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Vancouver Sun's coverage acid test of owner's influence, Donald Gutstein

Paper's coverage of think tanks favours one on the right


Vancouver Sun's coverage acid test of owner's influence

by Donald Gutstein
Fall 1998

With nearly two-thirds of Canada's daily newspapers in the grip of one man, Canadians in every major city (with the exception of Toronto, at least for several more months) need to know if ownership affects news content. In 1998, NewsWatch Canada addressed this question in our annual student seminar. We selected one Conrad Black paper, The Vancouver Sun, because we live in Vancouver, but we could undertake similar research for any major Canadian daily. The fundamental strategy was to compare the Sun's coverage of important topics before and after the Black takeover.

How does the Sun cover business and labour? How did it cover the 1986 and 1996 BC elections? How does it cover social issues such as poverty? Which sources does the Sun give access to and which does it freeze out? And finally, how does the Sun cover its own corporate owner, Conrad Black and his holding company, Hollinger? This is the acid test of ownership influence.

Our conclusions? Conrad Black and Hollinger have an easier ride at the Vancouver Sun than do other major media corporations; Black and Hollinger receive more sympathetic treatment at the Sun than they do at the Toronto Star; and their treatment at the Sun has become more supportive and less critical since they took over the Southam chain.

The research plan

We took a three-pronged approach in our research. We first compared the Sun's recent coverage of Black-Hollinger with its coverage of other major Canadian media tycoons and their companies over the same time period. This would alert us to differences in reporting on those companies. Next, we compared Vancouver Sun reporting on Black-Hollinger with that of the Toronto Star, one of Canada's few major dailies not owned by Black. This would indicate gaps in the Sun's coverage of its owner.

Finally, we compared Sun reporting on Black-Hollinger after Black gained majority control of Southam with Sun coverage before Black was involved. This would indicate if the Sun has changed in the way it covers Hollinger. We used content analysis in each of the study's three parts, analyzing the text of all articles published during specific time periods.

To avoid an overly complex process, we studied only the headline and lead sentence of each article in the sample. Due to the inverted pyramid style of news reporting, it has long been recognized that the most important messages in an article are found there.

We coded each article for tycoon/company, subject, location in the paper, story origin (staff or wire service) and tone (supportive, critical or neutral). Through such a triangulation of approaches, we hoped to gain clear and unambiguous answers to the question of self-coverage.

The first study

Our first study asked the question, "Is a news organization more favourable to or less critical of its own parent company than other companies in similar industries?" We analyzed Sun articles on Hollinger, Rogers Communications, Thomson Corp., and Western International Communications (WIC), and their controlling shareholders, between May 1, 1996 and Apr. 30, 1997. For our sample we used Canadian News Disk, a full-text database of major daily newspapers. We excluded articles from further analysis if the headline and lead paragraph did not contain the company or person name; e.g., if Conrad Black was merely mentioned in passing somewhere within the article. We then looked at the tone of the remaining articles towards the companies and their high-profile owners. Were the articles supportive, critical or neutral?

We defined articles as being supportive in tone if the headline and lead sentence convey positive implications towards the subject or report profits as increasing ("Hollinger quarterly profits increase to $26.6 million: Revenue during the same period rose to $429 million from $356 million a year earlier, the company reports").

Articles were critical when the headline and lead sentence show negative implications towards the subject, report profits as diminishing, or display doubts with negative implications ("Watching television could cost a little more next spring for the 2.6 million subscribers served by Rogers Cablesystems Ltd."). Articles were classified as neutral when the headline and lead sentence display neither positive nor negative implications towards the subject ("Rogers completes cable sale").

Two researchers coded every story and if disputes arose, they recorded the differences in their logbook and then decided together.

The results show that:

  • The Sun was most supportive of Black-Hollinger and least supportive of Griffiths-WIC. Nearly 20% of Hollinger stories, 11% of stories on Rogers and Thomson, and about 7% of WIC stories were supportive in tone.
  • Hollinger received almost as much supportive as critical coverage, while the other three companies received about three times as much critical as supportive coverage.
  • All articles critical of Hollinger were located ("buried") inside the News or Business sections, except for two letters to the editor on the op/ed pages. By contrast, all three other companies, especially WIC, received critical stories on the front page of one or another section.

