Journalists fall silent

Journalists fall silent

Communication | Judette Coward-Puglisi

December 11, 2008

I can only imagine what must have been going through the Prime Minister’s mind as he announced the existence of  a malignant tumour on his left kidney.

Have you seen the video? On (GISL’s website) the Prime Minister’s  face is devoid of expression.

As I watch, I want to know so much more and am aghast when he invites questions from the journalists on the floor.  Go ahead watch the video and see.

The room falls silent. And the next question that a reporter asks is about the economy, I was outraged. Here was a perfect opportunity for the journalists to get  closer to the real story, to paint a clearer  picture of Patrick Manning, the man, not the Prime Minister. Naturally  the herd mentality kicked in and  for 5 minutes after he announced his cancer, not one journalist reverted  the discussion to  his health.

In journalism 101 there are 5  basic Ws:  who, what, when, why, where.

At best a reporter could have asked:

  • Mr Prime Minister what was your first reaction when you heard the news?
  • Mr Prime Minister how did you suspect something was wrong?
  • Mr Prime Minister how confident are you about the upcoming operation?
  • Mr Prime Minister how did your family take the news, particularly your children?
  • Mr Prime Minister, will it be the same medical team in Cuba that has treated  you in the past?

My question is what caused the silence?


48 thoughts on “Journalists fall silent

  1. Patrick Manning is always, always a politician, as journalists should know better than anyone. So for him of all people to make a disclosure like this (even though only a partial one) naturally caught journalists off guard. And journalists are folks too: they feel like anyone else does when a near-stranger–especially when he’s someone whom in other respects they know well–suddenly makes a highly personal and distressing revelation like that. Like anyone else, they just didn’t know what to say for a little while. I’m not sure I agree it was a bad moment for journalism at all.

  2. But that silence was strange Judy, it lasted several seconds which seemed like a lifetime to me. I think the story was missed entirely, not just a little while.

    Seems to me the media came with prepared questions (fair enough) and were thrown for a loop by the announcement, they couldn’t seem to think on their feet and couldn’t regroup quickly enough. I thought it was awful.

  3. I’m inclined to add that not only did they (the journalists) miss a rare opportunity of a glimpse at the man behind the political mask but they froze wholesale and never recovered and that’s the point. Of course we are all human and susceptible to shock but as journalist we are trained not to falter at such monumental moments. And I must say it was a shrewd move by PMPM, in my opinion, he seemed to know that his bombshell would render the herd speechless. I’d go further than saying it was a bad moment for journalists. I’d say at the very least it was a scandalous lack of journalistic brass.

  4. I don’t have a clue about journalism, but I guess most people have been led to believe that PM Manning is not human. Yes they came with prepare questions because our economic status "problem’ IS the only question on people’s lips. SelflessNESS is out the window. I totally agree that some jobs prompt you to be thinkers more than doers, but I guess they felt like they were dealing with the PROBLEM at hand… the economy. Maybe today we’ll realise that he is actually a ‘high risk’ patient, and certain possibilities may imply bigger problems.

  5. For a moment, just a moment Nalia I wondered if they understood that malignant tumour on the left kidney is the same as kidney cancer, which as you said raises different kinds of possibilities . A friend who was actually at the conference said that for the first time, she felt Mr Manning looked old.
    I think his announcement was a moment for cameras to zoom in, for reporters to abandon their prepared questions, for a different kind of story to emerge, for good TV. This was an opportunity missed.

  6. The opposite of Love is not hate its indifference.
    As a people we have become so INDIFFERENT to other people, their feelings and what they may be facing in life. I’m surprised and not surprised at the same time that we’ve gradually lost our humanity, in the pursuit of being I dare say " PROFESSIONAL"
    Apathy is also another word that comes to mind…

  7. Can’t speak for overseas journalists but I don’t know of any local ones who are trained not to falter at any particular moment or indeed trained at all. And yes, of course PM was manipulating that moment, and has reasons of his own, which have yet to become apparent, for telling the country about his illness. Remember, this is a man who didn’t say a word about being ill when he first went to Cuba for heart surgery in 1998.
    Having a malignant tumour on your kidney is not the same as having kidney cancer. That’s what he wants people to believe. But it’s not what he said. Remember when he came back from Cuba in 2004 & wasn’t at all his usual smug self? If in fact this tumour isn’t a primary cancer but a metastasis from elsewhere, it means he’s suffering from advanced cancer already & is a lot sicker than he wants people to think. And kidney cancer would be bad enough–it’s one of the few in which no major advances in treatment have been made until very recently….

