24 January 2017

Ratings trump truth: Justified edition #nlpoli

Updated (scroll to the -srbp-)

Someone in Gander Bay has been catching and selling quantities of smelt.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans received complaints,  conducted in investigation, and laid charges against an adult who they caught in the act of selling fish to a fellow who turned out to be an undercover fisheries officer.  The basis of the charge is that it is illegal to catch and sell fish without a licence.

Now that you have those simple facts , take a look at the way CBC presented the story.

In their version, the guy charged for selling smelt illegally fingered his 12-year-old son for the offence in its entirety and accused DFO of launching a sting operation against the son.  The son actually admitted to fishing and selling, as the father said, but it's the father facing the charge because he's the guy who actually got caught selling the fish.

The son, according to the guy facing charges, was targeted by the fisheries officers for doing nothing wrong at all. It was a sting operation, he claimed, aimed at his child.  Incidentally, a sting is when the police create a set of circumstances that snare criminals. What happened in this case is just catching someone red-handed who was openly advertising his acts.

Give the father full credit for trying to torque his way out of the embarrassment of being caught red-handed. But for the folks reporting the story, you have to wonder if they had any independent evidence to back up those claims about the whole thing being a sting by the guy who - as we find out well down in the story - stands accused of poaching fish.

No independent evidence, at least, not in the CBC story.  Just what we'd now call alternative facts and its those alternative facts that CBC uses for its story. CBC did include DFO's factual statements but buried them well down the story after the father's sensational and laughable claims that his son was a victim of a government conspiracy.

The father's trumpian bullshit was clearly what the CBC was loving up for its sensational value. On the face of the facts, all you had a guy caught poaching who had some wild story about a DFO sting. That's not worth the time of day. Switch to the alternative facts and you have a story that - in the Facebook version Monday night - had 350 comments all slamming DFO. The folks at CBC know their audience and know how to spin a story that tugs at their heartstrings.

On another level, this story and the public reaction to it will help you explain a bunch of things about fisheries in this province.  When folks wonder why DFO makes people buy tags to jig cod in the recreational fishery,  its because some people think they have a right to fish as much as they want regardless of what the law says or common sense and social responsibility would dictate.

That's the argument of the Gander Bay Smelt-mongerer and his supporters on Facebook and, in case you haven't noticed, its the sort of anti-government, frontier mentality that resonates up and down the Appalachians. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder have relatives in Newfoundland.

The attitude to smelt in this case is basically another version of the attitude we saw with the cod fishery.  Folks insisted they have a right to decimate any wild stock for their own purposes.  After the moratorium, they kicked up a stink about what they called a food fishery.  These days, the same folks want to go back at the commercial cod fishery, flat out, simply because some recent counts suggest stocks have recovered slightly above the levels they hit after decades of intense and in many cases illegal fishing by Newfoundlanders helped to bring cod to near extinction levels 25 years ago.

That's exactly the sort of thinking that you can see when the father - now fully aware that catching and selling fish is illegal without a licence - says that his son is still selling bags of fish.

"He's selling the bags now," the father told the CBC, "and the smelt is free."


Smelts of a Feather Update:  

The Gander Beacon ran a story on the smelt poaching case that looks a lot like the CBC version right down to the "DFO sting" headline.

Some of the details are different.  CBC has the kid collecting about $150 while the Beacon version is that he made less than $100.  Still, that's a lot of smelt at a twonie a dozen.  The father who dealt with the DFO officers is also a lot less combative in the Beacon story, which may well have been written before the CBC version.

But notice the similarity in the way the two different newsrooms approached the same information. That doesn't make the stories any less funky, but it does go a long way to explain how it happened.

There were a couple of basic ideas in the original post.  One of them is that there are lots of examples of news organizations letting really easily disprovable claims go unchallenged.  Not everything in the newspaper, on television or radio,  or on a news website is true, accurate, and correct. 

One of the reasons for that is because conventional media outlets are predisposed to conflict and drama especially when it involves power.  They are businesses that need an audience so they are naturally more likely to run a story with a villain and a victim because that will draw attention.  The story of what appears to be another poacher who got charged isn't as exciting as an evil government department picking on a little kid supposedly operating the Gander Bay equivalent of  lemonade stand. 

After reading the Beacon version, you'd be more inclined to think this might have been an honest mistake on the part of the smelt-catching family, by the way .  The CBC story left the impression with your humble e-scribbler that this was something else again.  For the purposes of this discussion, both alternatives are plausible but they are also a lot less sensational than the imaginary "sting".

Another basic idea at work here is that people readily accept things they are predisposed to believe. In this story, that would be the idea that fisheries enforcement, DFO, and the federal government fisheries regulations are the bad guys and that people in rural Newfoundland are often their victims. It's the essence of the story told by the father in the smelt-catching family.  That's something the audience would key on but it is also something that would resonate with reporters and editors.  They work in the same community as these folks and believe a lot of the same things.

CBC's Daniel MacEachern pointed out via Twitter on Tuesday that the post said DFO had charged the father with poaching, when, in fact,  he hadn't been charged according to DFO. Caught you out on a fact thing, there, supposedly.  In both the Beacon and the CBC stories you have the same contradiction.  The father says he was cautioned and then "verbally charged" while the DFO official said no one had been charged.  Well, at least not at that point.

That's a really important point for Daniel to make.  But unfortunately for MacEachern, it's another detail that you'd expect might have taken some of the urgency out of the story.  After all, if there hasn't been a charge,  then there really isn't any great problem here.  What DFO did is pretty innocent and absolutely no reason for the father to be throwing a gigantic conniption as he did in the CBC story. His ego may have taken a bruising but all DFO actually did is give him a caution or a warning to stop.  That would be, incidentally, precisely what the father said DFO ought to have done.

And just to make sure everyone is clear on this, we are not talking about some great evil conspiracy to deceive folks.  reporters and editors work hard to get stories right.  It's just that sometimes the nature of their business and some other understandable factors - like local culture - come together to produce a news story that has a few problems in the veracity department.  Sometimes, they come together to keep legitimate stories out of the news altogether.