Friday, 30 November 2007

Guest Contribution - Julius Gittens

My Barbadian colleague, Julius Gittens, and I do not agree on many things. We argue endlessly about most everything. However, I have to give Jack his jacket regarding the appalling performance of the Caribbean media - radio in particular - following the earthquake of November 29.

I therefore give you (drum roll, please) Julius Gittens - my quarrelsome, argumentative, (most times wrong) friend and comrade ...



SHAKE, RATTLE… AND ROLLING NEWS IN THE CARIBBEAN



For once, the Caribbean was integrated. Three o'clock, November 29th, 2007.


Following radio news coverage on Thursday's earthquake produced some fissures and wobbling of its own.

Most newsrooms, luckily, had access to the Internet. But where did we go? Not to the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Unit but to the US Geological Survey. No follow up. Not a call to anyone at UWI Seismic Unit, certainly not by any radio or television reporter in Barbados, where I was, or in a few other places I was monitoring.

The coverage seemed to suffer in other countries where the journalists' lack of media experience was a greater issue than whether they'd been through an earthquake. I was appalled that in Antigua, for example, which has had far more experiences of earthquakes, it was treated as a little five-minute report inside a regular show of music and chatter ( N.B. Having been live and continuous on radio through a quake and a flood there in 2001, I know how much the community appreciated - and expected - our presence).

Then there's what I call The CXC Essay Approach. Young journalists rip off the Internet for as much text as they can find, throw in one or two clips from officialdom and wait for the next news bulletin. One journalist in a newsroom I called told me some other journalist was "on it". Everybody needs to be "on it", covering different angles and checking different sources, then coming and telling what they know and have gathered to the audience.

And where was Martinique, the island off whose coast this quake started? No where. After all, they're French, right? What need of us to reach RFO's Marie-Claude Celeste or Caroline Popovic who could have led us to the right people, or speak themselves?

All in all, a less-than-earth-shattering exercise in live continuous news coverage, especially by radio, in too many cases.

To those of you who went the extra mile, and responded to the needs of the communities you serve by staying on the air throughout fielding calls, making calls and imparting emergency information, I say well done. Let's do better next time. Much better.

1. NOTE THE TIME WHEN S___T HAPPENS. It was on the stroke of three where I was, yet a radio station in Barbados was talking about minutes BEFORE three. Check the time, as you reach to make that cell phone call to a loved one. Maybe it's an old hack's reflex. Make it yours.

2. SEND REPORTERS OUT! Too many stations think the best place is right at the office in such an environment, just so they can call the authorities - emergency managers, police, hospital, fire etc. GO WHERE THEY ARE. GO WHERE PEOPLE ARE. Talk to the people on the street about their experiences. Or at least go and describe them BEING on the street, scampering out of buildings. You won't have any traffic problems going into town. Journalists, like firemen, are people who run to trouble as people run from it.

3. MAKE HISTORICAL REFERENCES. A good use of the UWISEISMIC (www.uwiseismic.com) and USGS ( http://earthquake.usgs.gov) is noting major events in history, whether they happened in Antigua or not. UWI scientists, NOT the Americans, noted the historical significance of yesterday's event.

4. EXPLAIN EVENTS. Whether by dint of your own research (NOT Wikipedia) or by talking to English-speaking scientists (good luck), explain events and the region's vulnerability. I heard a leading Barbadian broadcaster, inductee of the Caribbean Broadcasting Hall of Fame saying that as far as he knew, "Barbados is not in the hurric... er... earthquake ... er .. belt." Really? Explain, for example, why the magnitude of a quake is not an indicator of destructive capacity alone, as if the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. The depth of the quake is a significant issue. How big, yes, but how deep? Mr Hall-of-Famer is yet to tell us. Don't give me a reason to switch off the radio and switch on the Net. Be comprehensive, explain and repeat.

5. RADIO IS COMMUNITY. BE THE COMMUNITY. What was the first thing that people did when the earth moved? Ok, the next thing? They turned on the radio. Not the TV, the radio. They want reassurance, information, help, whether buildings toppled or if they just felt someone moved the car. Be there for them by staying on the air as long as possible, punctuating the news you are gathering with their eyewitness accounts. NOBODY hears that wonderful five-minute report you did 30 minutes to an hour later. It might be as shaky a broadcast as the tremors, but be there and STAY there. You don't have to be a 24-hour news channel to do live continuous NEWS.

6. IF IT'S A LITTLE SHAKE HERE, IT'S APOCALYPSE NOW SOMEWHERE ELSE. Ok, so you felt something. You can't be the official gauge for either a nation or a region. We are inter-connected thanks to the Earth's tasty crust. So whether your prime ministers aren't speaking to each other, WE need to be speaking to our fellow Caribbean nations and bringing our colleagues on the air. A ripple here may be a major event somewhere else. Also make the connection between what people do and disaster. An earthquake is a hazard, an event, not a disaster. A disaster happens when people die or are injured or are displaced by what we do - like build crappy buildings in crappy areas. Make the connection. Kudos to you who did. Too many did not.

