Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Jan. 9, 2006

Utne magazine has a distinct point of view, so bashing of the mainstream media in its pages is to be expected. What magazine with a vision to “make the world kinder and greener” could resist?
An article in February’s issue, “Ten Stories Ignored by the Mainstream Media,” is thus fairly predictable for Utne. Like most pieces about the media, the article hints at a media conspiracy in which the “real” news is being covered up.
I’m bored by talk of conspiracy theories. But a fact box on a different aspect of the media intrigued me. The subject was global warming.
In the decade leading up to 2003, the fact box noted, 928 peer-reviewed articles about global warming had run in scientific journals. None cast doubt on “human-caused global warming.”
Roughly during that same period,1988 to 2002, four of the biggest papers in the U.S. - the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal - published 3,543 stories in their news pages about global warming. Fifty-three per cent cast doubt on human behaviour being part of the problem.
That’s something worth thinking about. I don’t know by who, because you’d need a serious media think-tank in the wings before you could properly dwell on an issue like that - some mythical, wise, Solomon-like body looking out for the public interest. In all my years in journalism, I can’t say as I came across anything like that.
I think of news media as modern-day town criers. They gather up the messages and images of the day and then give us a selection of the ones they think we want. It’s an effective enough way to move along information in a day-to-day sort of way, but what goes unaccounted for is whether there’s any cumulative impact on a community from the town crier’s particular stream of messages.
Resolutely skeptical coverage by the media of global warming could, under such a scenario, warp public opinion to the point of affecting government policy, even in the face of conflicting scientific data. Or not, if media in fact are nowhere near that influential. The problem is, we’re just not sure.
Asked to speak on diversity in 2004 to a gathering of provincial press councils, I spent six weeks in the runup carefully counting images and tallying the race/gender balances in the Times-Colonist, Globe and Mail and Vancouver Sun - the morning reads at my house. I grew to hate the tally for taking all the fun out of reading the paper, but the findings were intriguing.
I won’t vouch for the scientific quality of my research - I just counted. White faces, brown faces. Men and women. I scanned letters to the editor for male and female names, and comment pieces as well. I counted stories built around conflict of some kinds, whether international wars or municipal brouhahas. There was nothing very standardized about any of it, and it was frequently quite subjective.
What was revealed by the exercise, however, was that news coverage and comment skewed white and male across the board. In the Vancouver Sun, only 29 per cent of the news images were of women, and it went down from there: 28 per cent at the TC, and 26 per cent at the Globe. The percentage of comment pieces written by men ranged from 77 per cent in the Globe to 79 per cent in the TC.
A similar count I did around race initially looked like the papers were paying serious attention to diversity. In terms of non-white faces, the Globe came in at 23 per cent - not bad, considering visible minorities make up just 13.4 per cent of the Canadian population. The TC came in at 22 per cent, in a region where the visible-minority population is a scant nine per cent. The Sun - 15 per cent non-white faces in a region where almost half the population fits that criterion - was the only obvious standout.
But were you to adjust for the slew of photos of black athletes (I did the count during the 2004 summer Olympics), desperate Iraqis, starving Sudanese and otherwise devastated ethnic minorities in lands far away, images of non-whites going about their lives in a Canadian community were uncommon in all three papers. Close to 60 per cent of stories featured conflict.
Does it mean anything? I guess that’s the big question. If nobody’s taking the media too seriously, then overly skeptical global-warming stories and male-heavy news coverage shouldn’t matter. But if it does, then even my imperfectly gleaned findings about media bias ring ominous.
While we wait to find out, a simple strategy: Eyes wide open. No conspiracy out there that I’ve ever seen, but that’s not to say that you’re getting the whole story.

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