Why democracy needs public broadcasting, Robert Hackett
Unequal contest 2: think tanks in the news, Donald Gutstein
Unequal contest: business and labour in two Canadian dailies, Adam Schachhuber, with Megan Adam and Megan Goodacre
As the debate on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's future continues, most recently in response to the plan to cut back on regional television news service, its funding and very legitimacy are under siege. From the muzzling of Terry Milewski's APEC protest reporting to the proposal for an Ottawa-based executive to oversee information programming, CBC's arm's length relationship with government, essential to its credibility, is being eroded.
Private broadcasters, cable companies and advertisers would like to see more of CBC privatized, downsized, or commercialized. Their interests differ, but they would all diminish CBC as a distinctive force in Canadian broadcasting.
Meanwhile, free-market ideologues in the press and policy institutes pound a steady drumbeat: CBC journalism is either biased, or needlessly duplicates private broadcasting. Local news is one area they often target for elimination.
CBC's advocates reply, rightly, that private broadcasters have done less than CBC to report the world from a Canadian perspective, or to explain the regions of Canada to each other.
Less often heard is an equally important rationale for public journalism -- its role in nurturing political democracy. One requirement for a genuinely democratic society is a communication system which helps sustain both an informed citizenry, and adequate opportunity for diverse and (sometimes) antagonistic interests to contribute to public debate.
A democracy should ensure that the wealthy couldn't unduly influence media and thus political agendas -- as arguably is the case in the U.S. Democratic journalism would also remind us of what we have in common, and provide an arena (a "public sphere") for discussing matters of common concern.
Suppose we didn't have public broadcasting. Could we rely on the private broadcasters and press to provide a democratically representative public sphere?
Not likely. The private media have played a constructive role in states emerging from one-party systems, but in an oligopolistic, commercialized media system such as ours, press freedom can too easily be reduced to a property right of media owners. A commercial system favours affluent consumers (whom advertisers most want to reach) over the less well-heeled. It also favours consumerism over other social values, including those of the democratic public sphere. Indeed, the experience of deregulation in the U.S. suggests that left to their own devices, many private broadcasters wouldn't bother to offer news and public affairs programming at all.
The newer user-pay broadcasting and online information services similarly cater disproportionately to affluent subscribers. Its interactivity gives the Internet great democratic potential, but it is increasingly being colonized by brand-name commercial players who have little interest in providing a universally accessible electronic meeting place for Canadians. And those commercial media (like talk radio or down-market tabloids) which do reach "popular" audiences tend too readily towards shrillness and knee-jerk authoritarianism -- when they offer public affairs programming at all.
Commercial news media have another limitation, particularly at the local level. They are too vulnerable to providing soft coverage of advertisers themselves. Indeed, the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington DC, and the Institute for Alternative Journalism in San Francisco, have documented dozens of cases of outright censorship (for example, spiked exposes of car dealer scams) throughout America's highly commercialized news system.
Commercial biases are amplified by concentrated and conglomerate corporate ownership, well- advanced in the press (with a single company, Hollinger, owning a majority of Canada's dailies), and increasing in broadcasting. News organizations tend to cover themselves, and the ever- extending interests of their parent corporations, warily and not well. The ideological agendas of influence-seeking press barons like Conrad Black, combined simply with economic rationalization within major media chains, reduces overall press diversity.
At Simon Fraser University, NewsWatch Canada's research points to the resulting double standards in press coverage -- for instance, in favour of pro-corporate spokespeople and policy options over their labour and progressive counterparts. (See accompanying articles.) Some critics even suggest that hyper-commercialism and corporate concentration are threatening the institutional basis for independent, public affairs-oriented journalism.
At its best, CBC's journalism can counterbalance these limitations. While audience fragmentation is a problem for all networks, CBC's national news programs continue to set broadcast journalism's standards. At the local level, even with decimated resources, CBC journalism can still offer a distinct voice.
To take one area with which I am familiar -- coverage of the media industries themselves. In the past three years, local CBC TV and (especially) radio have broken stories or given in-depth treatment to issues which most of the corporate media avoided: Hollinger's donation to the B.C. Liberal party in the 1996 provincial election; Southam's takeover of the Victoria Times-Colonist; David Black's edict requiring his 50-plus weeklies in B.C. to take a common editorial position on the Nisga'a treaty; and NewsWatch Canada's own research report on the Vancouver Sun. Without CBC and the independently-owned urban weekly Georgia Straight, many of these stories might not have been brought to public light.
