Northumberland Today reporter Pete Fisher launched a maelstrom this week after reporting on the lack of bylaw enforcement along Cobourg’s waterfront over the long August Civic Holiday weekend.
His timing from a journalistic perspective was everything, as a confluence of events magnified the problems. First, a recent Toronto Star article extolling the virtues of Cobourg beach was a tourism promoters dream come true. The idyllic picture of a pristine beach populated by families enjoying the summer along the lakeshore couldn’t have been better. Second, the annual Sandcastle Festival took place, drawing huge crowds. It was also the DBIA’s Sidewalk Sale, but that was more of a local promotion. Next, it was a long weekend so people were in a mood to travel. (Another factor was the amazing weather.)
The result was recorded in Tuesday’s edition of Northumberland Today. Fisher’s article and op/ed piece represent some of the best aspects of hyperlocal journalism.
His piece aims to demonstrate how local officials failed to enforce bylaws after months of debate and promises to deal with ongoing problems surrounding parking, waste removal and general safety. Fisher, a photojournalist first and foremost, recorded images of the violations showing overflowing garbage cans, tents pitched on the beach, illegal use of barbeques and so forth. The evidence from this perspective appears solid.
Dutifully, he also interviews the town’s municipal clerk, who confirms no tickets were issued. However, there is a bureaucratic glitch. The Ontario Attorney General has not approved the fines. Still, the local bylaws can be enforced and that should not be a barrier.
It was Fisher’s opinion piece where much more detail was provided. Parking lots were overflowing. Tickets were issued and some cars were towed. But the lack of staff made it impossible to stay on top of the situation as it unfolded. The Cobourg Yacht Club parking lot, meant for members only, was jammed beyond capacity with people who were not members. The sheer number of people disposing of garbage meant staff were unable to get around quickly enough to empty cans. So, spillage was occurring as the cans overflowed. The tents, barbeques, coolers and other violations were most likely unintentional, but still no one was around to either ticket or educate people.
From a law enforcement perspective, it was chaos. And, it was a failure.
From a journalistic perspective, it was good journalism. Fisher nailed a failure of local government to enforce bylaws. Considering the outcry by taxpayers over the past few years, the solutions proposed over the winter are not working. So, the system is failing. It is the job of every journalist to hold governments accountable. It is good hyperlocal journalism from this perspective and should be celebrated.
Politicians need to be held accountable, too. Fisher did a great job getting the bureaucratic response. Politicians should be on the record explaining why there is such a shortage of staff on a weekend when the park and the beach were going to be jammed packed and everyone could have figured it out in advance.
The YMCA must also be accountable. What is the minimum number of lifeguards on a beach that was that full? Was the YMCA monitoring the situation? Was it fulfilling its legal responsibilities? Was the public in danger?
But, there also needs to be a bit more context. There needs to be other stories, going back to the beach, and recording what happened afterwards. What were the crowds like Tuesday, Wedensday, etc? Are the bylaws being enforced then? Was the situation the same? Or, was this a one-time event?
Without this kind of context the public reacts without a full picture. The result was a letter to the editor dredging up some of the old acrimony. The public debate should be focusing on the failure of council to deliver, rather than pleas to drive tourists away and reclaim the beach for local use. Underneath the surface of the debate lurks a racist tone of intolerance to the culturally diverse people who come to town, but is never stated directly and quickly denied.
To counter this aspect of the debate, the Burd Report, authored by local blogger Ben Burd, posted his own reaction, along with some articulate responses from his audience. This provides some balance.
The irony of the situation is overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each year promoting Cobourg to tourists. Now, they are arriving in droves. Rather than a joyful celebration, the town is thrown into a debate that sends a clear message these people must go. As one author of a letter put it:
“Then recently there was an article in the Toronto Star extolling the virtues of our beach — it is cheap and clean etc. That kind of publicity isn’t what we need. Those who come here to enjoy our free beach rarely are the kind who spend any money here. They have their day, ignore our laws, leave their trash and go home.
As a Cobourg taxpayer, (a title for which we pay dearly, I am afraid) I too would like to enjoy our beach. But our beach has been hijacked. There is no way we can enjoy our own beach even if we wanted to — even though we already have paid for its use through our taxes.”
From this perspective, the message is: Come to our town, spend your money and leave without causing a ripple. If that is the case, then maybe the local businesses and town council should simply hire pickpockets to go to Toronto to steal money. It might be cheaper and the beach would be safe.
The media started the ball rolling, but more is needed. The reasons are a lack of time and resources. Without sufficient staff and time to chase down sources, these stories languish. The result is event-based coverage, as witnessed by this story, and nothing more.
The additional result is a uninformed public who are unable to formulate facts upon which they can hold a meaningful debate. Instead, misinformation drives a discourse that fails to serve the community and democracy.
