Here’s a snippet of what I might slip into The Disaster Tourist.
“I should take some lead pencils with you. Bloody cold where you’re going and pens freeze don’t you know.” Parting advice from my Managing Editor in CBC Radio News as I was being happily packed off to the eastern arctic to set up the first radio newsroom there.
Dear old eccentric Eric Moncur had about as much knowledge of what we now know as Nunavut as I had— absolutely nothing. We both had to look at a map to see where he was sending me.
Oddly enough that advice about pencils was spot on. Many many times over the years that I have spent in the arctic, first as a bush pilot, then reporter, and now media consultant, I have yet to find a pen that doesn’t freeze.
But pens are the least of the problems facing a reporter in the arctic and more particularly in Nunavut.
First of all there is no such thing as being a journalist in Nunavut. Such pretensions are reserved for fly-in foreign correspondents and southern media types on short-term swings to vacuum up interesting features.
To cover the arctic one has to be a reporter first and last. Reporters must talk directly to people to find out what is going on, they have to record their comments exactly, and they have to tell the stories fairly. As a journalist, and I was one of those for a long time too, you can afford the lazy luxury of doing analytical pieces formed from your own opinions, interpretive insight pieces, and just generally a lot of writing that requires more thumb sucking than anything else.
Journalism by journalists just doesn’t work in a region where the people demand to know just what the hell is going on and to hell with the editorial spin and gloss.
There’s also a strong cultural problem in trying to do southern trained reporting in Nunavut.
The Inuit as a people dislike direct confrontation. Any questioning that has to be done for a story must be indirect, respectful, and non aggressive. On Parliament Hill in Ottawa we are used to the full speed bulldozer approach to news gathering. In Nunavut one needs the slow careful attitude of a palaeontologist.
When I was sent to Frobisher Bay, now Iqaluit, to set up the first CBC radio news operation, I had the largest beat of any reporter in Canada. It crossed three time zones, encompassed a quarter of Canada, and took in western Greenland for good measure. At the time I think that only four of the 26 communities in Nunavut had long distance phone service.
Have you ever thought how difficult it is to conduct a broadcast radio interview with someone at the other end of a snapping, crackling, and fading short wave radio link? Throw in for good measure that the person you are interviewing has english as a very limited second language and you begin to understand why some of the stuff we put on the radio was utterly incomprehensible.
All of the communities now have superb satellite phone links, email, fax, and in some cases video conferencing facilities, but the old job of reporting is still exactly the same. Reporters in Nunavut have to get out and talk to people otherwise they won’t have a thing to put into their broadcasts or newspapers.
I’m fond of saying that 90 percent of reporting is simply knowing that something is going on — the rest is just mechanics. But in a region where there are precious few news releases, fewer news conferences, no wire services, and a general reluctance for people to phone you up and offer a story, worrying about what might be going on turns into a huge dark monster that haunts every northern newsroom.
The best way to find stories is of course to talk to people as much as possible. That’s fine if the reporter is based in Iqaluit and wants to only cover that community. But to discover the weird and wonderful goings on in places such as Pangnirtung, Resolute Bay, Arviat or any other community, a reporter pretty well has to go there. Very few news operations can afford travel to even the closest communities except in rare and unusual circumstances. It’s cheaper to fly from Ottawa to Australia than it is to go from Iqaluit to let’s say Cambridge Bay or Resolute.
Any Ottawa journalist who accepts a freebie flight pretty well guarantees a snarky and career deadening conversation with a humorless news manager following policy. A reporter in Nunavut, or anywhere else in the Arctic for that matter, who doesn’t learn the fine art of hitchhiking by aircraft, piggybacking on charters, and playing the “send us the invoice” game, is never going to do much in the way of providing decent news coverage.
This once reached an extreme for me when I wanted to cover the start of Naomi Uemuera’s solo trip to the North Pole in 1978. His DC-3 Dakota aircraft was leaving Resolute Bay for Greenland and then to the last bit of land in Canada before the pole. The trouble was that the flight was being paid for by National Geographic Magazine. They were not about to let any reporter on board at any ticket price.
I got on the flight and covered the story (surreptitiously) by talking the charter airline into allowing me to fly as co-pilot, out of date ratings and licenses be damned.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had very strict rules against this, and still does. Fortunately there were more than a few managers with at least one blind eye. I hope there still are.