Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part II: Media in Crisis

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey.
Part II: Media in Crisis

This past weekend the world hosted an International Day of Climate Action. You might not have known it, though, if you get your news strictly from the mainstream media where the biggest story about climate change in the past week was whether Jack Layton facilitated the protest in the House on Monday in which some security officers were injured. What were they protesting again? Something to do with climate change, apparently. Those radicals! How dare they disrupt the very honourable institution of Parliament with yelling and screaming and injuring.

While there has been a lot more coverage related to climate change in the mainstream media in the lead-up to Copenhagen, a lot of the coverage has actually resulted in turning back the clock, which is very troublesome. Commentators such as Lorrie Goldstein and Rex Murphy have shifted the conversation backwards by asking readers to question whether human-made climate change is really occurring, concluding that it remains up for debate. Media has been reporting that, based on new science, it is unclear that the effects of industrial pollution are actually having any measurable impact on warming the planet.

And while you, dear reader, and I might have thought we’d covered this ground, what with Al Gore, the IPCC and the Nobel Prize and all, clearly in the minds of many Canadians, the starting point of the conversation about climate change remains: “Well, before we act, where’s the proof?”

And this frustrates me.

Media. Don’t they have a responsibility to report the facts?

Well...yes and no. Yes in that media does have an obligation to report the facts correctly. But what is fact and what is conjecture? If the headline is, “Toronto Maple Leafs lose by a score of 5 to 1", clearly the score is a fact. If they interview a Leaf player and he says, “Well, we gave it our best effort, and we put a lot of shots on goal, and we’ll do better next time out”, clearly we’re in the realm of conjecture now, and the media can take from that what they will. Sometimes the story the media will take away is “Leafs know they can do better”. Sometimes it will be “Leafs suffer from delusions”. It just depends on which way they want to spin a story. And they will always spin a story in such a way as to make it more compelling. In this scenario, clearly a reader’s interest will be more piqued by thinking that the Toronto Maple Leafs are inhabiting a strange reality of their own making, rather than the “we can do better” story-line, which frankly isn't compelling to anyone. Is Michael Ignatieff reading this blog?

The media often tries to balance difficult issues by offering two sides to a story. That’s why there will often be comments from opposition politicians (critics) in stories about the most recent government initiative. This kind of balance when brought to a story makes the story much more well-rounded, and leaves the impression that the media is acting in the interests of the public, rather than simply being a mouthpiece for government propaganda. Clearly, this is a good thing.

There are a couple of traps here, though. First, there are often more than two sides to any story. It’s easy to report where direct opposition occurs, but what about where there is overlapping agreement on components of the story, but disagreement on some of the specifics? And what about situations where the underlying facts leading to the story in the first place are in dispute?
And then there’s my favourite trap: what about stories where there may appear to be a dispute about the “facts”, but really there isn’t, but for the sake of achieving “balance”, the media goes out of its way to present the other side of a story, even though it is not well researched and just plain wonky.

Sort of like what the media has been doing lately with “scientists” who have published work which disputes the “human-made theory of global warming” or about “wind turbine syndrome”.
It’s true, not anyone can publish a book. But one does not become an expert on a topic simply because you’ve published. The peer review process found in scientific journals is likely a much better place to debate science. But for the media, it’s much more interesting to refer to facts taken from a coffee-table book than it is to reference an article in a science journal. It’s more interesting because the coffee table book is more accessible, maybe even a best-seller! And because a coffee-table author is likely to be much more controversial! And controversy breeds interest, and that means you sell more papers or more advertising space.

Let’s not mince any bones about this: our media “institutions” (and I use this term loosely, because I’m not sure that I’d ever define the media as an “institution” in the same way that I would a government, for example, but there is some overlap given that both try to address the public interest) are failing democracy.

I’ll say it again so that it’s not broken up by the brackets: Our media institutions are failing democracy.

Remember what I wrote earlier about media looking at both sides of a story so as to achieve balance, and to shake off any criticism that they have become a mouthpiece of government? You might have been thinking about a news organization such as Pravda, for example (if you’re of a certain age), whose goal was primarily to educate the citizens of the Soviet Union about governmental decrees. Whatever the Soviet government said, Pravda would report it. No balance. Just repetition, but repetition reaching a much larger audience who were watching TV. And reaching that audience in such a way that the audience may think that the “news” is being reported by an independent news organization which looks out for their best interests. Those journalists working for Pravda must be reporting on the truth, nyet?