Indeed, WIC was the only company to receive critical coverage on the Sun's front page. One article, for instance, was headlined "Shareholders battle over WIC: Holders of non-voting shares rebuked the Griffiths family for managing the firm for their own apparent gain" (Jan. 9, 1997, A1).

Meanwhile, the only front-page story about Hollinger was positively titled "Hollinger doubles stake in Southam: Hollinger seeks to increase holdings in the group," and the lead sentence read, "Press magnate Conrad Black's Hollinger Inc. moved to increase its already-formidable presence in Canada's newspaper industry" (Apr. 9, 1997, A1).

Comparing the Toronto Star

While the first part of the study reveals differences in the Sun's coverage of major media organizations, it does not indicate if these differences are due to Sun editorial decisions. Perhaps all Canadian news media, both Hollinger and non-Hollinger, bury bad news about Hollinger in the inside pages. To check this possibility, we next turned to a major non-Hollinger urban daily, the Toronto Star. How did it cover Hollinger in comparison with the Sun? We analyzed the headline and lead sentence of articles about Hollinger-Black in The Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star from May 1, 1996 to Apr. 30, 1997. Our findings indicate:

  • The Sun contained 35% more articles about Hollinger-Black than did the Star.
  • The Star had proportionately almost twice as many articles critical of Black-Hollinger as the Sun -- over 42% of Star articles were critical while 23% of Sun articles were critical.
  • Items critical of Black-Hollinger had a better chance of appearing on a front page in the Star (12%) than in the Sun (zero). As mentioned, the only front-page story Hollinger received in the Sun was supportive.
  • Supportive articles comprised nearly 16% of all Black-Hollinger items in the Star and 20% in the Sun, while neutral articles comprised nearly 42% and 58%, respectively.
  • The Star published 5 critical op/ed pieces (including letters) for every one supportive of Black-Hollinger. By contrast, the Sun ran 2.5 supportive op/ed pieces for each one critical of Black-Hollinger.

The Star published twice as many items as the Sun showing organized opposition to Black's takeover of Southam. These 15 items include reports about the Council of Canadians' attempts to legally challenge the takeover on the grounds of concentration of media ownership and the threat to democratic freedom of expression; the federal government's plans to review the Black-Hollinger bid in relation to competition policy; and a Saskatchewan independent daily launched to counter Hollinger newspaper hegemony in that province.

The Sun ran seven items indicating that there was any opposition to Black-Hollinger's ownership of Southam.

Of five supportive editorials in the Sun, one was written by Conrad Black himself and another by his wife Barbara Amiel, Hollinger's vice-president of editorial. Black's editorial appeared in all Southam papers on October 26, 1996, rebuking a CBC news documentary about his ownership practices. This editorial is an example of how Black involves himself in the content of his newspapers.

There is likely a problem when one man has the power to order his views printed in over half of Canada's major daily newspapers. Indeed, recognizing an extraordinary situation when they saw one, Toronto Star editors turned Black's editorializing into a news event, and ran a story the same day titled "Black uses papers to rebut 'smear': Southam editors told to publish criticism of CBC."

From where does coverage of Black-Hollinger originate? We found that two-thirds of Black-Hollinger coverage at the Star came from staff reporters, in contrast to only one-quarter at the Sun, where three-quarters of Black-Hollinger coverage originated with newswire services. There are three possible explanations for this finding. First, as part of a chain that is moving increasingly towards the standardization of news, the Sun may make greater use of its newswire services, including Southam News, for content.

Second, the geographical location of the two newspapers may affect their ability to cover Black-Hollinger with staff reporters. This possibility is suggested by the Sun's coverage of WIC: staff reporters are responsible for nearly 90% of WIC stories. WIC's head office is located in Vancouver. Similarly, Black-Hollinger is based in Toronto, the Star's own stomping ground.

