Friday, October 14, 2005

Freelance from disaster zone - almost

I was this > < close to going to leaving for Pakistan to do some freelance reporting, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be.

My 23-year-old cousin, a medical resident at the McGill University Health Centre, left on a relief mission this afternoon with three other doctors from Toronto.

They are to meet four other docs in Islamabad, buy some medical supplies, and then head for remote areas impacted by the quake.

I found out about this mission after I got home from school around 4.30 pm on Thursday. My instincts told me I had to go.

At some point in life, I'm probably going to have to report from a disaster zone, so why not get an early start? Plus, I probably won't get another chance to go with someone I know and on top of that, I'm somewhat familiar with the country, I know the language and culture, and I can blend in pretty easily and hopefully get people to open up.

So I quickly made mental notes. 1) Check demand 2) Airplane ticket 3) Visa 4) Shots 5) Equipment 6) How to get to Toronto for the 5 pm flight the next day 7) Informing the department about my absence

I called a friend (and ex-mentor from my summer internship) at a major daily and got advice. Yes, there probably would be demand for stories from there. And anything I learn by spending two weeks in a disaster zone would probably be much more valuable than what I learn in two weeks (16 hours of class), he said.

Then I called a radio producer in Montreal. Similar reply on demand and I got some tips on what to look for.

I got a friend who has contacts with the travel agency the docs got their tickets from and I got a quote for $1950 return, tax included. Not bad, considering the flight was within 24 hours.

I was also lucky to strike a blogging deal and get a $1,000 endorsement.

Getting the visa was going to be a quick affair, according to my cousin who had gotten his the same day.

My cousin was to get his vaccination shots the next day in Toronto. I could do the same.

This was working well. My heart started to beat faster.

My dad was cautious yet open. He resisted a bit at first - I wouldn't be able to handle the situation, he said. No power, no infrastructure, rotting corpses, tents, rugged terrain, and no toilets, let alone running water.

(I got word from my cousin that there have been landslides lately so many roads are blocked, which means the use of donkeys or maybe horses.)

But any disaster I end up going to later on would be similar and you learn best when you're thrown right into it (as I learned over the summer), I argued. He agreed.

I never got to the equipment part though.

I've made a commitment that's going to last at least another 12 days or so. I thought of ditching it, but I came to the conclusion that doing so would be wrong and unfair.

So that was that. Plus, I just signed up for the CAJ and haven't received my press pass yet. Believe me, I need that press pass in Pakistan. No Pakistani official will believe that I'm a reporter if I were to tell them that. It worked here (I spent the summer here without a pass) but it won't work there.

Today, I got word that my brother-in-law, also a doctor, is heading to Kashmir on Sunday with medical supplies donated by the hospital he's affiliated with in the US of A.

If only I could tag along.

Update: My cousin and brother-in-law are both in Pakistan now. The former is reportedly near Balakot and the latter in the Kashmiri capital of Muzzafarbad. There were two strong aftershocks today, triggering mud slides and cutting off roads leading into Balakot and potentially claiming more lives. My relatives are on edge, as making contact with the two is difficult. I'm getting a taste of what it'll be like back home if and when I'm sent off to cover a disaster. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep a satellite phone handy.

Right on the Edge: Where I need to be.

I have a class called Television News, and it is being taught by an established television news reporter. I am enjoying the learning process, and I consider all feedback, both from the other students and my instructor, to be constructive and fair. Today I handed in a 45 second VOT (Voice over tape), and although the instructor will take a week to fully evaluate all submissions, a few comments already given, have cemented my focus.

The comments from my instructor; "You've obviously put a lot of effort into this assignment", and "It's right on the edge."

The first part may have been a diplomatic way of saying - You put a lot of thought and effort into a tape I'm not particularily fond of - lol. I would hope every student would put a lot of effort into their submissions, because if not - Why are you there?

As for the second - Right on!

Now I know the instructor's intention was to let me know that the subject, or rather my presentation of it, was most likely not going to air (if I was in a real newsroom) as is, but I succeeded in my intention. First off, to never be boring. Secondly, to provoke a reaction. It is not my intention to wail at the moon, with every opportunity, but I chafe at the notion I was shooting for a "Fox News" effect.