OK, maybe no one living in the Soviet Union actually thought that. Regardless, though, the news organization was the propaganda arm of government.

Today, we don’t fret too much about our news organizations morphing into Pravda. But can we continue to trust their journalistic integrity when increasing market-share and advertising revenues are the primary goal of news organizations?

Our once-trusted mainstream media is in the process of changing from providing you with information to providing you with infotainment. The News is now Entertainment. They know that you’re watching not to learn and be educated and make your own mind up about things, balancing the two sides of every story. To hell with that, you’re tuning in because you want to sit back and see what terrible things are happening to others elsewhere, or what’s the latest gossip on your favourite movie star.

Surely not me, Steve, I can hear you say. I trust the news to provide me with information so that I can come to my own conclusions.

Well, maybe you do. You’re taking the time to read this blog. I’ll bet that you also would consider your primary source of news to be a newspaper, whether presented online or in the old-fashioned way, printed on paper. That’s probably the primary way you consume your media.
But it’s not the way in which most people access the media. Most are accessing it through visual formats, be it on television or on the internet. The written word format lends itself to being more comprehensive than a visual format, which tends to rely on images, the more sensational the better, to tell the story, with perhaps some commentary about what it is that you’re supposed to be looking at. It’s a very powerful medium, for sure. But is it the best medium for individual citizens to inform themselves on the issues?

Increasingly media outlets are moving away from “fact-based reporting” to providing infotainment. What are we losing?

Well, for one thing, we’re losing smaller media outlets which can’t compete with the big boys, whether it’s because of format (local newspapers no longer being published because no one is reading them) or consolidation (local tv and radio stations closing down their shops because it’s too costly to produce local content; so if you live in Sudbury like I do, you can find out as much as you want about what’s going on in Toronto but you won’t find out what’s happening in Sudbury).
For another thing, we’re losing the oversight which media used to provide us with to keep our institutions in check. Now, some might take exception to this point of view, and that’s your right, I suppose. But I’d ask that maybe you conduct a bit of a critical analysis here.

First, one of the roles in which we have come to expect from media is to report the facts, expose the cover-ups, and keep us all honest, whether it’s our government or the business community, or just individuals who may have done bad things. What used to distinguish truly democratic countries from authoritarian regimes was the extent of freedom those nations allowed their media to operate within.

I say that those days are long gone. Media has evolved, because media now has a different master. As a result, they are playing a different role. Media no longer answers to you, the media consumer, by providing you with facts and information. Media now answers to their shareholders, to the corporate giants which have acquired media outlets, from newspapers to radio stations to tv stations.

And those corporate masters of media are the masters of many domains. Can we really expect the media, answerable to their corporate masters, to expose any shenanigans that their corporate masters may be engaged in? Or, would it be within the realm of possibility that, if there are to be stories about corporate masters, those stories will largely present the masters in a positive light? Or where there is scent of a scandal involving their master, might they denigrate their master's detractors?

Where does this all go? Well, I believe the following: the media can not be trusted to report the truth. This does not mean that the media will never report the truth. It means that it won’t pursue certain stories, or report certain facts, which might be in contradiction to their own interests. And it means that where media does report on the “truth” it will always do so in a self-serving way.

Believing as I do that the media can not be trusted to tell the truth, what type of oversight are they providing to the citizens of our nation? Now, I realize that you may not go so far as to agree with me that the media can not be trusted to tell the truth, and I’ll respect that. But surely you must agree that the mainstream media is evolving to deliver to us an increasing amount of entertainment with our news, and has done a pretty poor job of presenting the “facts” around a number of stories.

Such as the “facts” around whether the “theory of human-made climate change” remains disputed in the eyes of science. That’s just one. There are many others. One more example: where is the media in the discussion about the emergency facing our planet as a result of inaction on addressing climate change? Oh, I guess the jury is still out on that one, right? Right?

