Refusing freebie gold medal hockey tickets just a part of the job

Frances BulaAnyone who works in journalism for more than 30 minutes realizes that there are potential conflicts of interest every time a journalist walks out the door, writes Frances Bula. Did the Olympics provide a heightened version of that? Maybe, but Bula says in spite of the freebies, parties and tickets on offer, journalists have done the same kind of job they always do: sometimes brilliant and sometimes mediocre to dreadful. 

“I got tickets for you and Doug for the men’s gold hockey game. You’ll come, won’t you?”

Those were the most seductive words anyone could hope to hear as the Olympics opened in Vancouver two weeks ago. The only problem for me: they were being spoken by someone I write about regularly as I cover city politics, urban issues and development in Vancouver for a variety of media outlets. And he had gotten them from another company I write about regularly, a high-profile and sometimes controversial company.

I have to admit, I hesitated. “I can’t,” I said, kind of weakly. On the other end of the phone, he said, “If you want to pay for them, give me $100.” Yeah, right. I was on my laptop as we were talking. The tickets were worth $750 each. That’s if you could get them at face value. More likely they were worth a minimum of $1,500 apiece on the street.

I came to my senses and said no more firmly. But that offer is just one of a plethora of interesting journalistic dilemmas that the Olympics have brought to reporters, dilemmas that commentators here at J-Source noted during the course of the Games. Some of our employers are sponsors. Some of our employers put money into the campaign to get a Yes vote in the Vancouver referendum. Some of our colleagues opted to run in the torch relay.

That’s just the half of it. If only the public knew about all the ethical minefields the Olympics have brought. Even among media outlets that aren’t sponsors, the Olympics have provided an advertising bonanza for some.  Reporters who’ve been covering the Olympics for the past five years have had to weigh how much they really want to antagonize the organizing-committee heavyweights. And then there’s just the level of freebies – all those parties with all those yummy appetizers. And the men’s gold hockey game.

But you know what? In spite of all that, I think journalists have done the same kind of job they always do: sometimes brilliant at finding things out that no citizen journalist would think of looking for, mediocre to dreadful at times in not thinking big or in just accepting the spoon-fed stories.

What critics don’t get is how many ethical minefields we live with all the time. The Olympics perhaps provide a heightened version of that, because there is just so much swag, advertising dollars, and vested interests around.

But anyone who works in journalism for more than 30 minutes realizes that, unless you decide to blog from your own basement using only documents that you find on the Internet and relying on your personal trust fund to support yourself, there are potential conflicts of interest for working journalists every time they go out your door in the morning (or stagger down to their kitchen table, aka office, in your pyjamas to send off the first email of the day, in some cases).

Any journalist who truly covers a particular topic or beat intensively develops relationships with the people in that field and a complex body of stories that range from critical to admiring. There are a few journalists who operate by taking only a critical stance towards everything they cover and refusing to engage in any way with the people involved in those institutions or issues. I can’t work that way because I feel it’s a disservice to the public who reads my stuff to report on any institution or issue with only one perspective. Being relentlessly negative is just as damaging as being relentlessly positive. Most thoughtful journalists I know try always to keep their minds open to both the good and the bad side of whatever they’re covering.

That’s why I was startled when I read Stephen Ward’s column here on J-Source, which started off: “With any other controversial story involving $2 billion in taxpayers’ money, journalists would fall over themselves to cultivate a critical approach. Why is it different with the Olympics?”

His column was focused entirely on journalists who ran with the torch, with the implication that their decision to run with the torch altered their coverage or made it extremely unlikely that they would be critical. But Stephanie Levitz, the Canadian Press reporter Stephen mentions, did many tough stories on the Olympics organizing committees over the years. Gary Mason, a Globe and Mail columnist who ran with the torch, did a series of exclusive stories about the financial problems of the Olympic village that won a local journalism award. I’m sure I could find dozens more examples if I went looking. Those were all reporters who did fall over themselves to cultivate a critical approach.

I realize Stephen has gone on to argue that, even if reporters were writing critical stories, it’s important for them not to have an appearance of conflict or to participate in events they are covering. I’d agree with that. I personally would not have run with the torch (or, in my case, walked quickly) for that reason and I know other journalists who felt the same. But his opening left me and others with the sense he believed is they had pulled back from critical coverage, not just that they had created public doubt about their impartiality.

Those who are quick to criticize journalists and journalism institutions over torch runs, sponsorships, advertising ties and the like need to make a more compelling case. Otherwise their criticisms come across like the worst kind of bad journalism, the kind where you “put a smell around someone” but don’t actually come up with any definitive proof. We don’t need any more of that in the world.

The problem with all of those who  have “put the smell” around Olympics sponsors and torch-runners is that they’ve failed to come up with even one definitive example of how sponsorship or torch-running affected actual coverage. The Globe’s and the Vancouver Sun’s coverage was frequently unabashedly rah-rah. The local alternative weekly, the Georgia Straight, had three covers in the Olympic weeks with the titles: “Olympic Mania,” “Olympics Arts” and “Olympic Fever,” along with photos of flag-decorated Vancouverites. The local online publication, The Tyee, funded by foundations and labour organizations, also ran numerous stories during the Games about the medal wins, the street parties, and the exemplary performance by the Vancouver police.

That didn’t mean any of those publications didn’t also carry critical stories about the Games at various times. That’s why everyone in the Vancouver region and far beyond knew what the problematic issues were in the Games, because those media outlets and others carried dozens of stories about homelessness, violations of civil liberties, over-budget spending, Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) secrecy about meetings, polls that documented the general public’s ambivalence towards the Games locally, the multiple problems surrounding the Olympic village construction, the protests over the construction of the Sea to Sky Highway and more. What did they miss? I’m waiting to hear.

People on the outside of the journalism world often imagine that the worst decisions are driven by evil sponsors or advertisers or business bigwigs. But my experience has been that, aside from some idiosyncratic cases, the worst decisions are driven by top editors’ sometimes narrow perspectives on, not what they think advertisers want, but what they think the public wants.

Now, more than ever, commercial media outlets are absolutely desperate to produce what they think is in tune with the public psyche. My gut sense is that the coverage got more and more rah-rah as the feeling grew that people loved the Games and as the statistics came in about television viewership and attitude shifts in polls. I did notice a tendency to start to discount any negative opinions, which came to be seen as those of a crank minority not worth paying attention to.

But I’m not even convinced that that attitude was the reason that no outlet really pursued with vigour the most negative news story of the Games, the reasons that Nodar Kumaritashvili died on the luge track. The failure of any local media outlet to do the kind of lengthy piece The Wall Street Journal did on the death and the track’s construction seemed to be more about the way local media operate all the time than about the Olympics.

Frances Bula is a journalism instructor at Vancouver’s
Langara College, a city columnist with
Vancouver magazine, and a contributor to The Globe and Mail. She believes she watched 40 hours of figure skating during
the Olympics, which probably coloured her view of the Games irreversibly.