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Beyond the Box: Getting Reporters to Think


There is no such thing as objective journalism. Balance in journalism is the best that we can hope for.

A presentation to the 1999 Civitas National Conference in Toronto, Canada.


Lorne Gunter

 Author Notes

Regular columnist with The Edmonton Journal, and frequent contributor to the National Post, National Report, and other publications.

 Essay - 4/24/1999

I originally wanted to call this presentation, "You Can Lead a Reporter to the Facts, But You Can't Make Him Think," but there were concerns that wouldn't fit on the printed program. Still, it is a more accurate description of what I have in mind.

There is no such thing as objective journalism.

Balance in journalism is the best we can hope for. And even that is not often achieved because the more biased a reporter or editor is the more likely he or she is to believe in his or her own objectivity.

Let me attempt to demonstrate how insidious is the invisible or unconscious bias in Canadian journalism. (If I were a lefty I would say systemic, but I think I'll stick with insidious.) By doing so, I hope to show how objectivity is impossible, and thus the wrong tree up which to bark, and also show how much of an uphill battle balance will be, especially for conservatives.

Last year, the American Society of Newspaper Editors commissioned a study on public attitudes toward newspaper credibility. It arrived at six major findings.

Finding #1, the public sees too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers.

I won't disagree that journalists could make more gooder use of grammar, and spell words more rightly. However, don't expect things to improve in the near future. In this era of leaner news operations (a trend which is largely positive and long overdue), copy editors are among the first people to be let go. Where once our paper had four full-time copy editors, it now has three part-time. Without them, and with fewer evening news editors, it is impossible to put out anything like an error-free paper.

Furthermore, many factual are really just divergences of opinion. If readers agree with your point-of-view, they tend to judge your writing to be objective and correct. If they disagree, none of your facts are correct.

Finding #2 - the public perceives that newspapers don't consistently demonstrate respect for or knowledge of their readers or communities. Again, I can't disagree. I see this as part of the growing gap between the establishment (among whom I count journalists) and the public, be they constituents, taxpayers or readers. I take perverse satisfaction from the thought that the one arm of the establishment that best serves its public is the commercial establishment. Consumer satisfaction with value, quality and service have all risen to varying degrees since the 1970s because the commercial establishment has been better than any other at responding to the demands of its public -- consumers -- despite being vilified by the establishment's ever more remote political, bureaucratic and media arms.

Finding #3 - the public feels that newsroom values and practices are sometimes in conflict with their own priorities for their newspapers. (Heck, newsroom values and practices are often in conflict with the code of conduct in a low-rent cat house.) This too, I attribute to the widening values gap between the establishment and public.

Finding #4 - members of the public who have had actual experience with the news process are the most critical. Surprise, surprise; they are probably also the most complimentary. This is true in nearly every field. The accused whose lawyer fails to win for him an acquittal is often the legal profession's harshest critic; while the accused whose lawyer gets him off is often an enthusiastic defender of its ability to do justice.

Finding #5 - the public believes newspapers chase and over-cover sensational stories because they're exciting and sell newspapers. They don't believe these stories deserve the attention they get.

Well we wouldn't be in business very long if we chose instead to cover boring stories we know would attract few readers.

In September 1997, less than a week after the tragic death of Princess Diana, our paper's fabulous editorial cartoonist Malcolm Mayes, who is perhaps the best in his field in Canada, sketched a cartoon that sums up my attitude about this oft-repeated charge by the public: the media drives sensational coverage of events that the public won't choose if it had the power. Malcolm depicted a professional camera with a long telephoto zoom lens. The wide focussing ring at the end of the lens he labelled "The Paparazzi." The main shaft of the lens, he labelled "The Editors." "The Tabloids" were the body of the camera, and with a finger poised above the shutter-release button was a hand marked "The Public."

While I don't argue that occasionally we journalists go too far in our coverage of a flashy, sexy or gruesome story, we are mostly reacting to the public's demand. If the public is ashamed of its prurient interest in an event, and thinks its would be right to turn away, but can't, that is not the media's fault. We are largely in the business of selling people what they want to read, view or hear.

