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  Shrimp News Gives Canada’s University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism a C Minus for Its Reporting on Shrimp Farming in Thailand  

 

 

Ten University of British Columbia journalism students have partnered with Toronto-basedThe Globe and Mail, often referred to as “the newspaper of record in Canada”, to produce a series of short videos on the negative aspects of shrimp farming in Thailand.  Peter Klein, associate professor of the International Reporting program at the University and a former 60 Minutes producer, said the students did some “creative and courageous” reporting in Thailand, including interviews (through interpreters) with exploited Burmese migrants who work in the shrimp industry.  The students also reported how clear-cutting of coastal forests by shrimp farmers contributed to the effects of the 2004 tsunami.  Klein said, “The students made the story relevant back home in Canada by discovering that tainted shrimp from Thailand is getting into our country because of lax inspections.”  [Editor: Yeah, I know, all of the above is old news; I’ll get to that in a minute.]

 

The student team included: Alexis Stoymenoff, Brandi Cowen, Darren Fleet, Faiza Khan, Karen Moxley, Kate Allen, Kerry Blackadar, Magally Zelaya, Rebecca TeBrake and Sarah Berman.  Sarah Stenabaugh and Erin Empey assisted in production of the series in Canada.  Adjunct professor Trisha Sorrels Doyle and instructor Dan McKinney helped lead production of the piece.

 

A University of British Columbia website, titled Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs, showcases the student’s work on this project.  The site has a timeline of the key events in the growth of Thailand’s shrimp farming industry [Editor: To see how badly an industry’s record can be distorted, check out this timeline.], the videos, a map highlighting locations mentioned in the videos and some background information on the project.  The site features five videos: Introduction (1.5 minutes), Reefs (4 minutes), Mangroves (5 minutes), Labour (6 minutes), and Health (6 minutes).

 

 

Shrimp News

 

Folks, these are powerful, high-quality videos, good enough to be broadcast by TV stations around the world, and they don’t paint a pretty picture of shrimp farming in Thailand.  They tell the same old story of mangrove destruction, labor practices, antibiotics and pollution that the environmental community has been ranting about for over a decade, never giving the shrimp farming industry credit for cleaning up its act, never providing a balanced view, never backing up their claims with credible evidence.  There’s absolutely nothing new or original in these videos.  In fact, it appears the students got most of their ideas from two previous publications that were critical of shrimp farming: The True Cost of Shrimp, a 40-page report published by the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in 2008; and Cheap—The High Cost of Discount Culture, a book published in the United States in 2009.  The big difference this time—it’s not dry words on paper, it’s color video with real voices that carry real impact.

 

Did I say there was nothing original in this work?  Maybe that was an overstatement!  The students got exceptionally original when it came to creating the argument that shrimp farming was destroying reefs off the coast of Thailand.  I could have chosen any one of the five videos to point out the distortions in their work, but this reef thing is kind of new to me, so let’s look at how the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Canada distorted that issue:

 

The School of Journalism Media Release: In a media release on this project, the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism said:

 

The students “...documented the underwater effects of shrimp runoff on the country’s precious reefs.”

 

Shrimp News: No, the students did not document the underwater effects of shrimp runoff on the country’s precious reefs, not in the videos that I watched (and that you can watch, too) and not in anything I read on their website.  They did not even come close to documenting anything about the relationship between shrimp farms and reefs.

 

The Reefs Video: Here’s the first thing you see when you click on the Reefs video:

 

“Decades of shrimp farming have reduced some of Thailand’s once-beautiful reefs to underwater wastelands.”

 

Shrimp News: If the above statement is true, the student’s don’t provide any evidence to support it.

 

Student Evidence: In the text that accompanies the video, the students back off their opening remarks a bit and say: “Reefs located close to the Thai coast can be affected by effluent and runoff from coastal shrimp farms.”

 

Shrimp News: Egads, of course they “can be affected”.  Where’s the evidence that shrimp farms are killing coastal reefs?

 

Student Evidence: “When shrimp pond waters—containing high levels of organic waste—leak out of farms and into the sea, the large increase of nutrients in the water provide ideal growing conditions for algae and sponges.”

