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APRIL 30, 1997

Canadian Media Still Binging on Foreign Junk Food News

WINDSOR ONT. - American and other international news stories dominated the second annual Canadian "Junk Food News" list for 1996, judged by a national panel of professors and journalists, for NewsWatch Canada.

Four American, three international ones, two British and one lone Canadian story made the top ten list: Fergie, Robbie, Michael, Madonna, Diane, the Macarena, OJ, the deficit, cyberporn and life on Mars.

Britain's Dutchess Sarah Ferguson, with her financial woes and autobiography My Story, claimed top honours, pushing last year's winner, O.J. Simpson, down to seventh place.

Baltimore Orioles baseball player Roberto Alomar came a close second amongst the "sensationalized, personalized and homogenized inconsequential trivia" which makes up the list. Alomar received a short suspension for spitting on an umpire, in 1996.

Pop star Michael Jackson, who divorced Lisa Presley and married Debbie Rowe-Jackson in 1996, came third.

Jackson was closely followed on the list by fellow pop star Madonna, with her pregnancy and baby girl, Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon. "This produced a steady stream of news which was remarkably void of any significance," according to Dr. James Winter, who co-ordinated the Junk Food News project at the University of Windsor. "An example was how Madonna's first cravings included poached eggs in her fourth month," professor Winter said.

Lady Di came fifth, with the Royal Divorce from Prince Charles and her financial settlement.

In sixth place was the Macarena dance craze, which even made it to the Morning Smile of the Globe and Mail, Canada's erstwhile national daily.

O.J. Simpson's civil trial landed him in seventh spot, compared to first spot for his criminal trial last year.

The sole Canadian story was the deficit hysteria. About 2300 stories about the deficit filled Canadian newspapers during the year. "The deficit stories helped to whip up hysteria and to justify social program cuts," said professor Winter.

The number nine story was "Cyberporn," the supposed dangers posed by the availability of pornography on the Internet.

Claims of life on Mars rounded out the top ten list. A NASA-based research group said there was strong evidence of life on Mars 3.6 billion years ago, but that evidence turned out to be inconclusive.

Professor Winter said "Junk Food News is emphasized because it's cheap and it diverts our attention from matters of importance in our lives."

"It's easier to focus on celebrities. What needs to be explained? Just run the latest photo, think up a cute headline like 'Mama Madonna,' and pile in the trivia," Dr. Winter said.

"Control by people like Conrad Black means the news media are increasingly focussed on the bottom line. This cal-list'news' is cheap and it's profitable," Winter said. "But, it's infotainment. It's McNews. News Lite. They're filling the newspapers and broadcasts with it, and the notion of an informed citizenry and democracy itself is suffering as a result."

Professor Winter said people do want serious news, but they're not getting it because it's not as profitable for owners. "You have to send someone over to East Timor, okay? They're not going to do that. It's easier just to run the wire service story on Bre-X Minerals and you've got Indonesia covered."

The predominance of American and foreign news is ironic given longstanding concerns over Canadian culture, and cutbacks to the CBC, Dr. Winter said.

"It's a pathetic comment on the state of Canadian culture when even our news trivia is American."

Junk Food News generally falls into one of four categories: an important story covered in a sensational manner, with skimpy investigation of the underlying issues (O.J.); a trivial story that receives more coverage than it deserves (Lady Di, Jackson, Alomar); a superficial approach to a story that ignores more complete information about the same subject (deficit); or an advertisement in disguise (Fergie, Macarena).

NewsWatch Canada, (formerly Project Censored Canada), undertakes independent research on the diversity and thoroughness of news coverage in Canada's media, with a focus on identifying blindspots and double-standards. Now in its fourth year, the research project involves the communication schools at the University of Windsor and Simon Fraser University. The project was initiated in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Journalists. It is coordinated by professors James Winter, Robert Hackett, and Donald Gutstein.

NewsWatch Canada shortly will be releasing its annual report on Blindspots in the news media.

Top Ten Junk Food News Stories, 1996
(With number of newspaper stories located in a Canada Newsdisc computer search in brackets)

1. Lady Sarah Ferguson (430)
2. Roberto Alomar spits on umpire (340)
3. Michael Jackson gets divorced, re-married (140)
4. Madonna gets pregnant, has baby (210)
5. Princess Diana's divorce (570)
6. The Macarena (64)
7. O.J. Simpson's Civil Trial (530)
8. Deficit Hysteria (2300)
9. Cyberporn (420)
10. Life on Mars? (400)

The national panel of judges consisted of: professor Robert Babe, University of Ottawa; professor Edna Einsiedel, University of Calgary; professor Luc Giroux, universite de Montreal; professor William Gilsdorf, Concordia U., Montreal; George Manz, editor, Briarpatch magazine, Regina; Maggie Siggins, author, journalist, Regina; Gillian Steward, journalist, Calgary; Mr. John Tory, CEO, Rogers Multi-Media, Toronto; professor Bruce Wark, Dalhousie U., Halifax. Student researchers combed the news media and various data bases for nominations and examined the nature and extent of the coverage. Research assistance was provided by Antonie Scholtz.


Dr. James Winter
Professor of Communication Studies, University of Windsor
519-977-7079, OR 519-971-7713 OR 519-253-4232 EXT. 2897
OR BY EMAIL AT winter@uwindsor.ca.
For information on the blindspots project, call 604-291-4905, or Dr. Robert Hackett 604-291-3863, or Professor Donald Gutstein 604-291-3858.

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