  8. I agree and disagree with you Nikisha. Reporters are there to get facts. Sure this was a moment for sympathy but the fact is there were several great stories in that post cabinet brief. This is where professionalism kicks in

    In any case, there was the announcement itself, that’s news. Then there was the whole health perspective. That’s an angle that could have been raised, an even better story would have been the PM’s personal reactions, feelings, thoughts. These are the stories I would have liked to be viewing last night on the tube.

    Instead we had to wait some fifteen minutes into the media briefing to get canned pronouncements that he does not fear death etc.

  9. I don’t think foreign journalists would have missed on those questions…they think differently…

    Ever listen to reporters here ask questions during live broadcasts…it always seems like uncomfortable unfamiliar territory.

    But hey that is just me

  10. It just occured to me why the angles you see were missed by reporters, as Ms Raymond rightfully said, reporters here aren’t trained generally, much less to empathise, and I guess Judette, that empathy could be the major emotion behind YOUR angles. Without ‘feeling’, you most times don’t SEE the bigger picture

  11. ..and that’s what made me mad. I kept saying " ask the questions,"
    " ask the questions" in my head

  12. You can be clinical and still get a story but I think the human element is always more impactful.

    I suppose that one must treat the whole issue of a leader’s health differently, Judy what do you think? Since the whole issue of what next arises? Or rather who next?

  13. "Ask the question"… "how could they ask what they didn’t see"?. It’s called passion ‘J’. Have a great Day!!!!!

  14. I personally thought the ideal question would be why, with vision 2020, why does he have to go to Cuba to have his operations?

    A decade of an oil booms yet most of our politicians seek their healthcare either in the States or Cuba (and those that seek local help do so at private institutions).

    I’m apathetic to most of our politician’s personal health based on their apathy to administering our government.

  15. I wouldn’t go so far to say it was a bad moment in journalism. It’s always easier to know what to ask when you’re not the one caught in the moment. I think they were all just thrown for a loop, and they may have been caught up in the excitement of having a story so juicy they didn’t think to ask questions that us who weren’t there thought of when we heard the news. When I heard I started to salivate, frankly, and I wished I was back in the Guardian as a news reporter, cause that’s the kind of news that gets the adrenaline pumping in news rooms. Would I have thought of the right questions to ask if I was there? Maybe not.

  16. Judy, I asked the question on your wall but I re-read your response here and got my answer. Question is how do you know the cancer started elsewhere and spread to his kidneys? I didn’t pick that up in the press conference, do you have inside info??? Why would the PM lie to the nation, if he knows he may be more ill than he’s letting on? I think if that’s the case, then the media has some probing to do.

  17. Of course it was a bad moment in journalism. One of many.
    Somebody, senior or junior, should have fumbled, faltered, stammered or otherwise signalled and encouraged follow-up questions on what may be the biggest story of our time.
    Reporters also lack penetration and contacts: he had apparently told his constituency people the story the night before; none of them has a journalist friend, family or must-tell acquaintance?
    No reporter keeps touch with what the PM does when he comes home to his constituency, such as when he visits barbershops or rumshops…or who knows?

  18. i wouldn’t go so far as to say that is was a bad moment for journalism…it def. wasn’t a shining one, but ne’er a bad one

    Trini machismo is a unique social phenomenon for the simple fact that Herr Manning has paraded much like the political alpha male; Daddy Long Stroke… creating an aura of transcendence/separation from the rest of society.

    The dialectic works for and against him because a nation that he ostensibly alienates, is the very nation that endears him…think Mammy Booshoo syndrome…and the very nation he loves….

    For him to admit, even on this most niggling level, to frailty, to his very mortality, would shock almost anyone…think Magic when he made his announcement…

    perhaps the journalists keyed into the illusion of power he had and skirted the issue through silence because they knew a straight answer would not be forthcoming…they HAVE danced that one before, haven’t they?

    i don’t think so…they didn’t drop the ball…that’s too easy to saw and too damning of our precious 4th estate….

    the one thing i will admit is that Herr Manning’s pride is fuelled by a nation that despite every naysayer, or no matter how many times City Gate Floods, how badly congested our roads are, whether we hit 1000 murders in 2009 (God Forbid!!!), or if Tuesday falls on a Friday ( I wish!) backs him and believes in him…

    that is the silence we "heard"…the awe of finding out that "Daddy" won’t be home this Christmas…
    would any of us punish that child for crying?