My instructor expressed some amount of shock; "I'm surprised that you did this!" , or words to that effect. Yet apart from conveying information, and presenting a clear message in an interesting manner, a journalist should strive to push into a viewer's consciousness, a subject or event of importance, no matter how potentially upsetting it may be. My class was taken aback (trepidation, scared, depressed..etc,), but I was mildly surprised by their surprise, because many of them seemed like they wanted to change the way news was thought of and presented - to them at least.

I should mention that this is an introductory course, and I will take whatever constructive criticisms come my way. I will also wear the -Right on the edge - as a badge of honour. I don't mean to be presumptious, but if I have a lengthy career as a journalist, and consistently put out quality pieces that are each titled as such, I will have succeeded in my intention. To tell interesting things, in an interesting manner, and to not allow the status-quo to impede on my passion to do so.

I respect my instructor, I'm interested in this course, and I believe I will be just as interested in the two subsequent courses. It may just be that I'm inclined to documentary news reporting, rather than the six and 11 o'clock news formats. I may have been a little too aggressive for a 45 second presentation, but if it becomes evident that I prefer being right on the edge, then so be it.

Being on the edge, is where I need to be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Theoretical Journalism

It seems someone has been talking about my blog post, J school blues. Check it out here.

This journalist questions how important theoretical studies in journalism are necessary. Don't get me wrong - I don't mind theory and discussion, but there are specific topics that should be discussed and some others that don't need to be mentionned.

For example, I had the chance to take Conflict Reporting class - a wonderful class where we discussed Aboriginals in Canada and how they are portrayed in the media. Not only did I learn about Aboriginals (which sadly, most Canadians don't know about), but I was challenged to rethink the way we portray people in the news, particularly minorities.

It is how and if they discuss minorities. This is the type of theory that is useful.

Discuss the role of advertising in the media. I find it hard when advertising can take over some of the editorial aspect of smaller newspapers (e.g.Community newspapers that realy solely on advertising to survive). Can journalism survive without advertising? Should advertising dictate editorial content?

How do you become a fair and balanced reporter? What if you are biased on one of the subjects you are writing about?

How do you go around people refusing to give you information? What if you have sources that always want to be "off-the-record" (which I have tried to deal with more or less sucessfully)? How do you get around PR talk and political spiels? Politicians are great at putting a spin on what they say - how do you get them to tell it as it is?

How about reading some of the great journalists and discuss what they are writing about, how they do it and why they are so famous?

I am not criticzing theory and discussion - there is a wealth of subjects to discuss, so much that needs to be understood. But the Turning points class (I know, I'm really knocking this one down) is not teaching any valuable lesson that I will be able to use.

On the blog, the journalist says "we're going to need answers to that question as we figure out how to adapt journalism to the Internet using some model other than copying the existing print media. Is the primary purpose of your journalism..." YES! That is it! We are at the junction of an important turning point in journalism with Internet...Why are we not discussing how to use this new technology? Why aren't we trying to shape how this will all play out? After all, our generation of journalists will have to deal with it.

It's going to come, and it's going to be bad

It's fall in Canada, and thoughts are once again on hockey, cold weather, and the latest avian flu.Now I don't mean to scare people, but I'd like to point out some facts for your consideration.

Each year a new strain of influenza spreads out from China and east Asia. Each year our health officials sound the warning, and for the most part the situation is dealt with. The danger is that we are due for a pandemic of horrific proportions. Those aren't my words, they are the words of scientists around the world, who not only study biological and viral changes, but also know the historical events and tragedies of past pandemics. They say we are due, past due actually, and even they can not predict what the next strain will look like, or who will be most affected by it.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 took the lives of primarily those between the ages of 20 - 40.The elderly and the very young were largely unaffected. The devestation to both the population and the economies of the world are well documented - most experts put the total human loss at 50 million persons, some say more. Yet even today with all the advancements our present society holds over those just three generations removed, we are just as susceptible, even more so.

Mass transit puts us in direct physical contact with each other.Rapid international transit puts diverse cultures and peoples within mere hours of each other. Those are the facts, and they should give us pause. So is the next pandemic inevitable? Yes, it is. Will it only affect a certain median of the population, like the one of 1918? No one can predict.

So what are we to do?

Well, start with what you can control. Be dilligent with your own personal hygiene. Wash you hands and face before and after you eat, and do the same when you use a restroom. Don't assume your friends practise good hygene, that's not insulting, it's just preventative care on your part. Get a flu shot this fall, and every fall. It won't guarantee an immunity against an outbreak, but studies have shown that it may lessen the severity and duration of an influenza illness.

