07 November 2011

Banging around the echo chamber #nlpoli

Last week’s top post was about media coverage of Jim Bennett’s decision to carry on his law practice  - albeit not full-time – while he sits as a member of the legislature:

What’s so striking about this is that it is a complete non-story.  As you’ll see part way down the page, the conflict of interest section of the House of Assembly Act quite rightly exempts ordinary members from the restrictions on carrying on with another job or outside business interests while serving in the legislature.

So why single Bennett out?

The post prompted a few tweets an e-mails, some of which pointed out other Liberal backbenchers who were likely also going to carry on businesses while in the legislature.

But here’s the thing:  the question wasn’t about why media reports singled out a Liberal member of the legislature. That includes the West Coast Morning Show that led into a discussion of the rules of the legislature using Bennett as the lead-in to a story they ran on October 28.  The Western Star ran a story a couple of days later, as did the Star’s sister paper, the Telegram.

The question your humble e-scribbler posed was about why the story picked out any one member of the legislature given that carrying on a business or practicing a profession is commonplace and has been for decades.

The answer is not some great conspiracy.It’s really another aspect of an issue we’ve batted around before at SRBP:  the echo chamber.  Today we have fewer media outlets than we had in the province a couple of decades and those fewer outlets are providing content to more platforms with fewer people. 

The answer to the problem is repackaging.  A few decades ago, you’d only see some of the smaller newsrooms lifting someone else’s news, rewriting it and pushing it out as their own. Now it’s par for the course. The people putting news together are no less intelligent than their predecessors, no less ethical, professional, dedicated, committed or anything else.  They are just coping with the pressures of their business.

You can see the pattern in this case.  One outlet runs a story.  Someone else repackages it, dropping an aspect or changing the emphasis, and runs the thing. That story with a local angle winds up going across the province, but no one else who repeats the story adds anything to the original piece.  They don’t have the time or the inclination. 

Such is the pressure to get stuff out there that tone newsroom just takes what’s there and runs with it.  Eventually it winds up as fodder for the province-wide radio talk shows. And by the time it gets there, the story has taken on a couple of new angles.  The morning show deals with it – and the politician – based on the simple question of what the guy is doing.  The afternoon show maybe puts a bit of spice on it but – and here’s the crucial bit – without the wider context of how many people are doing the same thing.

The original story isn’t wrong.  It’s factually accurate.  The subsequent versions are actually pretty accurate as well.  But because the stories  are missing the depth of information they need, the audience winds up misinformed or with a misleading understanding. All you get is the original ping and the echoes as they bounce around inside the confined space.

The people who have read SRBP have a different perspective.  They know about some of the other MHAs  - from all three parties in the House – who will be working another job besides their one in the legislature.  

But the people who rely on the conventional media have only heard about Jim Bennett.  They haven’t heard – and in all likelihood will never hear – about the others.

This sort of thing happens quite a bit.  Stories tend to stay inside the  lines set by the first version of it.  The House of Assembly spending scandal theme that credits Danny Williams for fixing it all came right out of the first news release.  None of the conventional media ever took a second look at it despite the fairly substantive evidence that piled up that the Conservatives didn’t do anything to correct the problem until the Auditor General’s people stumbled across it.

Fast forward a few years and you can see the same effect in Danny Williams’ claims about “Quebec” and hydro-electric transmission. What the Quebec energy regulator was deciding on – let alone what it actually decided – came from an initial ping from the political spin machine. 

Whether the ping comes from the politicians or the media itself, the echo chamber still functions the same way.

- srbp -