  19. Definitely the US media would have departed from the hot-button issues of the day and open a deeper conversation on the human aspect. We see this all the time on news networks like CNN for instance, Dr. Sanjay would have been giving a full segment on the condition and what the short- and long-term implications could be for the PM.

    But you know, upon viewing the video, the PM treated questions about his condition somewhat curt and dismissive, defensive even when talk of a successor came up. The guardian reporter who started to touch on the "human element"…how did he feel…what of his wife–the PM pretty much cut off the discussion with the statement of his not being afraid of death and so on. His body language spoke volumes that he did not want to talk about it.

    Maybe the TT media handled it appropriately.

  20. and oh yeah…pls excuse the typos…i get all excited when i’m waxing quasi-political…or should it psuedo since it disgusts me so….?

  21. Laura, there are and have been many reasons why a/the PM would be economical with the truth in revealing the state of his health or a great many other things, so I am not sure I wd want to speculate on all of them–I’m not devious enough. But as other people have pointed out, he has always portrayed himself as Mr Iron Man–"I’m not afraid of death" etc. So if he’s voluntarily admitting to a life-threatening illness & needing major, risky surgery, chances are there’s more in the mortar than the pestle.
    He has to account for his being out of the country for several weeks–probably longer than he’s saying now, & even then he may not be well enough to return to work straight away or ever.
    Maybe he wants to see who will come out of the woodwork as the pretender to his throne.
    As for people knowing in advance & reporting it: Christine Kangaloo is the only minister previously to have admitted to & discussed her cancer; none of the other members of the cancer cluster in Cabinet have spoken about theirs or even made their illness officially known. If you have the right contacts you’ll hear about who’s sick with what, but the culture is not to disclose, so even if you know about it, you don’t have a story if the sufferer won’t admit to being sick.
    All of that contributed to the media’s being caught completely off guard & not knowing what to ask next. PM’s deliberately obscure way of putting it & political reporters’ understandably low level of medical education didn’t help either.
    Not sure who has the time to follow the PM & lime around his constituency with his or her ear to the ground. In an ideal world, of course that would happen.

  22. Judy,
    What’s the code of ethics on journalists probing about health issues? Is it off limits in terms of privacy etc? I suspect no one wanted to be the "no-broughtupsy" journalist to cross the line.
    The region’s cultural approach to cancer, or any terminal illness for that matter, is very different to what’s acceptable in the US or Britain. Interesting responses from Valley and Rowley though – I might be naive but I really felt there was a genuine sense of transcending politics for a pico-second. You can’t really trump the cancer card.
    Questions I’d like to ask the doctors –
    Was is a primary lesion?
    What type of carcinoma?
    What stage was it caught?
    Any lymph involvement?
    The answers to these questions should give the public some relevant info. If it’s as early as they say it is – I’m surprised that he even admitted to having a malignant tumour – so for the cynic in us – there’s probably some riding of the pity-wagon for politicking purposes. My understanding is that kidney tumours, when caught early, have an excellent prognosis. At this stage lucid medical reporting from the media can help the public understand if they are being played for sympathy or being misled by a very ill Prime Minister.

  23. Two or three sentences into a response to the above, I thought to check something, then lost what I had written. Should it surface somewhere unintended, I claim the blame.
    As I was saying, or thought I was saying, bad moments in journalism come and come again, and there seems no need to try spinning their reality away.
    The "ideal world" of journalism is one I never knew, but the existence of journalists (including photographers) who had friends who had liming friends, and who kept in touch, for being just curious or "farse," is within living memory.
    Curiosity is a vanishing condition, as the cutting-edge of journalism dulls and dulls.
    Of course, of course, "the culture is not to disclose," but T&T journalism is either a counter-culture exercise or it’s nothing.
    That is not to oppose absolutes, but to look out for and to salute and encouraging even uniformed, untutored, and naive poking around, which is still inspired by some (vague) sense that this is what we’re supposed to be doing.