 

Shrimp News: Yes.........Do we jump from that statement to the conclusion that shrimp farm effluent is killing coastal reefs?

 

On the map of their trip, the students say: “Some of the reefs we visited around Koh Ra Island have been severely damaged by the effects of run-off from coastal shrimp farms.”  Then, in the Reefs video, here’s how they document that supposition.  They traveled fifty kilometers out to sea to observe a reef.  It was pristine and beautiful, far enough away from coastal shrimp farms to be protected from their effluent.  Next they visited a reef about eight kilometers from the mainland.  That’s five miles of ocean between the reef and the mainland.  No telling how far away they were from the closest shrimp farm.  They made no mention of any other man-made or natural phenomena that might have caused what they were about to see—a “ghost town” of coral formations covered with algae and sponges.  The implication, of course, is that the reefs were smothered by algae and sponges that were fertilized by the effluent from shrimp ponds.  They provided absolutely no evidence to support that supposition.

 

Shrimp News: I recommend that you watch all six videos because they contain some interesting shots of shrimp farming in Thailand—and a good look at what Asian farmed shrimp is up against in the North American consumer market!

 

For the thousands of people in the shrimp farming industry that are striving to improve the industry’s environmental practices, the distortions in these videos are difficult to watch.  If you find this stuff unbearable and only have time for one of them, I recommend that you watch the Health video.  Here, at least, you get to see Robins McIntosh, senior vice-president of CP Foods, one of the largest shrimp farming companies in Thailand, talking about real issues.

 

Information: Mary Lynn Young, Ph.D., Director and Associate Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism (journal@interchange.ubc.ca).

 

Updates

 

More Bad Journalism: Do you remember my negative review of Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs, the series of five, short videos by The University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism that painted a very dismal picture of shrimp farming in Thailand?

 

Well, those videos have been nominated for a rather prestigious award by the Online News Association and its academic partner, the School of Communication at the University of Miami.  A group of 34 news media professionals reviewed the submissions and selected the finalists.  The winners will be announced on September 24, 2001.  The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera BBC News, The Associated Press and USA Today all received nominations, but in a surprising show of journalistic favoritism, the University of Miami—one of the sponsors of the awards—received more nominations than any of them!

 

Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs, entered in the Online Video Journalism category, has only two competitors, which means that it has as much as a one in three chance of winning.  We all know that this video was full of the factual errors and distortions, so how could 34 industry-leading journalists be so wrong?  Here’s my guess!  Over 75 journalistic pieces were entered in the contest and had to be analyzed by the 34 judges, which means they could not give much time to each one.  The judges probably noticed the high production values in the videos and the fact that the ten students travelled all over Thailand, even out to sea, to collect their information, and said, “Wow, this is really good stuff.”  What they did not do is check for accuracy!  They assumed that students were being fair, honest and factual, the worst mistake a journalists can make, especially when judging the work of their peers.  The judges that voted the University of British Columbia videos into the contest should hang their heads in shame.  Information: Jane McDonnell, Executive Director, OnlineNewsAssociation (phone 1-646-290-7900, email director@journalists.org); and Rich Beckman, School of Communication at the University of Miami (phone 1-305-284-2726, email rbeckman@miami.edu).

 

Bad Journalism Loses: Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs, the series of five, short videos by The University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism that painted a dismal picture of shrimp farming in Thailand, was nominated for a rather prestigious award by the Online News Association and its academic partner, the School of Communication at the University of Miami.  The awards were announced on September 24, 2011, and Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs did not win.

 

Sources: 1. University of British Columbia Public Affairs Website.  Media Release.  UBC J-School Partners with The Globe and Mail.  November 22, 2010.  2. The Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs Website.  December 6, 2010.  3. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, December 8, 2010.  4. Newsday.com.  2011 Online Journalism Awards Finalists Announced.  The Associated Press.  August 31, 2011.  5.  NetNewsCheck.com.  ONA 2011 Online Journalism Award Winners.  September 26, 2011. 6. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, December 12, 2010.

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