Let’s hope over the upcoming days and weeks, resources are made available and the media is able to regroup and get the story back on track. If it does, both journalism and the community will benefit.
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E-Journalist Professor, Robert Washburn wrote: “Northumberland Today reporter Pete Fisher launched a maelstrom this week after reporting on the lack of bylaw enforcement along Cobourg’s waterfront over the long August Civic Holiday weekend.”
“Launched a maelstrom” How accurate is that assertion? Is it hyperbolic hogwash or an astute description of Pete Fisher’s news article and ‘Viewpoint’? What is a maelstrom?
The Scandanavian word was brought into English by poet Edgar Allan Poe, author of A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841). The word was also used by Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) wherein Captain Nemo’s Nautilus sub was sucked into a maelstrom.
Wikepedia describes Maelstrom as a synonym for whirlpool. Maelstrom “appears in diverse contexts metaphorically to make reference to different subjects or objects that suggest great chaotic or sinister forces.” Homer, (not Mr Simpson, but the Greek poet) describes a maelstrom in Odyssey.
Did Mr Fisher, figuratively speaking, launch a great chaotic or sinister force? Great writers, Poe, Verne and Homer describe maelstrom as a threatening event. Hyperbolic expression by a journalist is foolish and dangerous; such fine use of language should be left to those who know how to handle it adroitly; poets.
It would be far more accurate to describe Mr Fisher’s ‘hyperlocal journalism’ as having stirred up a bit of dust from an unkempt parking lot. What has been the result of Mr Fisher’s reportage? This is the so-called maelstrom: five letters to the editor spread over a week and half, and two more bloated articles pumped by Mr Fisher. Compare that “maelstrom”, with the series of people-in-the-street demonstrations over health care a couple months ago. Would Mr Washburn describe that as a doubleplusmaelstrom?
Nevertheless, Mr Washburn claimed that Mr Fisher’s article and op/ed represented “some of the best aspects of hyperlocal journalism.”
Wikipedia defines ‘local news’ as “coverage of events in a local context which would not normally be of interest to those of other localities, or otherwise be of national or international scope.” Hyper, derived from hyperbole, is better known on the street as ‘exaggeration’ or excessive exaggeration, over-the-top exaggeration. Hyperlocal journalism is nothing more than a jargonista jerk-off phrase.
Local news, call it local news. Name it as it is. Hyperlocal hogwash. It reminds me of testimony given by one of the Plumbers Unit at a trial during the Watergate scandal, describing how they “conducted a preliminary feasability and vulnerability study” of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office in LA. What the hell is that? Can you picture it in your mind? Bureaucratic obfuscation, language used as a squid uses ink to conceal rather than reveal. If I tell you that it means “case the joint.” Then we have a clear image of what the Plumbers Unit had done.
And what was the root issue that caused Mr Fisher to wallow in hyperlocal journalism? It was the “…surrounding parking, waste removal and general safety. Fisher, recorded images of the violations showing overflowing garbage cans, tents pitched on the beach, illegal use of barbeques and so forth.”
Let’s examine the photographs that Mr Fisher took. There are 23 jpgs on the Northumberland Today site. Mr Washburn asserts that “The evidence from this perspective appears solid. Mr Washburn asserted that Mr Fisher’s images recorded ‘violations.’ Of what? Of overflowing garbage cans. This is the first time that I have heard of an overflowing garbage can being a violation of any law. There are three images of overflowing garbage cans.
Park23.jpg displays a full recycling bin and a bit of debris on the ground around it. The image also shows an individual bagging some of the debris before the day was done. Park22.jpg shows a full garbage bin, and many green garbage bags surrounding it. One can note that the users of the park had dutifully bagged their garbage, but instead of putting it into the trunk of their car and taking it home, they left it by the garbage bin. Park14.jpg shows an overflowing garbage bin by the walkway that separates the beach from the park. It is a garbage bin for those strolling along the walk, visitors and locals alike. The debris in this bin appears to be throwaway wraps from the nearby concession stand.
Mr Washburn next refers to Mr Fisher’s solid evidence pertaining to “tents on the beach”. Mr Fisher provided several panorama pics (Park1.jpg, Park3.jpg, Park4.jpg, Park13.jpg, Park16.jpg, Park17.jpg, Park19.jpg and Park20,jpg) of the beach. Of the eight images, only one showed a tent on the beach, and in that instance is was only one tent, and a pup tent at that. One tent, not “tents pitched on the beach” as Mr Washburn sloppily and inaccurately asserts. The other images clearly displayed tents in the park, not on the beach.