7. PLAN FOR NEXT TIME. And there will be a next time. It might be an earthquake. It might a freak storm. It might be a mass casualty event, like a bus or plane crash (God forbid). It's funny; if a geriatric governor general or an ailing prime minister finally meets his/her maker, we are on the radio like white on rice. But when sudden weather or earth movements roll, how prepared are we to go on the air, link up with the community and feed them information? There are newsrooms that work only to the next newscast. Those days are long gone, friends. The deadline is now, not six o'clock.

8. RECAP. REPEAT. RE-TELL. Don't get off the air because you've spent an hour and you think that's enough. That's why our listeners switch us off and go watch CNN to learn what's happening in their backyard. Thanks to such simple, cheap software like Cool Edit, we can record off the air and turn a clip around in seconds. We can turn around a vital live interview we did with the emergency chief and repeat it, until new information becomes available. We can simply repeat the basic details that will form the basis of our major news programme. In other words, we are writing the story as it happened and telling it and re-telling it. I did not hear too many instances of information being repeated.

9. HOW NET-SAVVY ARE YOU? REALLY? If you have Internet access, consider assigning a web-savvy reporter to monitor the web, for solid information, bloggers, message boards etc. Make sure that the reporter knows where to go for authentic, authoritative information. Don't quote some website in Kansas because it was first on the Google search list.

This is not the benefit of hindsight. Those who know me well know that I've been urging stations to adopt a rolling news plan, either for significant events or significant periods of the day. Give the raving lunatic talk show host a rest and let the newsroom take over next time.

Let's get news directors, seniors and juniors together to write a rolling news plan. Radio won't kill the newsroom star. It might just make one - and keep us informed when we need it most.

Let's not kid ourselves. Really ask ourselves if yesterday was broadcast journalism's finest hour. Search ourselves not just for the answer but the solution.

--
Julius P.A. Gittens, MA
Media Consultant/Producer/Journalist

#2 Bannatyne Gardens,
Christ Church
Barbados, West Indies
BB17030

Mobile: 246-242-6870
Home: 246-437-0263

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Making Sense of Noise and Hubris

Public relations advisors to the Jamaica Labour Party can be excused if they express some discomfort over the candour of their party’s General Secretary and Minister of Industry and Trade, Karl Samuda.

The spin doctors like keeping matters of strategy on the down-low, just in case. Just in case …

However, at a November 22 discussion on political advertising in 2007, hosted by the Mona School of Business, Samuda seemed to tell all about the party’s plan during the recent general election campaign to, among other things, clinically isolate People’s National Party leader, Portia Simpson-Miller, from the flock and then proceed to slit her political throat.

The strategy appeared to work.

“Timing was everything,” he said to a gathering of political pundits, a group of PNP partisans, pollsters, journalists, students, lecturers and other not so innocent bystanders.

I wondered then whether post-election Trinidad and Tobago had not meanwhile been preparing for similar introspection and open discussion on the conduct of the November 5 elections. I rather doubted it then and continue to do so.

By the way, none of the T&T party strategies of 2007 appeared to match the sophistication of the JLP campaign so that there would be no cohesive plan to reflect on in the first place.

The Congress of the People with all its MBAs and MPhils never thought that both Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday could have been extracted from their flocks for special treatment.

Panday, for one, is a far easier target than Portia. The PNM campaign which projected the “leadership” of Patrick Manning stretched his neck way out onto the chopping block. But the axe never fell at the hands of a highly vulnerable UNC, with its eyes on the Opposition benches and nothing else, and a faltering COP armed mostly with Excel spreadsheets and competently designed Microsoft Project files that told them they would win convincingly.

But who is leading the effort to collectively look back and reflect? To disaggregate the political advertising and attempt to make sense of what actually happened?

Who is measuring the contribution of state-funded media advertising to total advertising spend?

Will the media industry get together to discuss the ethical dilemma it confronted when media houses were invited to share in dubious partisan largesse? If it does not do so, media owners and managers will have great difficulty explaining to reporters that they cannot accept free phones or lunches in exchange for favourable stories.

An effort by John La Guerre and Selwyn Ryan of the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies back in 1996 sought to explore some of these issues following the election of 1995 (in the process granting me space in a subsequent UWI publication to write about Journalism and the Political Process during the General Election.).

Even so, the political parties had then sent low-level functionaries who clearly did not sit with the strategists who designed the respective campaigns. By contrast, in Jamaica last week, Samuda was there, together with Sharon Haye-Webster who was at the forefront of election planning for the PNP.

I am not sure a similar attempt is being made in time to analyse and record the ins and outs of campaign 2007 in Trinidad and Tobago. We have long moved away from reason on such matters. Radio and television noise and hubris undoubtedly prevail. But that is hardly an “analysis” of what happened.

This is not to say post-election “cas cas” has disappeared in Jamaica or that the “ro ro” of St Lucian elections almost a year later is done or that bacchanal is not about to reign in Grenada when they go to the polls next year. That’s par for the course.

But the Jamaicans certainly led the way last week in conscientiously trying to get to the bottom of pertinent issues excavated by a long, contentious election campaign.

I was not entirely impressed with the research presented by the Mona School of Business as it attempted to describe the nature and impact of political advertising during the campaign and I was very uncomfortable with the remote but distinct suggestion that such information be used to advise some kind of official policy on political advertising.

