The day my daughter started kindergarten we received a sheet of paper from her school that we were advised to keep for handy reference. The dread communication-which occasionally slips out from under the plastic french fry magnet on our fridge door-lists all the “PA days” for the year. To our horror, the very first one was the following morning. There were 15 in all, not including Christmas break, spring break or the usual statutory holidays. Education, it seems, at least in the Toronto public school system, is a sometime thing.
At first glance this may not have much to do with journalism, but in fairly short order my outrage as a parent and a taxpayer had a curious spillover into my own profession. What the hell was a “PA day” anyway? I talked to some other parents at the school and discovered most were as puzzled and annoyed as I. “It stands for ‘Professional Activity,'” one mom informed me. “The teachers’ contract gives them time off to upgrade their skills.” But no one seemed to know how PA days (or PD, for Professional Development, as they’re called at some schools) came to be..
So it was with some relief and gratitude that I glanced at a front-page feature story in The Toronto Star on October 28. It was headed: “PD Days Debate: Teachers Love Them, Parents Hate Them.” Finally, someone was going to tell me why the local school’s doors were closed on alternate Tuesdays. Isn’t that what journalism is for?
Eighty column inches later-complete with turn, big play on the inside page with photos and cutlines-and I knew…what? That most teachers feel PA days are a good thing; that most parents feel terribly inconvenienced by them. The yeas and nays all got to express their feelings on the subject, so no one could accuse the reporter of not being “objective.”
But here’s what I didn’t know after wading through all that carefully balanced type: Whose idea was the PA day? How long have teachers had them? What do the teachers do on PA days? Do they have to account for themselves to a principal or a school board, or does it work on an honor system? Is this a nationwide phenomenon? Do schools in Saskatchewan close with the same frequency as those in Ontario? Or is it a provincial policy? If so, does Timmins have the same number of PA days as Toronto? Is this a Canadian peculiarity, or do Japanese, American or British kids miss school as frequently? Are teachers not encouraged to upgrade their skills during their long summer holidays? What is it exactly that cannot be accomplished in classroom time? Are PA days part of the teachers’ overall collective agreement or do the number of days vary from school to school? Are principals generally in favor of them? Are the number of days negotiable from year to year or contract to contract? Can PA days be revoked? Are parents protesting them to school boards?
“What does the story say?” asked my husband, hoping to glean the information secondhand as I read through. “It says that some people feel that PA days are a good thing,” I muttered, “and some people feel they’re a bad thing.” “Oh,” he said, “so there’s no story.”
There was no story there, and I’m beginning to worry that there are fewer and fewer stories anywhere. When we turn to our newspapers for information these days-or radios and televisions, for that matter-we no longer get news. We get feelings.
I don’t mean to pick on the hapless reporter who wrote the Star story (or non-story) on PA days. He’s just one of thousands of trained journalists working in the new climate in which emotions are favored over information. I’d like to think journalists are trained to ask questions. There used to be five of them: Who? What? Where? Why? and How? But these days, there seems to be only ope: “How does it feel?”
Feelings are very nice and all, but they don’t provide context. And without context, we can’t hope to understand issues. And more important, we can’t arrive at solutions. PA days may be a trivial example in the greater scheme of the universe, but unfortunately the same methodology of reporting is applied to politics, the environment, foreign affairs, social problems, medical issues and so on.
The effect of this kind of reporting is that it leaves us all feeling (there’s that dreaded word) that the world is going to hell in a hand basket; everyone’s terribly upset about it and there’s not a whole lot that anyone of us can do. Primarily because no one ever tells us how things came to this sorry pass in the first place. The journalism of feelings, therefore, is the journalism of futility.
Generally, I blame television for this, as I do for so many other things. When print was the main source of information, a reporter’s job was to recreate an event or experience with words. Which meant that he (or less often she) had to have some understanding of what was going on to be able to convey it. But pictures are capable of telling the entire story. So what is left for a reporter to do? Simply to get the reaction.
Specifically, I blame Howard Cosell. He got his start covering boxing matches in the 1970s and, with his incredible polysyllabic verbiage and one-two enunciation, quickly became a sensation. What set him apart was that when the poor, battered loser climbed out of the ring after a bout, Cosell didn’t ask, as would most informed commentators, “Why didn’t you see that left hook coming? What happened to your footwork? What could you have done against those short jabs? Do you blame your trainer for bad strategy?”
Nah. Cosell went right for the gut. “Kid, your nose is broken, your face is a mass of bruises, your career is in a shambles and you’ve just kissed your hopes of a title bout goodbye. Tell me, kid, HOW DOES IT FEEL?”
Well Howard, everyone in the business is trying to be like you these days, whether they realize it or not.
And it feels lousy.