Finding #6 - and this is the biggy for me - the public suspects the points of view and biases of journalists influence what stories are covered and how they are covered. Bingo!

I want to give you four examples from our paper of how the bias that is present in all reporters, but which most do not detect in themselves, colours what you read. And I want to do this, again, with an eye to showing you what an unrealistic goal objective journalism is, and how difficult even balance will be.

On May 2, 1997, in the middle of the last federal election, Reform Deputy Leader and Edmonton North MP Deb Grey picked up party leader Preston Manning at Edmonton's industrial airport. She greeted him on her motorcycle. He climbed on behind her and she proceeded to run him up and down the tarmac in front of the news cameras. Neither wore helmets so they could be more clearly seen in the resulting pictures.

The photo-op made the front page of both Edmonton papers the following day, a Friday. But as we reported on the Saturday, "by Friday the big buzz was that the bikers failed to wear helmets."

"We're just incensed that two leaders in our community would ever consider riding without a helmet," a spokesman for the Edmonton Safety Council told us. We concluded "a humbled Grey said she'll have her helmet on today when she attends a fundraising event where she will give motorcycle rides for $10 a pop."

This illustrates the bias of who reporters consider experts, of whose opinions they consider important, and how that determines what makes news and how prominently it will be played. Frankly, if I were an assignment editor and someone from the Safety Council called me to rage about this photo-op, I'd listen politely, this disregard everything they'd said once I'd hung up. Indeed, in come circles it's considered a good thing to have annoyed the safety ninnies.

And "a humbled Grey?" I don't mean to imply that Deb Grey is egotistical. Far from it, she is one of the most self-effacing politicians I have every met. But I find it difficult to believe she was humbled by the complaints of the Safety Council. Such a statement is a judgement call. And so was our decision to put this whiny story on A1. But it is good illustration of where our biases lie.

On the Sunday of this same weekend, we ran a third story about Grey and her motorcycle. Her Liberal challenger, Jonathan Murphy, crashed the fundraising breakfast at which she was scheduled to give $10 rides, riding his own "hog." (At this point I think I should point out that when I say Murphy crashed the breakfast on his motorcycle, I mean that figuratively.)

I remember when this story appeared a number of people commented on how juvenile and rude Murphy had been. Certainly the television coverage of the event showed him being pushy and getting jeered. But because a Liberal had had the courage to disrupt a Reform event, we concluded "This was the second straight day that Grey's motorcycle photo opportunities backfired."

We didn't have a single analyst say this. It was simply a line inserted by the reporter and not removed or altered by the editors. It is clearly opinion being passed off as fact, and it betrays a particular view of the world. When liberals say or do things to upset conservatives, this is considered justice. The reverse is considered a prank or stunt.

A further example comes from 1995. It, like my other examples, I chose for its ordinariness. These are not rare examples. Biases like them are on display every day.

It came out in testimony at the trial of a break-and-enter artist in July 1995 that the two women whose garage he was attempting to burglarize when they performed a citizen's arrest used there legal, registered target pistols to subdue him. They had not told police this little tidbit at the time, though. (I wonder why?)

Police officials were beside themselves. "It was inappropriate, irresponsible and potentially dangerous to everyone involved including the neighbours who could have been harmed if the firearms had discharged," according to police information officer Kelly Gordon. "A spokesman for the Coalition for Gun Control said incidents like this are the best arguments for tougher gun controls." (Frankly, they appear to me to be good arguments for allowing responsible law-abiding citizens to keep guns for their self-defence. But that's beside my point.)

I was still managing editor at Alberta Report magazine at this time, and after reading the above story in the Journal, as well as subsequent coverage in which police mused about whether to press charges against the women, I had our reporter on the story call up the women's gun club and ask the manager about the pair's proficiency in marksmanship. I don't recall the exact figures now, but the women each shot between 150 and 200 rounds every fortnight at targets up to 50 yards away.

