Checks and balances

Why the Calgary Herald Strike matters
January 1, 2000

Canadians who care about democratic diversity in their daily newspapers should support the striking journalists at the Calgary Herald. Their struggle for reasonable job security and against managerial interference in news decision-making has much more than local significance.

If access to a range of perspectives on public issues is a key to informed citizenship--a concept you don't often encounter in the manufactured cacophony of consumer culture--then the quality of the press strongly influences the quality of our democracy. Notwithstanding the hype (and the bloated stocks) surrounding the Internet, newspapers remain the agenda-setting base of the information pyramid. Therefore, we should all be concerned about two of the 1990s trends in the newspaper industry: the escalation of ownership concentration to one of the highest levels of any major democratic country; and the aggressive imposition by the dominant press baron, Conrad Black, of his own hard-right politics on his Hollinger newspaper empire. Black's politics--Unite the Right, privatize everything in sight, cut taxes for the wealthy, shred the unions, impose corporate-driven "free trade", etc.--may be most evident at his flagship papers like The National Post, but they appear to be influencing the managerial culture throughout Hollinger Inc. As Prof. David Taras at the University of Calgary argues, the 1990s have seen the rise of a "right-wing information infrastructure" and a certain re-politicization in Canada's press.

At NewsWatch Canada, we have been researching blind spots and double standards in the daily press for several years, using such techniques as content analysis (the systematic sampling and coding of news coverage), and surveys of members of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Vancouver newsroom local of the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers union. As summarized in our just-released study The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press, the following are some of the under-reported areas:

  • critical coverage of business, especially the PR industry and the shrinking handful of major media corporations themselves;
  • labour news in general;
  • poverty and social inequality;
  • alternatives to, and consequences of, the neo-liberal, free market agenda;
  • white-collar and corporate crime;
  • religion and traditional social values (to its credit, the Calgary Herald has been one of only about four Canadian dailies with a religion and ethics specialist);
  • Canadian involvement in global militarism; and
  • environmental degradation as a systemic problem.

NewsWatch also found a significant imbalance in the use of sources. Business people are quoted about three times as often as labour leaders, and they are less likely to be counter-balanced by opposing sources. Right-wing think-tanks like the Fraser Institute are quoted on average about 3 1/2 times as often as progressive institutes like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). (This imbalance appears to be higher at the Calgary Herald; out of 12 dailies sampled in 1996, only the Toronto Sun and Vancouver Province had a higher proportion of references to right-wing institutes.)

It's not the working journalist, in the main, who is responsible for such imbalances. To some extent, they reflect the inequalities of wealth and power in Canadian society. But according to journalists we interviewed and surveyed, they are also related to more specific pressures on the news -- for example, the lack of resources, especially for investigative journalism; the resulting pressure to do the quick-and-easy stories and to use readily available institutional sources to meet deadlines; the increasing marketing pressures to appeal to upscale readers; and, to some extent, fear of treading on the toes of advertisers or the sensibilities of owners. Taken together, one editor we interviewed suggested that "the news media is an establishmentarian institution...Our view is skewed to institutional coverage of the established order."

These kinds of pressures to produce journalism that "comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted"--the opposite of the social watchdog role advocated by the much-respected former Herald publisher J. Patrick O'Callaghan--can be counter balanced by other factors. These include competition between different major news organizations, the relative strength of non-commercial public broadcasting in Canada's media mix, media owners' fears of government intervention should they abuse their power, the CRTC's willingness to monitor the private broadcasters with respect to their legal mandate to provide balanced coverage, and journalists' ability to stand up for professional integrity in news decision-making.

Unfortunately, all those checks and balances are under attack. In 1970 and 1980, the federal government launched two major enquiries in response to growing media concentration. The reaction of newspaper publishers was (a) hysterical outrage; and (b) a mini-stampede to join press councils as a shield against possible federal legislation. Since the 1980s, they have had no such fear; the feds basically rubber-stamp every major media merger. At the same time, severe funding cutbacks and CRTC licencing decisions have weakened the role of public broadcasting as a (relatively) non-commercial, non-corporate presence in the media system.

The need to insulate newsrooms from the bottom-line priorities and political interests of chain and conglomerate owners was one of the key recommendations of the 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers. Neither then, nor since, has the government had the will to tackle the growing power of a shrinking number of media owners.

All this means that journalists themselves are in the front lines of defending the integrity of their craft, along with viewers and readers who care about keeping the public forum open to diverse voices. Today, the Calgary Herald journalists are in the forefront of that struggle.