Of course, CBC's journalism is hardly perfect. Its own audiences tend to be upscale and demographically unrepresentative; it could do more to counteract the gender and class bias of the voices accessed in other "quality" media. CBC needs to find more ways to speak in a popular voice without descending into tabloid journalism.
Moreover, CBC needs a secure funding base, and a less partisan mechanism for appointing directors, to reduce its vulnerability to political and commercial pressures. Increased advertising is not the answer. The quest for sponsor-driven demographics would undermine the rationale for CBC's existence.
Instead, we should go the opposite route -- reduce advertising, thus appeasing private broadcasters who see CBC as an unfairly subsidized competitor for ad revenue; but impose a dedicated tax on advertising to finance public broadcasting and not-for-profit community media. They can help meet democratic communication needs distorted or ignored by the corporate media.
The Free Marketeers are right about one thing: there's no point subsidizing CBC to duplicate private broadcasting. For them, that means eliminating CBC's local news, and much else. But the opposite conclusion can more sensibly be drawn: CBC's regional journalism needs to be strengthened, not to duplicate the private broadcasters, but to counterbalance them.
Robert Hackett is a professor of communication and co-director of NewsWatch Canada at Simon Fraser University.
If sources make the news and news sets the public agenda, as some media researchers argue, then whoever gets to be a source on an ongoing basis will undoubtedly influence what we think is important in life. (It is well established that news media cannot tell us what to think but they do an excellent job of telling us what to think about.)
A recent NewsWatch Canada study examined right- and left-wing think tanks as sources in seven Canadian dailies (during February and March 1998). We found that right-wing institutes were mentioned 304 times while those on the left received 78 mentions, for a ratio of almost 4 to 1.
Most unbalanced in its coverage was the Toronto Sun with 29 right to one left source; most balanced the Toronto Star (43 right to 34 left). Thomson and Hollinger papers were clustered in between. The Globe and Mail, for example, contained 72 right to 30 left, the Ottawa Citizen 42 right to 10 left.
Further analysis shows the disparity to be both not as bad and worse than our overall findings. Not as bad because much coverage of right-wing groups occurs in the business pages, where pro-business perspectives would be expected to dominate. In the news section, the disparity is not as great, with the right outgunning the left 2.2 to 1. The front page was even more balanced: right and left were almost equal -- 13 right to 10 left sources.
But when we look at the opinion and editorial pages (columns, editorials, opinion pieces) we find a repetition of the disparity -- mentions of the right outnumber those of the left 3 to 1. And 20 editorials -- strong indicators of a paper's ideological slant -- mentioned a right-wing group compared to 4 left-wing group mentions.
Some editorialists and columnists used statistics provided by right-wing policy institutes to support their arguments, in effect providing an authoritative voice for these institutes to express their views. In a piece titled "This Budgetıs not my Battle" (Feb. 24, 1998, p. 15) Toronto Sun columnist John Downing used figures about the federal debt provided by the right-wing Canada West Foundation to buttress his claim that the governmentıs primary fiscal concern should be debt reduction. He did not specify how Canada West generated its numbers, nor even acknowledge that there are several ways to calculate the debt.
The findings of our study correspond to previous findings that right-wing policy institutes receive greater access to news media than institutes on the left. This gives right-wing outfits greater opportunity to set the political agenda and influence public debate.
Did the appearance of the National Post on the media scene do anything to redress the balance between right and left? In a word -- no.
In its first nine months of publication, the Post favoured right over left by a margin of 3.6 to 1. The Post rolled out the red carpet for the Fraser Institute, mentioning it in 60 articles. In contrast, the CCPA received 5 mentions. We leave you to do the math.
And we wonder if the fact that National Post president David Radler is a Fraser Institute trustee might have anything to do with this astonishingly unbalanced coverage.
Donald Gutstein is a professor of communication and co-director of NewsWatch Canada at Simon Fraser University.
Researchers: Nathan Elliot, Denise Hall, Jody Patsch, Wendy Sam
Adam Schachhuber, with Megan Adam and Megan Goodacre
Conrad Black's anti-labour views are well known. He called the Calgary Herald strike an "attempted left-wing coup d'etat conducted by socialistic Neanderthals." But are his views reflected in the coverage of Canadian industrial relations by his papers? Do workers receive short shrift and corporations kid-glove treatment in the newspapers owned by Black?