Then I had the reporter call the police and ask what proficiency the average constable had to maintain. It was something like 70 rounds once a year at a target 25 yards distance. Then I had him ask, who is the greater threat to the public and the neighbours? Kelly Gordon hit the ceiling. But the vehemence of his reaction, and the fact that no other outlet had thought to question his assertion about the dangerousness of these two shooters, illustrated how bias can, undetected, manipulate news coverage.

My final example stems from one of my own recent columns. (You knew I had to get a shameless plug in somewhere.) Following the release of the Alberta government's budget in February, I decided to update some calculations on inflation-adjusted, per capita spending that I had done a few years ago in order to compare provincial governments from different eras. I found that the Klein government's 1999-2000 budget proposes to spend $5,447 per Albertan, just 10 per cent less than the $6,071 ( in 1999 dollars) spent by the Lougheed government in what I call the Last Golden Year, 1981-82, the year before the National Energy Program brought our boom to a crashing halt.

Moreover, the current budget proposes to spend $300 more on health care per capita than Lougheed spent in 81-82, and only $143 less than when health spending reached its peak under Don Getty.

The day this column ran, our city editor came to me and asked where I got these numbers. I told him I had done them myself, and that the calculations were really not that difficult. He asked if he could have a copy and proposed to run a story on the comparison the follosing week. That was mid-March, and the story he was proposing has yet to appear. That's not as astonishing as the fact that our paper has a been a harsh critic of the Klein government's cuts for nearly six years, and not once in that time has it occurred to any editor or reporter that they should examine provincial spending in this manner.

Most bias in Canadian journalism is of the sorts I have described above, unconscious, not deliberate, based on unexamined assumptions rather than elaborate conspiracies to "spin" one side over another. To be sure, occasionally there are intentional omissions designed to keep public debate from veering off the course editors favour. At ours and other papers, I know of cases where the facts about domestic violence committed by women have been hushed up, or where child development experts who advocate an occasional spanking under the right circumstances are treated as if they did not exist so the impression can be created that no learned person approves of corporal discipline.

Even in these cases, the cause of the bias reaching the pages of the newspaper unchallenged is the limited circle of friends and experts shared by reporters and editors. They know the same people, believe many of the same things, and are convinced those who disagree must therefore be small in number and a bit potty. After all, if they were intelligent and important, the journalists would already know them.

There is a fine illustration of what I mean in our coverage of Alberta's election for two senators-in-waiting last October. About a week from the end of the campaign, unhappy that only Reform among the major parties had chosen to field candidates, a lefty at the University of Alberta created a web site to encourage non-Reformers to spoil their ballots and thus express their interest in Senate reform (by casting a ballot), but their refusal to participate in what he saw as a Reform publicity stunt.

I heard not a peep about this campaign outside our newsroom. The candidates did not hear of it. It came up at none of the anti-Reform meetings I attended. It never came up at the counter of the drycleaner's or in coffee shops. But still, because it permitted many of our editors and reporters to vote while also bashing Reform, many of them boasted of spoiling theit ballots.

Now of the 530,000 or so ballots cast, fewer than 5,000 were officially declared spoiled. However, since many tens of thousands contained just one vote, when two were permitted, and many tens of thousand more contained no vote at all, many of our stories and columns contained the assertion that the spoiled-ballot campaign had been a resounding success and sent a strong message to the federal and provincial governments. That was pure wishful thinking. But it is another example of powerful, but unconscious biases.

Even full balance is probably a pipe dream, although the situation at most major Canadian papers has much improved since Southam began shaking up its editorial pages a few years ago and carrying a few national columnists with a tinge of blue in them in all its member papers.

The advent of the National Post, of course, has also been the biggest positive influence for balance I can recall. It has certainly serviced notion that Canadian journalism can no longer be an intellectual closed-shop.

Fundamental change will not take place until the current generation of mostly soft-left editors retire. Then perhaps story selection will improve, new expert sources will be sought, and tougher questioning of the left will occur.

What a happy day that will be.

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