  24. Hi All,
    I totally agree with Judette’s analysis of the sit..while I understand Judy as well.
    I was listening to Post Cab and the moment when the PM made his announcement I screamed out in my own newsroom that he had a tumour. Now this is the same station that was carrying it live. Only two pple reacted to the my exclamation and I may add NO ONE but me was listening to the proceedings in my newsroom..
    The first question was by a CNC reporter and I was astounded!! I was like helllloooooo how insenstive can you people be..the man has JUST said he has a tumour for God’s sake not a cold!
    There were experienced journalists there Judette…I counted at least three.
    And yes Judy while you are in fact correct that many was caught off guard I refuse to believe my fellow media folks could not process the information quick enough.
    The person who was covering Post Cab for us that day came back and said to us something to the effect that how can you "attack" someone who has just revealed to you that they have cancer clearly the tumour angle was sitting on the back burner…
    ….just my two cents 🙂

  25. Jumping in very late in the game and at the risk of getting the "verbal beat down" my heart broke a little when I heard the news. Gone was Prime Minister, gone was leader and there appeared in my mind’s eye seriously ill person. Having crossed the age of 40 one on my personal fears in Cancer, malignant tumor or otherwise.

    Having known people who have lived (for a very short time after diagnosis) with Stage IV cancer, my heart goes out to PM Manning I would much rather face the opposition, the media, an irate Me than deal with the battle he is about to face.

    Sorry I went in a totally diffferent direction but felt to express, since noone else around me has raised the issue, too busy Christmas shopping and cleaning I guess…Alas.

  26. Sharon, if he chooses to make the state of his health public then privacy issues don’t arise. You can ask anything; he can choose not to answer, but it would be unfair of him since he made the revelation in the first place. He would be mad not to expect journos to consult drs about his condition. You can be sure that he had very carefully calculated reasons for telling us. And as I’ve been pointing out all day, he didn’t say he had kidney cancer, although even the doctors who were asked for comments seem to have assumed he did. He has a tumour on one kidney but I don’t believe that’s where it started, that he’s much sicker than he’s letting on & that that’s why he had to admit to being sick at all. But he’s getting something out of it too, as we will see in the fullness of time.

  27. Judette, hope you don’t mind me crashing this exchange of views but I tend to agree with most of your observations. What I found interesting is that by the media’s own assessment this was the top story the following day. What journalist unwittingly did was predetermine how long the story should run. Apart from the human interest aspect, there is historical relevance to the nation. God forbid any thing should happen but I think it was a missed moment which would leave our history books incomplete void of the humanity of one of our nation’s leaders.

    It’s often argued that the media only reflect society and the issues of the day when it reports the news. My question then is how come journalists could not respond? I agree that journalist should be prepared with questions they want to have answered, but they also need to be responsive to their environment. The PC scenario begs the question is the media reporting the news or creating the news?

  28. Lenny,

    To your point of poking around and being curious, a friend and I took our laptops to Fridays’ directly after the PM’s announcement and we began to probe the health issues of Eric Williams and George Chambers…how did they become ill, how were the announcements made, what were their ailments, what were the dates of their deaths?

    There was absolutely no correlation, our heads just begun to whizz.

    I thought your comment about a reporter ‘tagging’ the PM during his constituency visits is excellent. What a fertile ground for stories other than the Post Cab planned fabrications?

    On another note our discussion here has sparked interest by the bloggers at Global Voices who have sought permission to quote from the original note.

  29. Hi Judette,
    perhaps it was a bad moment for journalism…but I am not sure that I agree with you about seeing more of the Prime Minister’s humane side. All of the Manning’s behaviour involves a sub-text that shows us only too well what sort of a human/e being he is. What I would like to know is how much is his "cancer" going to cost us. As far as I am concerned Manning is already a costly enough tumour to our society, are we going to have to pay for him to get rid of his?

    But you do raise a salient point about the nature of the journalism/journalists that we have here. There are so many questions that could have been asked, I am not sure that PM as PM would have answered them thought. But still once in a while it would be refreshing to see our journalists show a little instinct for scent of blood, pick up trail and actually follow it.