One last thing, if you are sick, for the love of mike - stay home! You can re-take an exam; there'll be another concert at another time; you're not that valuable to the running of a company; and heaven knows no job is worth your health or mine. Control what you can, and the rest is in the hands of providence.

Now go wash your hands!

Monday, October 10, 2005

"Not enough space" no longer a valid excuse

It's the low-point in the life of a reporter. You work your behind off on a story and spend whatever time you have perfecting it. Then, at the last minute, you get word from the editor that you've just lost a chunk of space and your piece will have to be butchered. Either you do it or someone else does it for you.

Or you find yourself working on a story that simply can't be told in the allotted space. You feel you'll be a doing a disservice to your readers/listeners if you have to compress the story to whatever amount of space you're being given.

But, as a mere leaf on a monolithic tree that can be blown away at a moments notice, you follow orders just so that a) not all your hard work goes to waste and b) to keep that paycheque coming.

Well, those dilemmas are now passé.

If they aren't, then that's a sign your higher-ups are somewhat like those suited dinosaurs in the Microsoft Office commercials.

With practically every single media outlet boasting a web site, each good piece of work that's shortened due to space constraints should now be getting all the space it needs online.

Readers/viewers/listeners should have two options for each online story that was originally shortened for broadcast or print: Original story and detailed story.

Tell viewers and readers that they can get a detailed version online. People like having choices.

Wiping out meaningful words by means of the delete button is anything but productive use of resources when the option to put them to good use - at no extra cost - exists.

The same goes for stories that didn't make it to air or print because they weren't important enough.

Put 'em up. It can't hurt.

J school problems explained

Allright, I think we've hit the right note here with all disgruntled 2nd year students. Good, I'm not the only thinking this year will be less than productive. We are all complaining, but I think we haven't actually spelled out exactly what is wrong with the program and how it can be changed. This is just a shortlist, to be expanded and revised. Maybe we can get something substantial from all Con U students and then present to the admnistration.

1.There is not enough hands-on classes. The profs encourage us to "go out into the world" to get articles. But, really, looks around, how many classmates even bother doing this?
Sure you have TV and radio worshops (which help), but nothing for print? Why?

2. No classes on interviewing. (????) I am baffled by this; how can you expect us to get good information if we don't know how to ask?
Last year, I was stumped by one interview. I was talking to a Rwandan refugee, given refuge and schooling in Canada. I was eager to ask him what it was like in Rwanda and how he got here. I asked him "Is your family still in Rwanda?" He asnwered sharply, "No, they died of disease on the side the road while fleeing." Then he closed up, answered my questions by yes and no....

You can imagine my disappointment - how was I supposed to get him to open up? How do you ask these hard questions? No one has told me yet.

3. Reporting methods class (business and crime reporting) is not teaching us anything - a stupid repeat of Writing and reporting. Frankly what we have learned so far could have been resumed in one class. How many times is the teacher struggling to fill time?

4. The need to have proper access to classrooms and editing suites AT THE BEGINNING of the year. Not four weeks into the program (oh, I know the administration was just too busy getting ready for the party for the alumni for the 35th anniversary of ConU's J School - I see the priority). By the way, I went to the security office to get a swipe card, waiting 15 minutes and no one was around to help me. So no swipe card yet...

5. Less theoretical classes (shall I mention Turning points again?)- I know we need to get credits to graduate, but for god's sake, find something new. Let's stop looking at the past and look to the present, se what is good, what is bad in journalism and then try to improve it. Isn't that our job?

6. We have no J School radio, no J school TV show, no J school newspaper/magazine...A prof told me, the reason is that no one really wants to take the time to organize it. Well, J School, Sikander set up a blog in no time and we write a few tidbits whenever we can - maybe the school could have set up a blog for students? A message board? Oh, maybe they're afraid of what we have to say about them.

7. Why don't we have guest speakers? When I was at McGill in physiology, every Friday afternoon, there was either a guest speaker or a discussion about a topic pertaining to Physiology. Why not have this a the JSchool. I can guarantee students would love to pick the brains of brilliant journalists.

That's it for now, but keep the list going...I'll start another post later about what can be done to improve the school. I don't only want to complain.