are caught, or indirectly, because you didn't learn the skills in journalism school to help you be a truthful journalist.
  Then Obama did it. 
  He was accused of plagiarizing part of a campaign speech
  Then his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, did it.
  His own troubles with plagiarism were resurrected including a 1988 presidential bid which was scuttled because of it, and there are allegations of plagiarism while at Law School.
  And now the Liberals are accusing Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper of cribbing parts of a speech five years ago from Australian Prime Minister Howard's address. 
  His speechwriter's been fired.
  But checking the comments and blogs so far on my colleague Susan Ormiston's story on and elsewhere, I see there doesn't seem to be much outrage about any of the three cases: most folks say "No big deal." 
  So what message does this send to my journalism students? That it's OK to cheat because if Obama and Biden and Madonna, and Harper can do it, and there are no consequences, why can't we?
  Tough question.
  Here's my take. 
  It reminds me of what I said to my mother when I was in Grade 9 and someone in my school recopied and submitted her friend's older sister's essay (done three years earlier) and got an A-, while I slaved for three weeks in the school library pouring through encyclopedias (No we didn't have Internet in the 70s) and my essay got a B-. 
 At the time, I thought "Cheaters always win". 
 My mom said "She won't learn anything."
 I thought "This is not helpful." 
 Especially because all the cool boys liked her!
 Now I know Mom was partially right. 
 And it applies to Obama, and Biden, and Harper, too.
 While I acknowledge that no one is actually hurt in the physical sense when someone like Obama or Harper's speechwriters steal words without proper attribution, what does get hurt is the trust. That girl in Grade 9 became a lawyer. Would I hire her? Probably not.
 Why? Because I could never trust her again.
 What else are they stealing? What else are they not thinking up themselves?
 It's the same for politicians.
 While I accept that they are all too busy to write all their speeches themselves, plagiarism does erode trust. Even if it is accidental. 
 So if they are going to borrow something they admire for a speech, or adopt someone else's policy, coming clean and attributing it, is the best way. It won't cost them votes. Politicians can't be experts on everything. 
  Same with journalists. We aren't experts on everything. We can't be. The public knows that. But we know where to look and who to ask, and we let readers/viewers hear directly from the experts, without passing the cure for cancer or the latest discovery about Mars off as something we ourselves dreamed up on their own. Trust is everything.