A third possibility is that Sun editors may be wary of covering Conrad Black with their own reporters. Perhaps Sun editors and journalists are reluctant to cover their parent company, preferring to let newswire copy do the talking? Our overall study would appear to suggest that this may be the case, particularly since our findings clearly show that the Sun is more likely to run critical stories on Rogers, Thomson or WIC than on Black-Hollinger. However, we need to do more research before we can draw firm conclusions.

Before and after the takeover

In the third part of our study, our goal was to analyze Sun coverage of Black-Hollinger for two time periods: Jan. 1, 1985 to Dec. 31, 1990, when Hollinger had no shares in Southam; and May 1, 1996 to Apr. 30, 1997, after Hollinger took control of Southam.

We had to use the Canadian Business and Current Affairs database for this part of the study, since Canadian News Disk begins only with 1993. There are two problems with the CBCA database. First, it is an index only, not a full-text database, meaning that the computer can search only the item's headline and subject as prescribed by CBCA indexers. If Hollinger or Black don't appear in either of these fields, the item won't be retrieved. Second, and more important, not every item appearing in a paper is entered into the database. CBCA editorial staff select articles for the database that in their view have "significant reference value." This search and selection process accounts for the small sample -- 14 items for the first period and 25 for the second -- and consequently limits the validity of the study. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive. They indicate that:

  • Critical coverage of Black-Hollinger declined, and supportive coverage increased, between the 1980s and 1996-97. In the pre-takeover period, nearly 43% of Sun articles were critical of Black-Hollinger, more than twice as many as in the post-takeover period with 20%.
  • The proportion of supportive articles increased more than seven times, from 7% in the first period to close to 52% in the second.
  • Articles neutral in tone were cut nearly in half, from 50% before the takeover to 28% after the takeover.

Conclusions

Overall, the findings suggest an imbalance of reporting at the Sun, with preferential treatment given to Conrad Black and Hollinger. Ownership influence is evident in coverage of the news organization's own parent company.

Our findings suggest that even without direct ownership pressure, Sun journalists and editors are likely to be more cautious in their reporting of their newspaper's owner. Critical coverage of Hollinger declined, and supportive coverage increased after the takeover. Hollinger had almost as much supportive as critical coverage during the post-takeover period, while other major Canadian news media companies received almost three times as much negative as positive coverage.

All articles critical of Hollinger were located inside the News or Business sections. None appeared on front pages. By contrast, other major news media companies, especially WIC, did have front-page negative items. During the 1996-to-1997 period, the Toronto Star had almost twice as many articles critical of Hollinger than the Vancouver Sun.

Additionally, the Sun had more supportive and neutral articles than did the Star. Critical items about Hollinger had a better chance of appearing on a Toronto Star front page than at the Vancouver Sun. Two-thirds of Hollinger coverage at the Star came from staff reporters, in contrast to only one-quarter at the Sun.

Given that Conrad Black now owns more than half of Canada's daily newspaper circulation, Canadians are becoming less likely to receive balanced reporting on one of Canada's most influential figures -- himself.

Researchers: Ilona H. Jackson, Patsy Kotsopoulos, Darren Seath


Paper's coverage of think tanks favours one on the right

Fall 1998

On Feb. 4, 1998, The Vancouver Sun reported a study about Canada's youth unemployment by the Fraser Institute, Canada's leading right-wing think tank. A week later, the Sun reported on the Alternative Federal Budget prepared jointly by CHOICES, a Winnipeg-based social-action coalition, and by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the leading left-wing think tank.

The treatment afforded the two think tanks was quite different. First was story location. The Fraser Institute story ran on the front page of the business section; the CCPA report was placed on page A8, in the middle of the front section. It ran with a large picture of Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin, which called attention to the story but also contradicted its theme.

The two think tanks were identified differently. The Fraser Institute was first mentioned in the sub-heading: "The real problem lies with young people with low-levels of education, Fraser Institute study says." The name was mentioned again in the lead paragraph: "... according to a Fraser Institute study released today," and in paragraphs five and six.

In contrast, the CCPA was mentioned just once, buried in paragraph 10 in reference to "Jim Stanford, economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives." It wasn't made clear that the CCPA was a co-author of the alternative budget.

