Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

Rushing to the dark corners

Sunday Editor Sergio Bustos, center, reads from his budget during the Miami Herald's daily three o'clock meeting in the newsroom at One Herald Plaza in Miami. (Carl Juste/Associated Press/The Miami Herald)

Last weekend I was enjoying my normal Sunday morning ritual of watching, Meet The Press before heading out to catch some Father's Day rays. The guests were discussing the latest revelations about government agencies spying on ordinary citizens by the electronic monitoring of their conversations. It's a good story with lots of leads to other stories including here in Canada. And the discussion was good too. But one statement has kept repeating itself in my mind.

One of the guests was former CIA director General Michael Hayden who argued that the monitoring was legal and needed and had proven successful in preventing dozens of acts of terrorism in the past decade. You've heard that position before and so have I but that's not what he said that I keep replaying.

He added a thought that went something like this: "The media today reacts the same to every breaking story. They have a tendency to immediately rush to the darkest corner of the room." That's the phrase that has stuck with me, "the darkest corner of the room."

Now while I hate for people to describe the media as a monolith because after all we don't all operate the same way and our judgments aren't always similar, I think his point is legitimate.  We often do go to the darkest corner of the room. And you know what? For good reason.  This year has been a banner year for investigative journalism, especially in Canada. It's almost like there's been a comeback in the genre. Look at the landscape - so many issues being driven by the digging of journalists at, to mention just a few, the Ottawa Citizen, PostMedia, Canadian Press, CTV and yes, here at the CBC. From robocalls to terrorism, from secret backroom deals in the prime minister's office to secret stashes of money hiding in offshore bank accounts, all these stories had dark corners that were lit up by the Mahers, MacGregors, Ditchburns, Fifes, Westons, Arsenaults, Swains and Zalacs of our reporting world.  They didn't "rush" there, they and their teams worked very hard before determining that was where we had to go. Lots to be justifiably proud of there.

But I think we can all look around and see that over the years there have been situations  where there was a quick march to a dark corner even though the evidence didn't support it, and over time, as more journalism was done, the march was followed by a retreat. Nothing to be proud of there. And worse, when that does happen it makes the next "dark corner" story that much harder to sell to the audience.

In television, 24-7 news has been a huge success with many moments to savour. But one of the challenges of our 24-7 news world is the temptation to hype. To plant your flag on the story of the day with "breaking news" and "exclusive" banners all over the screen, and breathlessly introducing reporters or analysts in big screens behind anchors as "live" at the scene.  (Hello? What else would they be but "live"?) And part of "breaking news" hype by its very nature is driving quickly and relentlessly to the perceived dark corner even when that space has yet to be firmly proven.

Twitter, which has been the subject of much past commentary in this space, has changed the equation too.  There are so many dark corners in Twitter conversations that finding the light, and there is much light too on Twitter, can in itself be the challenge.  We are all doing a bit better dealing with bad leads on Twitter, but some things still slip through the system.  A phony Twitter posting about Nelson Mandela got some international news play last week when it was clearly wrong and no one in those organizations bothered to check.

Finally, one last point. Not all award winning stories have dark corners. Some are the opposite but we shouldn't be shy about trying to get to stories made important by bright corners.  We all hear from our news consumers that they're tired of all the bad news. True, there is a lot of bad news and it tends to get the most space, and it's important to reflect that in our coverage. But there's good news out there too about personal achievement, about heroism, about academic and corporate accomplishment.

We can't forget to find time and space for those corners too whether we rush there or not.   

Post Script: On that last point, it was great to see just this past week Ioanna Roumeliotis and Corinne Seminoff recognized by the RTDNA for their work on the story we called, The Doorman. It's a bright corner, good news story that pays off for all of us.  You can watch it and its update right here.

The Doorman

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Catching up with the Doorman

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