  30. The cost is another angle that could have been pursued Rhoda. And I disagree with you about the PM’s human/e side. I think he has poor communications skills, that he needs to listen more than he does and that arrogance taints him but I wouldn’t say he does not have a kinder, more gentler side that can be reached with the right probing and questioning.

    But then again I watch from afar and not from the reporter’s den (newsrooms)

  31. I admit that I no longer look at these issues from a strict journalistic perspective haven gotten out of media so long ago (and not having stayed in it long myself) but Manning isn’t new to politics. Not new at all. He ahs moved from being a virtually unknown MP to leading the PNM. Considering all the time that he has been in politics I feel quite certain that he would have by now at least learnt how to show his many facets, if indeed he is multi-faceted. However what he has shown to the people of this country on numberous occasions is arrogance and condescension. The inability for journalists to grasp and seize that moment of questioning recently I beleive resides in the fact that for the most part many of them are underprepared to ask the really important questions and to probe issues properly. Just look at how stories are reported and (not) followed up on any given day. Look to at how many angles are never pursued in the average story.

    recently I had a discussion with friends on the number of arrests in relation to the number of murders. An angle that I have not seen the media take (and I admit I may have missed that day’s paper) is the fact that many of these murders are revenge killings and sometimes the trail for an arrest ends in realising that the murderer has already been murdered. An indepth story on Vigilante Justice in Trinidad is necessary. But where’s the journalist to do it.

    But back to my bone of contention. Manning maybe human but he is certainly not humane, and I for one am happy that I didn’t have to read a story about "Poor Mr Manning having to cope with cancer". Because I visit hospitals in trinidad far too often for my own good and I see what happens there to people who can’t afford private health care (in a country that practically swimming in oil dollars).

  32. So when I hear that Manning has cancer, in my head I am hoping that he gets his surgery done at Port of Spain General Hospital on a night when the doctors decide they don’t give a shit about who has to be on the ward…and no beds are available and the only medicine they have for any of the myriad ailments that they have to treat that night…is paracetamol!…so in a sense I am glad the journalists blundered…it spared me the obvious gag reflex over an article on Manning’s humane side.

  33. ..but the point you raise about journalism and their preparedness….that’s a real issue…because if they aren’t asking the right questions then a lot of people won’t really know what the real issues are…

  34. Wow, Judette, an impressive array of answers, insight and knowledge. I did not see the announcement. However, I agree with many that it would have been a rare moment to see the man behind the politico that he is and to discover his fears, his treatment options, the effect in his political career, his family and perhaps have his doctor explain treatment options (no doubt he’ll go to Miami as they all do) and what awareness this will bring to others suffering in Trinidad with similar issues. Frankly, I find that nobody gives damn nowadays but anybody. The Caribbean I once knew is no more and the village that raised the child no longer exists. That is a digression, yes, but in part it has a lot to do with the silence. The silence was part shock, part unprofessionalism, part stupidity, part not knowing how to think on one’s feet, part I-don’t-care-until-some-else-asks-the-first-question and part unpreparedness. Whether one likes Manning or not is not the issue, the issue is the unpreparedness of the journalists. It begs the questions, what are we producing that we call "journalists" in the Caribbean? I mean that with the greatest respect since as I said, I was not there, I do not know who asked my seasoned or not, no journalist should be stumped by any announcement. The ability to think on one’s feet is another tenet of journalism as far as I am concerned. In Barbados there is a general demise of journalism as a profession that is so shocking as to scare the willies out of anyone. Appalling.

  35. I disagree with you Judy. Whether Manning is a PM or a pauper, the questions were not asked. Manning being a politician is not relevant. If anyone else had made the announcement, I would expect journalists to ask the same questions but tailored to the office (or lack thereof) of the individual.

  36. Judette,

    I am disappointed that no media house sent reporters to Cuba. I thought this would have been a great opportunity for us to have people on the ground in Cuba, finding out from the doctors there what’s really going on, trying to get a scoop an doing some background stories on what makes Cuba’s health care system to much better than ours. Instead we’re taking reports from the PNM. What if the man died? We would have had to wait for the PNm to choose the time and day they release that info instead of being there to report it as it happens. LG is right, we really ought to be following the man a lot more.

  37. Laura,
    It’s not like Cuba is far away for heaven’s sake. ANd what does resting comfortably mean? Is he back on blood thinners. Were there any complications? Why are we waiting on these banal announcements from his office? I am not sure we will ever get it right.