NewsWatch Canada_s recent study of business and labour coverage in the Hollinger-owned Vancouver Sun and the reputedly liberal, non-Hollinger Toronto Star sheds some light on this question. We found that not only did business concerns receive vastly more coverage than labour issues in the Sun, stories about business were more favourable and less antagonistic than those about workers and their organizations. The pattern was not much better in the Star: it was more balanced in its coverage of labour but even friendlier to business than was the Sun.
Typical of Sun reporting is this article: "GM has lost customers because of labour strife, official says: company's marketing chief claims it will be October before sales recover from the walkouts at its plants in Flint, Michigan" (Vancouver Sun, 8 August 1998).
Compare that story with one in the Star: "A long postal strike will spell disaster for the Canadian economy, business leaders say" (Toronto Star, 11 Nov. 1997). It quoted no labour sources, contained no critical or counterbalancing sources of any kind, nor mentioned any details of the strike, even though it was a long article. Instead the story combined sources from business and charities in a chorus of condemnation of the union and the strike. This suggests that Conrad Black's attitudes aren't the only factor contributing to a pro-business, anti-labour climate in the pages of Canada_s major dailies. In our sample of 517 articles drawn from the business and news sections of the two dailies, business was four times more likely to receive positive than negative coverage; while labour was twice as likely to receive negative than positive coverage.
Articles with positive business themes -- those presenting business uncritically or sympathetically, or favouring business in dealings with unions and governments -- accounted for 30 per cent of all items in the sample.
Articles with negative business themes -- typically stories covering corruption or business failures - - made up 9.3 per cent of articles. Most of these charted the declining fortunes of Bre-X and Livent and were written in a riches-to-rags style emphasizing the ignoble downfalls of the main players. Though common, these stories were outnumbered by positive articles by a margin of three to one and did little to counterbalance the general enthusiasm extended to business at both papers.
Negative coverage of organized labour -- generally, stories emphasizing the negative impacts of union activity or portraying unions and their members as unreasonable or combative -- accounted for seven per cent of all articles, while positive stories about labour accounted for only 3.5 per cent of all stories in the sample. The Star was fairer in its coverage of unions than the Sun, carrying nearly as many positive as negative labour pieces, but this even-handedness was drowned by the plethora of business stories over the same period. The Sun was determinedly anti-labour, with six negative stories for every positive one.
Our study confirmed previous research which found that industrial conflict is the most newsworthy labour topic. Forty-six per cent of labour stories in the news sections of the two papers were about strikes, lockouts or other job actions. These articles were often framed in militaristic terms and emphasized chaos and disruption over negotiation and conciliation. One-third of industrial conflict stories focussed on service disruptions and the effects of strikes on profitability and productivity. In contrast, only one in 12 articles emphasized the effects of lost wages on workers.
The voice of business was more likely to be heard than that of labour in the pages of both the Sun and the Star. Business spokespeople were present in 52.6 per cent of all stories in the sample, while labour sources appeared in only 15.5 per cent. Business sources appeared in a wider range of stories, were afforded more opportunities to comment, provided more defining quotes and were less likely to be contradicted than labour spokespersons.
Business sources were more likely to appear in a central role in a story. The use of sources in a defining position -- early in a story, and providing the story's dominant frame of reference -- is a good indicator of the story's point of view. We found that business leaders occupied this privileged role in more than four times as many stories as labour leaders. For both papers, business leaders defined stories 33.9 per cent of the time, while labour sources defined only 7.9 per cent. In the Vancouver Sun, the ratio was 6 to 1; in the Toronto Star 3.5 to 1.
Business and public sector employers were also more likely to define stories on industrial conflict than were union spokespeople and rank-and-file workers, suggesting that reporters at the Sun and Star looked to management for the 'facts' and regarded labour as the source of 'action' in labour disputes.
Both papers relied on military terms and emphasized chaos in their reporting on industrial conflict: "Mob storms seniors project: striking drywallers blamed for attack on construction site" (Toronto Star, 26 May 1998).
In light of the unbalanced and unfair coverage of working people and their unions in the two papers, it's clear that both the Sun and the Star need labour reporters and even labour sections to counterbalance their extensive and lop-sided business reporting.