If as societies we need to intervene officially in such matters, we certainly need to be equipped with far better qualitative outputs than were presented at last week’s seminar. Otherwise, political advertising would lose the protection of free speech it needs to be effective.

But, who cares, really?




Sunday, 11 November 2007

Jamaican Babies in Cayman

I have decided to stray a bit from the issue of press freedom in the Caribbean to draw attention to a tiny British colony in the Caribbean – the Cayman Islands.

I have been following developments in the territory more closely since the advent of Cayman NetNews and its attempt to function as an independent media enterprise in the midst of what appears to be an environment not conducive to such freedoms.

On October 2, 2007, a Jamaican woman called Shellesha Woodstock gave birth to a baby girl on board Cayman Airways Flight #600 en route to Jamaica as Caymanian authorities hustled, frantically, to ensure that the child was not born on Cayman soil.

Details of the attempt to get the woman out of Grand Cayman ought to have alerted human rights advocates to gross violations of the rights of the woman and her unborn child. But there have been few lines in the Jamaican press highlighting the issue and even fewer in the Caymanian media asking serious questions about the circumstances leading to what amounts to the ‘expulsion’ of Ms Woodstock in an advanced state of pregnancy.

Now comes news that yet another Jamaican woman, unidentified by officials, gave birth in the midst of desperate attempts to ensure that her twins were not born on Caymanian soil.

Caymanian health official, Lizzette Yearwood, is quoted in Cayman NetNews as saying the measure was necessary because “the level of expertise needed for the babies’ care is not locally available.”

One would therefore assume there has been a constant flow of Caymanian women to Jamaica seeking such care for their newborn. I would like to see the statistics. Surely, the same level of care sought for the Jamaican woman and her twins should be extended to Caymanian women.

Is it just me? Or is something very, very wrong with this picture?

How far can small-island parochialism go? How uncaring? How deadly can it become?

Those with a little knowledge of the Cayman Islands would know that it is Jamaicans who have helped, more than any other group including indigenous Caymanians, to develop the tiny British colony through their work in a wide range of fields – not the least being those jobs native Caymanians resisted doing in the early years.

Today, Jamaicans need a visa to enter Caymanian territory. In an inspired move, the former P.J. Patterson administration imposed Jamaica’s own visa regime on Caymanians wishing to visit the island.

It was unfortunate that the situation had to come to the stage of tit-for-tat diplomacy, but perfectly understandable that discrimination was met with firm action.

The same has not been true in the case of discriminatory immigration policies in Turks and Caicos, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, where Jamaicans and Guyanese are not welcome.

How these countries remain evenly remotely associated with CARICOM is beyond me. Discriminatory immigration policies targeting Jamaicans and Guyanese deserve expulsion from the CARICOM circle.

To be fair to the Cayman Islands, they aren’t interested anyway, though they became an Associated CARICOM state in 1991. But what the hell are they all doing as part of the CARICOM process?

In any event, the Cayman Islands are one of the few countries in the world in which place of birth does not automatically signify citizenship or nationality.

The actions of the Caymanian authorities ought to be highlighted at the next CARICOM Inter-Sessional meeting of Heads with a view to securing the abolition of the current visa regime against Jamaicans. Same story for Turks and Caicos, BVI and Anguilla.

While I am on this subject I also want to ask the question: Why do Haitians still require visas to enter most CARICOM countries?

If we did not want Haitians among us, why were they invited to join CARICOM in the first place?

It is high time we get these anomalies out of the way. We are already seeing, courtesy the Cayman Islands, how callous and potentially deadly regional fiddling with an important issue can become.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Let us not let Guy down

New threats against Guy Delva in Haiti reinforce the fact that the situation remains dangerously tense in a country that has recently been through extremely difficult times.

Guy has been one of the most optimistic people about Haiti I have ever met. His work with SOS Journalistes and, before that, AJH, proves his credentials as a proud and committed Haitian journalist.

As a member of the regional journalistic community, through his affiliation with the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, he has helped us understand the challenges journalists face in Haiti.

I firmly believe the rest of CARICOM can do much, much more to assert itself as part of the solution in that country. The presence of a CARICOM Office there cannot, by itself, make a difference. The region has been there before and done that … to absolutely no effect. It has been a waste of time and money.

It has been a matter of years now since I wrote the CARICOM Secretary-General offering the services of a cadre of Caribbean journalists, many of them with language competencies, to work with regional officials on a way forward for Haitian journalism.

Our colleagues in Haiti, Guy included, have looked on in anticipation for far too long now.

It is utterly frustrating to some of us that the regional secretariat with a stated commitment to facilitating the flow of information amongst Caribbean people is yet to be convinced of the value of such an alliance.

It is true that we sometimes stand against the political stakeholders – as we certainly do at this time against the act of vengeance against Stabroek News in Guyana by the Jagdeo administration and as we have in several other Caribbean countries.

But this is no time for pettiness with regard to Haiti.

I met and spoke at length with Guy recently. His optimism and willingness to make a difference must not be in vain. Let us not let Guy and his people down.