You. You are here right now reading this blog. You know full well that if we don’t do something to globally address our carbon dioxide emissions that our society will suffer a significant tragedy, perhaps even a catastrophe. You know this. Why isn’t the media reporting this story? Particularly when it’s so damn sensational.

Of course, if they reported that story, their advertisers might not be too happy, because in many cases, it’s the advertisers parent corporate organizations that are the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. And the government wouldn’t be happy, because they would have to admit that they don’t have a plan and are content to just let climate change happen. And the corporate media masters wouldn’t be happy for the same reason as the advertisers. Maybe they’re just all in bed together anyway.

And maybe that’s why the real climate change story remains untold in the mainstream media.

If you’re frustrated, think of how frustrated you would be if you were a scientist working for the IPCC. You very well know what conclusions to make based on the data. You know the severity of the situation, and what actions need to be undertaken right bloody now to head this off at the pass. And you turn on the TV or you read the Globe & Mail and see that Rex Murphy has pronounced the Hockey Stick graph to be a myth. You must want to pull your hair out.
Since I can’t afford to lose any more hair, I’ll have to vent my feelings here on this blog. I guess in part that’s what I’m doing today. It’s been a very sad realization that the media of my parent’s generation can no longer be trusted to tell you and me the truth about really important things. It’s been very lousy to come to the conclusion that if the Watergate scandal were to happen today that Woodward and Bernstein likely would never be published anywhere except on their little internet blog, which the mainstream media would either ignore, or pick up and ridicule.

You think that’s over the top? What about the story of how climate change threatens our society? Where is it? No, you won’t see it. Instead, you’ll see the media re-hash the science of climate change, and provide a platform to various climate change deniers who have their own corporate agendas or who are acting purely for themselves. They don’t speak for science, and as a result, the media is providing you and me with a disservice by falsely presenting these cranks’ platform as “balanced reporting” at best, and as “gospel truth” at worse.

Remember China.

(Continued in Part 3...)


Sudbury Steve said...

So, just to trash my thesis and piss me off I'm sure, the Globe & Mail today goes and devotes one tonne of coverage to TD Bank-rolled, Pembina Institute-Suzuki Foundation study about the cost of taking action on climate change.

For all of the flaws, this coverage will contribute to the public debate which we should now be engaged in, but aren't. Sure, the Report looks at discredited GDP as a benchmark for economic success (we need to move on from GDP, people!), and yes, it asseses only the very modest 2 degree warming scenario endorsed by Europe and others which, over the past few years has been called into question by leading scientists as being way too modest. Of course, from the reporting, the costs of 2 degrees will be significantly greater than the costs of Harper's plan.

What the coverage seems to be lacking is any discussion on the cost of NOT TAKING ACTION. Of course, I've not yet read the report, but I suspect that while the Report might have discussed the inaction scenario anecdotally, it probably relied on extrapolated trends for GDP growth as its starting point for 2020. Likely ignored the fact that the world tomorrow will not be like today's, as a result of peak oil, global warming, etc.

John Ibbitson's editorial in today's Globe suggests that we're now ready to have an informed debate as eyes are now open.

I'd suggest that maybe one eye-lid has been partially raised, and that the media continues to report on only part of the story. There is much more out there which Canadians have to see and understand.'s coverage is much better than what's been out there. A turning point maybe? Let's hope.

Sudbury Steve said...

Alright, lack of faith in the media has actually been restored. I missed this editorial from yesterday's Globe and Mail which lambasted the Pembina/Suzuki study for its attack on the oil industry, and suggested that as an option for action, we further water-down targets and develop new policy. Of course, there is no suggestion that such "new policy" would have to be about adapting to climate change and the global upheaval which will be brought about as a result of our "choice" to continue to emit. It's easy to say: Targets are unrealistic, new policy is needed.

But the media continues to ignore what kind of world we'll inhabit as a result of doing nothing, or doing at best a half-assed job.

Anonymous said...

Experts have talked about this before. How many times have you read about the importance of ‘adding value’ for your audience? How many times have you read about ‘building trust’ with your readers/prospects?
Many, many times. You know it well. Every marketing guru has spoken about this topic. I’m sick of hearing it. But it STILL bears repeating.