    Could you imagine the viewers, readers a TV station, newspaper would have gotten had they sent a team. Instead everyone is carrying more of the same.

  38. Reminds me of the discussion after the first Gulf War about how the army and US government manipulated journalists, having them wait for press briefings in hotels so they wouldn’t go into the field and get real stories themselves. And those that dared to do that were pilloried.

  39. Do we really believe that a Trini PM in a foreign hospital would give permission to his doctors to talk to the media? Which of his (or any other sick local politician’s) local doctors have we ever been allowed to hear from? When has he ever mentioned his own health before except to say he’s feeling great? I suspect we’ve all been watching too much American TV.
    As for the comments about reporters trailing the PM, liming in his rumshops etc (NOT to cover a more "humane" (!!!) side or any such thing, but to get more & better stories)–maybe it could have happened 30, 40 yrs ago, but times have changed. The average reporter today is probably a 27-yr-old single mother who can’t take that time & those chances. I’m not saying that’s necessarily good, just that that’s how things are & if we want them to be different we have to make them different.
    The lack of time that reporters have to do that kind of thing, or to follow the PM to Cuba, or to report from an informed position & in depth on the state of his health, are partly consequences of the expansion of the media, which has led media houses to try to stay competitive by cutting costs, ie staff with qualifications, knowledge, aptitude, experience who have to be paid more than teenagers with A-levels & nothing else; they reduce numbers; & when do they send anyone anywhere except on free trips? Media managers are managers, not media people.

  40. Since when Journalists need permission to get info? We snoop in local hospitals all the time to talk to people and get their photos, we can’t do the same elsewhere? He is the PM after all, not some insignificant body. I disagree that we’re watching too much American TV. I just think there is too much speculation around this for the media to be taking everything wholesale from the PNM machinery without questioning or probing,

  41. Journalists have always needed permission to get certain kinds of info. It’s unethical and professionally risky for doctors to discuss a particular patient’s health w/out his or her consent, & the PM sure ent giving it. Nor would he talk to any journo who managed to sneak past his security detail. It might be possible to steal a photo or two but that’s about all. Who else is there to get that kind of info from?
    Not that media houses shdn’t have sent reporters to Cuba to see what they cd get against those odds. But they didn’t. Because that would cost money

  42. I am very impressed at the level of analysis and writing on this note starting with Judette. I wish the voices heard here could be manifiested in the daily media on a more sustained basis. I think we didnt get a news story that day because journalists have unconciously begun to practise self cencorship, and have begun to mould themselves to an essentially autocratic leadership. Dont forget that the PM stormed a radio station just weeks ago because he disagreed with the broadcast. It was not empathy, or even lack of preparedness that stunned journalists into silence but fear and general intimidation. Our journalists generally get treated like rubbish (and paid rubbish) unlike the US where they are paid very well reflecting their status and strengthening their role as independent watchdogs. Every newspaper needs to sell ads, many to Government. Every editor is mindful of that. He or she passes this culture on to the journalists who produce watered down work everyday.

  43. The Newdsay sent someone to Cuba. Saw it today when I was going through some issues from this week, so my apologies to the Newsday, at least someone put journalism before cost eh. And it seems Andre Baggoo, the reporter who went, has been able to talk to a doctor or two. Maybe I need to start reading Newsday some more.

  44. Perhaps I shd repeat this: of course I thought media houses should send someone to Cuba. Of course I thought someone should try to get the story there.

  45. OK. I’m REALLY late in the game…

    To be fair, foreign journos and Trinidadian journos operate in different news environments. In the U.S. there is, in general, an acknowledgment of the public’s right to know and the journalist’s right to ask. Officials make (begrudging?) concessions through open government, public information officers who actually do their jobs, public record request compliance etc. If they don’t, there’s a public consequence–one far more feared than in Trinidad. Could it be that the pause came about because local journos simply weren’t sure what was appropriate in the situation and what they could face censure for?

  46. Yes, you are right. This is a great sorrow, but it is at the same a nice opportunity for others to know him closer as a person, to know his family, relationships. Well, it was very unwise of the journalists.
    I hope Mr Manning will get well. Nowadays, even people with blood cancer overcome this disease.

Comments are closed.