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Press Council's ruling flouts principle of editorial balance, Robert Hackett

Shoddy research mars FI attempt to refute NewsWatch study, Christine Krause and Scott Uzelman

Sun devotes less space to poor after Hollinger takeover, Scott Uzelman and Christine Krause


Press Council's ruling flouts principle of editorial balance

by Robert Hackett

What is freedom of the press? Whose freedom is it, and how do we best protect it?

These questions, central to democratic society, have been given fresh public relevance by the B.C. Press Council's rejection of two separate complaints against David Black, publisher of over 50 weekly newspapers in B.C. The complainants (Ted Hayes, and the B.C. government) claimed that Black was censoring democratic debate when he directed his editors last fall not to publish editorials supporting the proposed Nisga'a Treaty.

The decision suggests that the Council, funded by the newspaper industry, cannot independently judge press owners' actions, and may even have violated its own mandate to promote freedom of the press and the highest standards of journalism.

Perhaps Ontario media law professor Robert Martin was right: Press councils are "watchdogs with no bite," created by the industry to foster the illusion of self-imposed limits to "the proprietary rights of newspaper owners."

The Council argued that Black had later "clarified" his directive -- it turned out not to apply to letters to the editor, news reporting, or existing columnists -- and Black's newspapers did in fact "carry a diversity of opinion on the Nisga'a Treaty."

The actual impact of Black's edict on news and commentary in his papers is murky. Lacking independent research, the Council apparently accepted Black's words and some examples of pro-Nisga'a articles, while seemingly ignoring altogether the government's very substantial submission -- including the argument that, if there was diversity in Black's Nisga'a commentary, it was stimulated by the government's Press Council complaint itself.

The Council decision also ignores testimony about the chilling impact of Black's edict upon many of the journalists he employs. Even if Black retreated from (or "clarified") his original edict, the Council could have justifiably censured his initial attempt to centrally dictate editorial policy for dozens of papers, and even worse, to inhibit the publication of opposing views.

As an apparent fallback position, the Council also argued that "while it has become customary in Canada for the day-to-day editorial position of a newspaper to be delegated by the owner to a publisher and/or editor, the ultimate obligation and right to direct editorial policy rests with the owner."

It is a revealing statement. The ideals of balance, fairness and editorial independence in chain-owned papers are well established in North America. Responding to a 1981 federal enquiry on press concentration, owners avowed their respect for the editorial autonomy of their papers. In effect, to avoid government regulation, they promised not to abuse their potential power over the public agenda.

The Canadian Daily Newspaper Association wrote such standards into its 1977 statement of principles in phrases like these: "The operation of a newspaper is in effect a public trust, no less binding because it is not formally conferred, and its overriding responsibility is to the society which protects and provides its freedom....The newspaper keeps faith with its readers by presenting the news fairly... Fairness requires a balanced presentation...of all substantial opinions in a matter of controversy."

The Press Council's decision, however, reduces the principles of autonomy and fairness to mere "customs," and defines freedom of the press as a property right of owners.

Industry spokespeople argue that technology is a sufficient guarantee of media diversity. Why worry about the press, they say, if we have radio and the Internet?

With a few exceptions, however, these media do not rival the information-generating and public agenda-setting functions of the press. Like it or not, newspapers remain at the base of the information pyramid. Even weekly papers like Black's are important forums in rural areas.

What about consumer choice in the marketplace? Doesn't it ensure democratic diversity?

Unfortunately not. In the key information industries, unregulated "free markets" lead to concentrated ownership, oligopolies or monopolies, and diversity-reducing cross-promotion within and between conglomerates. Even in competitive markets, the commercial media are structurally weighted in favour of advertisers and affluent consumers over other social interests.

If press councils, technology and the market don't promote press accountability and diversity, then one alternative is public policy -- certainly not to censor content, but to ensure editorial autonomy in chain-owned newspapers, or better still, to diversify the structure and control of the media.

It is a democratic necessity which, unwittingly, David Black and the B.C. Press Council have helped put back on the agenda.

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Robert Hackett, associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, is co-director of NewsWatch Canada and co-author of Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the politics of objectivity. The above article was published in the Vancouver Sun, Feb. 26, 1999.


Shoddy research mars FI attempt to refute NewsWatch study

by Christine Krause and Scott Uzelman

A study by the Fraser Institute's Lydia Miljan challenged our assertion that concentrated newspaper ownership limits the diversity of viewpoints in the press, in particular progressive voices.

Unlike our own study, which examined numerous aspects of content, the FI focused on a single issue, child poverty. It's worth noting that the Fraser Forum article in which the flawed study first appeared was reprinted almost word-for-word in the Calgary Herald (January 9, 1999), while our work has not been reported by any Canadian daily newspaper.

The report begins by misrepresenting the results of our study (reported in the related article). Miljan begins by asserting that we argue "that the (Sun) is more business-oriented now..." Our findings indicate that there was more business news in 1997 than in 1987 and this news has moved from the news section to the business section. This finding suggests that business items are now being written for investors rather than citizens as a whole.

The increase in business news also coincided with a decrease in labour news. On the whole, the Sun tended to frame business in a positive light and labour in a more negative light: most labour news was focused on business-labour disputes.

Miljan claims that "it does not necessarily follow that more business news is less balanced news." Our research, supported by other academic research, shows that articles in the business section are fundamentally different from those in the news sections of newspapers. Standards of objectivity are applied less rigorously in business section reporting in that responding or critical sources from outside the business community are rarely consulted.

When Miljan turns her attention to our poverty study (see above), the lack of attention to detail that marks much of the Fraser Institute's research begins to show. She notes our main findings that poverty coverage declined between 1988 and 1997 and that stories portraying the poor as threatening or undeserving increased noticeably. Miljan then goes on to state: "What the students did not explain is the kind of attention poverty received. Who were the sources? Were those sources challenged? What prescriptions for change were offered?"

