Opinion: It Doesn’t Mean A Thing, Unless You Insist It Does

By John Swartz

The following was intended to be used on another page I use for opinion on matters I think don’t apply to SUNonline/Orillia’s scope and reason for existence. Then I thought, this might be instructive to readers on how I approach what does appear in SUNonline.

On Trudeau At NATO

What is actually wrong here? Trudeau, individual-1, or the media?

Stop the world. Of all the truly important things to pay attention to here at home in Canada, what Trudeau said at the NATO schmoozer and all the speculation by hundreds of media people who need to earn a paycheque this week is not it.

Let’s start with how this became ‘news’. On this count the CBC should be taking a hard look in the mirror because it was a CBC producer who stumbled on the blip in time we’re all talking about, and then thought it was a good idea to make it news.

Canada, world leaders once again, in something.

How did it become news? Twitter, from the CBC. My first thought is who at the CBC decided to let this out? My experience with CBC producers is they are obsessive about what and how words are used, treading a fine line about what can be said on air or in print – always on the side of caution (e.g. “the bus driver appears to have run a red light,” despite video showing a bus blowing through an intersection with 4 or 8 red lights blocking the view). I see that isn’t the case any longer.

Words matter and good editors and producers – who in the news business serve the function of editor – have to have a certain amount of trust in reporter’s impressions of things reporters witnessed the editor did not, but will often opt to remove flowery language, or substitute words that are more to the side of banal/general-use, than the proverbial $10 words. Much of the time, those $10 words have very narrow and specific meanings anyway. So, miffed does not equal unhinged, which does not equal rage. Using the latter two as substitutes for the former a) does not accurately describe mild consternation, b) are sensationalist, and c) give readers or television viewers the wrong interpretation of a newsworthy event – it’s misleading.

Adding to it is the irresponsible way commentators across most of the media in Canada and the U.S. are reading far more into the images and the tiny audio quip than is present. But its sells and you are talking about it.

Is this going to damage relations, dust NAFTA, come on. If so, it will be because a certain person south of the border is going to feel upstaged and embarrassed because of all the media hype, not because of a video clip which should have remained in the cutting room.

Do you think anyone in the media will take responsibility if things do go south? They, and no one else, made it an international incident.

I have a number of other issues about the footage and the use and interpretation of it. In my experience as a camera operator at events like this, the job is not to eavesdrop on conversations. It’s to get shots illustrative of the event, most likely to be used live as scene setting, or later as b roll footage to accompany a report on the event. The picture is worth more than any words captured – unless of course a shouting match erupts, or someone pulls a gun, or tosses a drink in someone’s face (which then becomes news). Sloshing a drink on one’s white shirt, laughing about a joke, or tripping over the rug is not news; and neither is the conversation, especially one-sided. They are incidental captures and completely useless even as b roll.

The footage in question came from a pool camera, which means one of the news organizations drew the short straw and the crew had to work the event, or a video production company was hired to document what happened (speeches, processionals, etc.). This particular moment would have been buried in time because it’s not newsworthy, except for the fact the CBC producer noticed an animated moment by Trudeau, backed up and turned up the sound to get context in case it was useful as secondary footage for some story to come out of the affair (i.e. no distinguishable audio).

The producer said exactly that. Though when he discovered what he had, he proceeded to jump through a number of hoops of speculation. The linked story itself is an example of crappy writing. It appears the discovery went out as news without any kind of confirmation regarding what took place.

I have abandoned many great shots simply because when I listened a word or phrase popped out of the din, which without context, may have made the subject(s) look bad or stupid. People had no expectation I was recording what they said as news. To use such footage would have been entirely wrong. If I heard something which might become newsworthy, the footage would be saved, and a follow up with the subject for more information, for context, would be necessary, and then the footage might become useful if there was any meat there.

In my experience in certain conditions the shotgun mics on industry standard Sony cameras are sometimes exceptional at picking up direct, line of sight, audio that is far away from the camera (Panasonics back in the day were phenomenal), most of the time however, not. Nine times out ten any audio from this type of thing is worthless as news. It’s like a restaurant scene in a movie, unintelligible. Catching this audio, which is still pretty poor, was luck, pure and simple.

Then there is context. Despite being a form of public event with cameras and National leaders present, there used to be a standard in news regarding what is on the record and what is off the record. In this case, the politicians and bureaucrats absolutely knew they were in front of cameras and their actions were not private. However, there is a reasonable expectation in this case and setting their conversation among themselves was not on the record – unless they stepped directly in front of a microphone to speak publicly, or in some other manner became the center of attention.

This footage should not have been used for any purpose other than what production people call wallpaper for a story. We don’t know the context of Trudeau’s words, except for what he’s already said about them, which is little. We did not hear what the others in the party circle said, or the tone and context of what they said Trudeau was adding to. In short, what Trudeau said lacks a ton of context and anything an armchair quarterback says about them is absolute speculation, until Trudeau says otherwise. Don’t turn blue waiting for it.

There are times I am disappointed in the lowering of standards in my profession. The old guard was ushered out the door too soon, before there was a chance to adequately train and tutor those taking over. There is a distinct lack of experience in many news rooms, primarily near expert knowledge of the English language and its use. Sadly, too many have been promoted because of their marketing savvy – how to write a clickbait headline, how to juice up a story beyond reporting what happened, add colour, often using words incorrectly – in order to grab eyeballs.

We now get descriptions, and I’m going to use individual-1 as the example, of pure overstatement of what is said, or better, the description of the tone of delivery. Let’s go back to the word unhinged. I’ve seen unhinged. I have yet to see anything close to unhinged displayed by individual-1 in any news conference or photo op since taking office. Yet, that word is used repeatedly by news media to describe his daily confused, scatter-brained, and juvenile utterances. Worse, the word is being used as a throw-away descriptor about many other people’s actions and words. We are losing the meaning of the word, just as we lost the meaning of the word impact.

I am no expert in the use of the language, my former English teachers would confirm. But, I do know garbage when I see it or hear it. I try every day to avoid using salacious, grandiose or sensational words when simple will do. I try to use the right word if I need to go beyond simple to adequately describe something. I wish more reporters and editors would do the same. I also wish speculation was redlined from stories (editorials/columns don’t count as much because, well, those aren’t news). I wish the marketing department would be confined to their cubicles – all day, every day – and leave news writing and story selection to those who know how to do it, properly.

There are some who are thinking, there he goes defending those Liberals again. No, read this piece again please. SUNonline/Orillia will always be a medium to elevate discussion beyond puerile. This Trudeau incident only illustrates what I think is a bigger problem, which has nothing to do with what he said or intended – things I know nothing of and I am not commenting about. For those of you reading this far and seeing such comments over on the Facebook page, well, there’s something instructive in that too.



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