Reporters without Shirts

How news people can win trust. An immodest proposal.

By Shannon Rupp 30 Jan 2007 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Brief respite between deadlines.

Another one of those polls about the professionals Canadians trust has ranked firefighters on the top of the heap while journalists are again hovering somewhere in the bottom quarter with the lawyers, car sellers, and politicians.

How many wake-up calls do journalists need before they take action?

The solution is obvious -- it's time for reporters to publish their own calendars.

When it comes to ethical behaviour on the job, those seductive marketing tools are the only difference I can see between reporters and firefighters.

The facts, including the number of harassment complaints in lower mainland fire halls, suggest firefighters aren't as nice as those shots of well-muscled beefcake with warm smiles would have us believe.

For every newspaper with a dodgy reputation for accuracy, there seems to be a fire hall with an equally dodgy reputation for sex. Just consider last fall's boxergate in Richmond. City officials decided that garbing everyone in boxer shorts would prevent harassment. (Exactly what goes on there that this seemed like a good idea?) It's nothing new. In 2000, Chatelaine magazine ran an article in which reporter Laura Robinson found Vancouver firehalls with telephones that served as hook-up lines. She rang them up, described her looks, and was welcomed by the boys who provided her with saucy chat and foot massages. More was on offer.

And yet the image of firefighters remains untarnished, with 93 per cent of the public voting them trustworthy just a month ago. Were any of the 1,000 people polled for Sympatico.MSN female firefighters? How about the wives of male firefighters?

Reporting can be hairy

Given that reporters are supposed to be in the business of image-making and –breaking, the fact that only 26 per cent of the population has faith in us suggests we've failed on every level. (Although we're still one point ahead of the lawyers.) Meanwhile those (reportedly) sex-crazed guys with the hoses can do no wrong.

It's got to be the calendars.

Sure, there's that whole romantic life-risking thing firefighters do. But what about war correspondents who risk life and limb to get stories on record? Reporters without Borders reports that last year 81 journalists and 32 assistants were killed. More than 1,400 journalists were attacked or threatened.

Then there are the local heroes. Every year the RCMP has to notify a few reporters that someone -- a stock promoter or some other criminal -- has "taken out a hit" on them for something they've written.

Journalism is not all free movies and exposing your sex life, you know.

We do provide celebrity coverage ad nauseum, so why do firefighters have Hollywood on their side? They're glorified in blockbusters like World Trade Center, featuring hunky action hero Nicola Cage, while reporters are stuck with Shattered Glass, an indie docudrama about Stephen Glass, the (scrawny) liar who invented more than two dozen stories in The New Republic.

Cage vs. Glass? You call that a level playing field?

But a few glossy calendars of comely reporters could even us up.

How to poll jump

The "comely" part is the challenge. As the saying goes, most reporters have faces made for radio. Then there are the bodies built by years of hunching over a keyboard and wolfing down fast food. Other than TV types, journalists aren't known for their fine personal grooming. Most of us do shower regularly, although there are always a few who think the only thing that matters is clean copy. One of the best reporters I've ever met regularly wore a shredded sweater that was laddered across his concave chest. People kept asking if he had a cat. He never figured out why.

For photos, we would have to snag some 20-ish interns before the decline sets in. And there are always a few TV wannabes who make up in looks what they lack in talent. I can see it now: manly men in flak jackets against a desert backdrop, with a reporter or two peeking out from behind them. Or carefully lit reporters (with a discreetly placed notebooks) interviewing the latest top-model candidate.

It could work.

If it doesn't, I have Plan B: stop reporting those public perception polls. If nothing else, the lawyers will thank us.

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