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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Media and The City

The recent blow-up about the media being banned for open a public meetings held by the City of St. John's has raised some interesting debate about the role the media plays with regard to getting information into the hands of the people. Of course the main item to catch the attention of the media was the idea of calling a meeting public without allowing the media to record the event.

Keep in mind that this item comes at a time when many residents have felt shut out of Provincial Government information sharing due to a bill that they themselves have now admitted may not have been the best choice for openness and transparency. See the latest on that here. So with that in mind lets have a look at the arguments presented.

The media began to pick up on the story mid week about a public meeting the City was holding regarding development of parks and green-spaces within the City as noted in this release. The story got rolling when the media were informed that they would not be permitted to record the event on audio or video. Then all hell broke loose. The media started yelling about how can it be an open meeting if the media are not free to attend. The specific response from the city went like this:
“Members of the media are welcome to attend any of the scheduled sessions as participants and ward residents,” it said, “however, the sessions and comments by participants may not be videotaped and/or recorded for broadcasting or reporting. Reporters interested in arranging interviews with (the consultants) or any representatives of the city may do so by contacting the city’s communications and public relations officer.”
The media began running stories about how the meetings could not be considered open and they stated that it was an important role of the media to act as a conduit to transfer the information to those people who could not attend. The CBC has this story on their website including a quote from a communications "expert" at MUN as follows:
"I don't think they have a room that would actually fit everyone in the community, so they have to have some sort of an outlet to let the greater community know what's going on, and that clearly isn't happening here," Warkentin said.
Then the City Counsellors jumped in. With both feet. Councillor Galgay was quoted as supporting the media's ability to attend and record in the CBC story as follows:
"To start off limiting the media and participation is certainly a wrong step forward, and it's something I am not willing to support,"
There seemed to be a lack of unity on the decision, or the perceived decision to ban the media and to make matters worse the media were being directed away from communications staff and toward Councillor Dave Lane to find their answers. Councillor Lane posted in his blog about how there was a misunderstanding about what happened and that media were indeed welcome to attend and he linked to this CBC piece that say that the media will now be allowed to record the event. Flip meet flop.

Why was this such a big deal, and what went wrong along the way?

First lets look at the City's response. Councils set policy and staff implement policy. Apparently there was a breakdown in that pretty simple process here. It still seems unclear if this no recoding thing is or ever was an actual policy or just some random idea. Communications staff are paid to manage communications demands. Again a breakdown occurred. Either the staff did not want to respond to the media, or they are being micromanaged into not responding, but either way its not how it should be done. Hire people you trust and let them do their job. There were questions about who was at fault here, wether it was a bad policy, a recommendation from a consultant, or inept staff. The bottom line is that those discussions should have happened behind closed doors and not in front of a microphone.

Now for the media. This was barely a real story so it must have been a slow news week. Asking the media not to record residents individual comments for broadcast does not mean the meeting isn't public. That was a stretch. It only got traction because of the mess the Provincial Government has created over openness and transparency. Thats just the nature of news, no big deal there. What was a big deal was when some media folks climbed up on that high horse and claimed that it was there responsibility to act as a conduit for information to those members of the public who couldn't attend. This is simply not the case. The media do indeed pass on important information to people on a daily bases but it is important to remember that they decide everyday on what is "newsworthy" and that significantly impacts what gets reported, and how.

Public meetings are a great example. Were it not for this media banning incident the meeting would have garnered very little coverage. A couple of minutes on the evening news and maybe a small online story, at most. So how could they disseminate the pertinent details of what could be a 2 hour meeting in 3 or 4 minutes. Simply not possible. Plus consider that if a fight were to break out at the meeting the focus of the story would shift to accommodate the more newsworthy happening. I fully understand that all media are directed by someone to cover stories that are interesting. After all the line "if it bleeds it leads" is certainly the truth. But the responsibility for disseminating the required information to the residents who couldn't make it to a session is the responsibility of the City. Plain and simple. Wether they are up to that challenge is a matter for another conversation, but even if they are not, it is not the responsibility of the media to fill that gap.

One final point. I have taken part in and facilitated hundreds of meetings of various sizes and I can say with absolute certainty that having the media present to record a conversation changes the nature of that conversation, and not in a positive way. Some people are very hesitant to voice an idea that they feel may be unpopular, even if its a great idea. Adding a microphone and a camera to the mix means some people will just listen and not contribute. Thats not what public meetings are about.

Does the City of St. John's have a policy preventing media from rebroadcasting residents comments at public debates or events? Who knows, but maybe they should.

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