The greatest difference lay in the way the organizations were labeled. The Fraser Institute was called, simply, "a Vancouver-based free-market think tank" in the second paragraph. The CCPA was called a "left-wing coalition" in the story headline, a "bloc" in the sub-headline ("The bloc also urges Martin ..." -- Soviet bloc? Bloc Quebecois?), "socialists" in the lead paragraph, and a "coalition of left-wing groups" in the second paragraph.

In paragraph three, the Sun informed its readers that "beneath that new wrapping, the 40 national and local community, environmental, labour and other groups remain true to their left-wing roots." The Fraser Institute, in contrast, was not a right-wing group, was not a coalition of capitalists, did not have right-wing roots, nor did it have new wrapping or indeed wrapping of any kind.

Other papers referred to the CCPA more even-handedly as an "anti-poverty lobby" (Montreal Gazette), and "policy group" (Toronto Star).

Are these differences systematic? We compared Vancouver Sun coverage of the Fraser Institute and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for all of 1997. The Fraser Institute appeared in 94 articles, CCPA in 39, giving FI a 2.4-to-1 advantage over CCPA. While disparate, this ratio is an improvement over previous years. A computer search of the Sun's database in early 1997 found 690 references to the Fraser Institute and 49 references to the CCPA over the previous ten years, yielding a ratio of 14 to 1 (Robert Sarti, "New competitor challenges Fraser Institute's influence," Feb. 8, 1997, A18). The CCPA's improved coverage is likely due to the opening of a Vancouver CCPA office in 1997. Nonetheless, a substantial imbalance remains.

The two institutes were treated similarly in some ways. They appeared in the various sections of the paper (News, Business, Editorial, Saturday Review) in roughly equal proportion. Approximately the same percentage of their articles were news items. One interesting difference was that the CCPA was more likely to be mentioned in opinion pieces (usually in columns written by CCPA associates), but was not mentioned in columns by Sun columnists, nor were there any letters to the editor or editorials about the CCPA. The Fraser Institute, in contrast, appeared in all these genres.

The CCPA and FI were allowed to define issues (rather than merely responding to them) in about the same proportion of cases. And they were both given voice most frequently in stories about the role of government and the market in the economy (FI in 36.2% of its stories, CCPA in 28.2% of its stories).

There were, however, significant differences in story topic. Compared to the Fraser Institute, more of the CCPA's stories were about social programs, employment, debt/deficit and globalization. It must be remembered, though, that because there were fewer stories about the CCPA, even when it had a higher percentage of stories, as in social programs (CCPA 12.8% to FI's 8.5%), the FI still had more stories (8 to 5).

The FI was given coverage in a wider range of topics, and was successful in obtaining coverage for two of its controversial campaigns -- redefining poverty and changing environmental priorities.

Additional differences were found when we examined only news stories (leaving out editorial and commentary items), which comprised 43.6% (or 17) of CCPA items, and 44.7% (or 42) of FI stories.

The Fraser Institute was more than twice as likely as CCPA to have its publications or studies mentioned in its news items. CCPA research was mentioned in only 4 stories, 3 about the Alternative Federal Budget and one about protecting public pensions. FI research was mentioned in 24 news stories, for a ratio of 6 to 1 over the CCPA.

The Sun reported on FI studies about government-sponsored job-training programs, growth of the underground economy, government over-regulation of the economy, declining family earnings, economic freedom, tax freedom day, hospital wait lists, tax burden, and so on.

One reason for the disparity could be that the Fraser Institute's funding advantage allows it to carry out more research and to promote that research more effectively than the CCPA.

Seven stories mentioned both CCPA and FI, meaning that the FI appeared in 41.2 per cent of stories reporting on the CCPA, while the CCPA appeared in only 16.7 per cent of stories reporting on the FI. The Fraser Institute was far more likely to appear by itself, with no countering CCPA perspective.

In summary, the CCPA has enjoyed increased access in numbers of items, and in how they are framed, but there is still a wide disparity between it and its right-wing rival, the Fraser Institute.


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