It appears that Miljan did not consult our study, or else chose to ignore its findings, demonstrating a surprising level of shoddy and lazy research. We did indeed examine sources and how they were framed. One table in the report enumerates the sources cited in 1988 and 1997, as we reported in the related story. The table also indicates which groups were presented as "defining' sources:" which groups set the terms of debate.

In her own study, Miljan compared the Toronto Star to the Hollinger-owned Calgary Herald over a one-year period (August 1997 to June 1998), finding that the Star contained over twice as much coverage of child poverty as the Herald. The key finding, according to Miljan, was that the Star "uncritically accepted" the use of Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut Off Line as a measure of poverty, while the Herald was more apt to challenge the use of LICO and provide a voice for those trumpeting the Fraser Institute's Basic Needs Index.

This, she says, is proof that the Herald gives a more balanced view of child poverty. But what the study amounts to is a Fraser Institute complaint that the Toronto Star does not report often enough on its own definition of poverty, hardly a disinterested approach.

Calling a 'balanced view' one that reports positively on its own ideologically driven characterization; critiquing NewsWatch Canada's study without reading it or reporting its results: the Fraser Institute's modus operandi becomes clearer all the time.


Sun devotes less space to poor after Hollinger takeover

by Scott Uzelman and Christine Krause

What sort of news and editorial content can Canadians expect to see when over 60% of Canadian dailies are controlled by a notorious conservative? NewsWatch Canada's annual student seminar sought to address this question by examining Conrad Black's Vancouver Sun. We compared the pre-Hollinger, pre-Black Sun, to the post-1996 Hollinger-controlled Sun.

In October 1998, we published the results of one part of our study: how does a Southam paper (the Vancouver Sun) cover its corporate owner? The answer? With kid gloves. Conrad Black and Hollinger have an easier ride at the Vancouver Sun than do other major media corporations, and the Sun has become more supportive and less critical of Black and Hollinger since they took over Southam.

This issue of the NewsWatch Monitor looks at the Sun's coverage of a particularly troubling social issue - poverty. We found that the overall coverage of poverty declined between 1988 and 1997, a decline that is not commensurate with the reality of poverty in Canada. Moreover, there has been a noticeable increase in stories that portray the poor as threatening or undeserving of aid.

According to Statistics Canada, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in B.C. increased from 15% in 1988 to nearly 18% in 1996. This, however, is not the impression the Sun gives. In 1988, an average of 1.6 items per day dealt with poverty issues. In the Hollinger era, this number declined to an average of one article daily.

It's also worth noting how poverty related articles were dispersed over the calendar year. In 1988, more items were published in December than in any other month. In fact, over 30% of the articles on poverty were found in the two-month lead-up to the year's busiest shopping days. In 1997, we found only 14% of the year's items in this same two-month period.

These findings may be reflective of a concern for advertising dollars: reading about the suffering of the poor just isn't conducive to creating the buying frame of mind favoured by merchants during the Christmas season.

One striking finding was the dramatic decline in stories involving charities (down from 19% in 1988 to nearly zero in 1997). At the same time, there was a marked increase in stories related to welfare fraud, drugs and crime.

Also of note was an increase in articles devoted to poverty measurement (zero in 1988 to nearly 6% in 1997). In the 1990s, the Fraser Institute began a campaign to replace Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut Off Line with the Fraser Institute's Basic Needs Index as a definitive measure of poverty. Such a move would drastically reduce estimates of poverty in Canada. (See the following article for a related story.)

Because the sources used by reporters shape news by promoting particular perspectives and definitions of social reality, we also tracked which groups were used as sources in poverty stories. We found an increasing reliance on political, social and economic elites or "authoritative sources."

Government officials (up from 41% to 50%), business people (up from 12% to 21%) and academics (up from 2% to 8%), not only increased in frequency but also were more apt to define the issue or set the terms of debate in the post-Hollinger Sun than in the 1988 paper.

This increase in authoritative sources was accompanied by an increase in unaffiliated sources (up from 21% to 37%). It is unclear if these "person-on-the-street" sources gave the poor increased access to the media, or whether the Sun focused on individuals, drawing attention away from the systemic factors that contribute to poverty.

Part of the answer may lie in the modest decline in the number of stories in which advocacy groups for the poor were accessed as sources. In 1988, advocacy groups such as End Legislative Poverty were the most frequently quoted source (43%), declining to 38% in 1997.

Also of note is the decline in the quality of access given to groups working on behalf of the poor. In the pre-Hollinger Sun, advocacy groups set the tone of the story (called defining sources) in 33% of poverty-related items. By 1997, they acted as defining sources in less than 25% of items. These findings suggest that organized critiques of the systemic factors that create poverty are receiving less attention in the Hollinger version of the Sun.

As a final qualitative aspect of the study, we looked at how the poor were portrayed. In both years, the poor were pictured as individuals at the mercy of social and economic circumstances beyond their control. The percentage of stories of this type, however, declined from 76% in 1988 to 68% in 1997. At the same time, the number of articles in which the poor were portrayed as lacking the incentive to work, or threatening the public purse, rose from 11% in 1988 to 17% in 1997.

Our findings suggest that the paper has taken on a more conservative and less compassionate approach to people living in poverty. Poverty is on the rise in Canada, but the amount of coverage the Vancouver Sun devotes to this problem has declined. This is disconcerting because, as media analyst Bernard Cohen has pointed out, "although the media can't tell people what to think, they can tell people what to think about."

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Christine Krause and Scott Uzelman were participants in the NewsWatch Canada Question the Sun! study.

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