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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Lost in translation: The dilemmas of reporting in French — in Vancouver

By Francis Plourde

“You have two stories, one about a group of Chinese protesters for the independence of Tibet in front of the Vancouver Public Library, the other one about a stolen trash basket in front of the French Cultural Centre. Which one do you pick?” a senior reporter at Radio-Canada once asked me. His answer: “Don’t hesitate, take the story about the trash basket.”

He was kidding, of course, but his little joke summarized what a reporter faces when working in a French environment in Vancouver. I quickly faced issues that I never expected when I started working for Radio-Canada, my previous experience being in print reporting.

At Radio-Canada, the French arm of the national public broadcaster, I’ve found that newsworthiness is often tied to French language proficiency – something which may seem superficial to the majority of the population of Vancouver, but which is crucial to our audience, a small enclave of francophones in an anglophone world. As I’d soon realize, these challenges are compounded when the medium is radio or television.

Being a French reporter in Vancouver is a little bit like being a foreign correspondent. But unlike foreign correspondents, who have a mandate to tell what is going on in a certain country, and to talk to local people for a far-away audience, we have to interview people from the community for the same community. Which often makes things complicated.

To provide information to his viewers, the foreign correspondent has no choice but to interview people who, most of the time, don’t speak the language of his audience. It’s the best way to report accurately on what is going at the local level. At Radio-Canada, though, our coverage is a continual balancing act: between French speakers and people who will have an impact on B.C., between local and provincial reporting, between English and French communities. Most of the time, we will pick the Chinese protesters over the trash basket. Yet from time to time, the trash basket is going to win.

Language and newsworthiness

At work, I rarely ask myself about the ethics behind my newsgathering. When dealing with deadlines, my concerns are two-fold:

1) Find a source with something to say on today’s issue.

2) Ask the source if he or she speaks French.

The construction of news stories is simple. If the source doesn’t speak French, her comments will end up in a clip of five seconds or less, with the rest of her thoughts quoted indirectly. If the source does speak French, she might end up with a quote of 10 or 15 seconds. Or, even better, a live interview on one of Radio-Canada’s shows aimed at the francophone community.

Lately I’ve been wondering about the sources we choose to interview and their impact on the quality of the information we provide. For my editor, Marylène Têtu, there’s no dilemma about this rule.

“We’ll always interview people who have something to say, but if they speak French, all the better,” she says.

In real life, it’s not always that simple. To his credit, the mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, is always willing to tackle an interview in Molière’s language. And he speaks a decent, although very slow, French. As a result, what would take a normal speaker perhaps 10 to 15 seconds can sometimes take him 30 seconds. An eternity in radio. And often his quotes are much better in English.

The general policy?

“If they hesitate too much, just do it in English,” Têtu tells me.

On the other hand, politicians with a good grasp of French might not get the same treatment. “It’s more tricky when someone like Paul Martin, for instance, comes here and speaks only English. Our listeners know he does speak a good French and hence, they’ll think our reporter hasn’t done his job if we quote him in English only,” she adds.

The French reporter as local reporter

Many reporters, no matter the language they use and their medium, have experienced what is called community reporting. Sources will get back to you on things you included in your stories, or will expect you to take a positive spin on what they are doing. Even though Radio-Canada is based in Vancouver, its audience has similarities with a small rural community.

Franco-Columbians account for only 54,400 out of the nearly four million people living in B.C. They are a community less than the size of Prince George — with a small difference: They are all dispersed across B.C., mainly in Vancouver, Victoria and the Okanagan, while Radio-Canada’s staff in the province — less than 20 reporters for both radio and television — are mostly based in Vancouver.

My colleague, Jeanne Ouellet, is an expert in community reporting for French television. She started her career at Radio-Canada in the end of the ’70s in Alberta. She’s worked for eight years at Radio-Canada in Vancouver, and covered francophone issues for a number of those years.

I asked her whether doing local reporting changes a reporter’s job. “In terms of reporting, it doesn’t change a lot,” Ouellet says. “We’re doing our job and have a neutral perspective. What we observe, though, is a dichotomy between our editorial choices and what the francophone community would like us to cover.”

Franco-Columbians have expectations, she says. “Some of them will have an idea of what they’d like to see, and if their point of view is criticized, they won’t appreciate it. We’ll get strong feedback,” Ouellet says.

B.C.’s many francophone organizations might expect some support by the only French broadcaster in the province. Others, like Réjean Beaulieu (nicknamed Gaulois), whose website Le Canard Réincarné monitors regularly both the work of what he calls “La Francophonie organisée” and Radio-Canada in the province, don’t hesitate to criticize our mandate in B.C.

Among reporters at Radio-Canada, Beaulieu touches on a very real debate about the broadcaster’s raison d’être. Some think our mandate is to provide provincial news in both French and English across the county, while others think the network is bilingual to support French communities in minority situations, as a way to ensure the survival of these cultural communities. In other terms, promote what is going on in francophone communities in B.C. The same is probably true with anglophone communities in Quebec.

The balancing act

I often wonder what kind of impact our attempt to report in French on local issues going on in B.C. has on the quality of the information we provide.

There are downsides to privileging French speakers, and, to a lesser extent, francophone issues. Some interesting interviews can’t be used, while occasionally interviews will be done with interviewees from the east coast who are French speakers, but not necessarily aware of everything going on in BC. On the other hand, it’s always thrilling to find a source who speaks French and with whom your listeners and viewers will be able to identify.

I haven’t quite figured out how to balance the fine line between local and national reporting, and between privileging the quality of an answer and the language the person speaks. I am a local reporter, reporting on local issues for a close-knit community, yet I often approach my stories as a foreign correspondent and try to bring my listeners into a world they might not know. Sometimes I get stories the anglophone media don’t.

But I’m always looking for people with a good grasp of French to interview. If you know of any, just let me know.

FRANCIS PLOURDE holds a graduate degree from UBC School of Journalism. He works part-time at Radio-Canada in Vancouver, where he often asks people if they speak French. The accomplishment he is the most proud of so far is snagging a phone interview with a French-speaking cab driver in Whitehorse. His writing has also appeared on The Tyee and in magazines in Montreal.

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