Mr Washburn next refers to Mr Fisher’s solid evidence pertaining to “illegal use of barbeques” There was no such thing. The only image that Mr Fisher produced was Park5.jpg. It shows a male cooking up some hotdogs on a small propane barbeque. There is a sign nearby which specifies that there is to be no CHARCOAL barbeques. The photo displays the propane tank which is feeding the barbeque. This is not illegal.
It is irresponsible, sloppy journalism to make an assertion of illegality when there is no proof whatsoever of such illegality. Surely a competent journalist would know how to read a photograph and be fully informed, especially more informed about a situation than readers. In this instance, Mr Washburn again presented inaccurate information.
Mr Washburn’s entire phrase was “illegal use of barbeques and so forth.” What is “so forth.” Why would Mr Washburn dilute his journalism lesson with such a meaningless throwaway cliché. It is a tactic of hack journalists and activists to extend a line of thought without having to produce any evidence or identifying anything to support such an extension. Using ‘so forth’ in such a manner is entirely misleading. If there is a “so forth”, identify it.
Lets repeat Mr Washburn’s assertion about Mr Fisher’s photodocumentation: “The evidence from this perspective appears solid.”. Mr Washburn would do well to join his students and attend a few journalism refresher courses.
Prof Washburn then comments about Mr Fisher’s op/ed piece. Unlike the Fisher article, Mr Washburn claims the op/ed piece provides “much more detail”. Washburn listed eight items. He wrote, “The tents, barbeques, coolers and other violations …
Mr Fisher had written, “Banning all barbecues has been discussed. Although the canteen was busy this weekend, there were hundreds of coolers and barbecues throughout the park every day.”
Mr Fisher clearly stated the specificity that “Banning all barbecues has been discussed” and note the word “all”; however, this does not seem to sink into Mr Washburn’s perception. Mr Washburn talked about “illegal use of barbeques” and again, above, refers to barbeques in the generic as a “violation” and this in spite of the fact that Fisher had clearly made no such assertion.
Where do “coolers” fit into the narrative. Fisher only wrote that there were “hundreds of coolers … throughout the park every day”. So what? There is no prohibition against coolers on the beach or in the park, so what is the purpose of this superfluous mention? It is needless clutter to the story. Nevertheless, Mr Washburn’s sloppy read of Mr Fisher’s op/ed now inserts the non-issue of coolers into his sentence which includes it with “other violations”. How could a teacher of journalism make up facts out of nothing.
Let us also note that Mr Washburn finishes his sentence with “and other violations”. What violations? There were none. Again this is a throwaway cliché of hack writers who want to bloat an issue with hot airy nothings.
The easily impressed Mr Washburn, from his podium as a journalism teacher, declares Mr Fisher’s hyperlocal journalism to be “good journalism.” (I will address this in a separate analysis) .
Mr Washburn pontificates: It is the job of every journalist to hold governments accountable. It is good hyperlocal journalism from this perspective and should be celebrated. Politicians need to be held accountable, too.
Yes. Journalists also need to be held accountable to the public for their work. Teachers of journalism, who are salaried from the public purse, also should be held accountable for what they teach young impressionable minds and the public. Journalism that is not astutely accurate and as rigorous with itself as is constantly demanded from politicians and government, quickly loses its credibility as an accurate describer of local events and issues.
Mr Washburn extols, “Fisher did a great job getting the bureaucratic response.” Mr Fisher interviewed Cobourg’s director of legislative services, received an email response from the Communications Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office and obtained a quote from Cobourg’s Police Chief. That sounds like Mr Fisher did his job as a journalist. There is nothing “great” about it. The reporters that dug and dug the bureaucratic response to Watergate did a “great job”. Mr Washburn is simply diluting the language in the same manner that people now refer to Avril Lavigne as a “diva”. The word no longer holds any value when it is misapplied.
Mr Washburn laments the lack of further context to the story of Victoria Park/Beach, asserting that the “additional result is a uninformed public who are unable to formulate facts upon which they can hold a meaningful debate. Instead, misinformation drives a discourse that fails to serve the community and democracy.”
Mr Washburn was failed to formulate the facts from a reading of a colleague’s journalism. Mr Washburn misleads his students and readers when he asserts that coolers in the park/beach is a violation of some law, when he asserts that a perfectly obvious legal barbeque is declared an illegal barbeque. How can the public hold a meaningful debate when hyperlocal journalists fail to provide accurate facts.
One important story to the annual bash-fest of tourists to Cobourg’s Victoria Park/Beach is overlooked by all of the hyperlocal and regional news media. A Human interest story? Not a single paid journalist has ever interviewed a tourist to Cobourg. Many of these tourists come from distressed countries, struggled to get here, to raise a family, to assimilate, by coming out of their particular cultural enclaves in the world’s most diverse city to enjoy a small town’s inhospitality. THAT is a story that needs exposure.