Warp Factor

How Journalists Influence the News
By Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper
UBC Press, 212 pp.

Complain, complain. In the last 50 years, has anyone in the Western hemisphere written a book extolling the conduct of the news media? Not on your life. Serious attention to journalism invariably comes with a furrowed brow.

After all, the media are our agencies of public address. Their promise and their responsibility is to direct our attention to what matters, to document unfolding events as conscientiously as possible, and to be fair in their own commentary and the forum they provide for debate.

What if the media do none of that? What if they routinely emphasize the wrong things, torque their news coverage and circumscribe debate? What if the public is being systematically misinformed?

I doubt it matters where you are on the political spectrum, you’re not happy with the news media. No one is. Maybe you deplore what you see as a media system owned and controlled by a handful of blowhard plutocrats, and shot through with a corporatist agenda. Maybe you rail instead at the woolly-minded Bolsheviks who populate the nation’s newsrooms, tailoring coverage to suit their own social prejudices. Maybe you’re just legitimately confused about why Michael Jackson is currently receiving more press attention than, say, Afghanistan.

Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper are professors of political science at the University of Windsor and the University of Calgary, respectively. Setting forth to bring scientific rigour to the issue, they advance on the question of media bias with a methodological apparatus as elaborate as a siege engine. The authors seek to test the hypotheses that: a) journalists exercise control over the content of news in light of their own opinions about what is best for the public good; and b) journalists’ views tend toward the soft left. Forget “concentration of ownership,” the thing to get alarmed about is the caste mentality of the people who bring us the news.

Say this for Miljan and Cooper, they are utterly deadpan. The authors may well be exasperated with the pinko tinge they detect in news coverage, but they never let their study turn into a screed. Calmly and carefully, they lay out their findings in the conviction that the facts speak for themselves. Some of these findings are pretty interesting, but none of them speak for themselves.

The authors began by surveying a representative sample of Canadians. They then surveyed a representative sample of journalists (francophone and anglophone, public sector and private) as to their demographic characteristics and political leanings. Lo and behold, the journalists are out of step with the country as a whole. For example, journalists, according to the survey, are better educated than the general population. And journalists are more in favour of pro-choice rights and more opposed to the death penalty than the population at large. But then, opposition to the death penalty has always correlated with education. (What, we should want dumber journalists?) And yet, the survey does not reveal a marked lean to the left. What’s striking is how centrist journalists think themselves, although CBC journalists do tend to self-identify as left-of-centre.

It is perfectly possible to read the data as showing that journalists do, in fact, map political opinion in this country. The percentage who profess views that would ally them with the NDP or the Alliance, or the BQ for that matter, is roughly equivalent to the proportion of Canadians who actually support these parties.

Shoe-horning a little au courant political theory into the mix, Miljan and Cooper suggest that journalists are paid-up postmaterialists, by which they mean that journalists may not bear the markings of the traditional left – or even think of themselves as leftist – but they instinctively favour creeping state encroachment on civil society all the same. (This, I gather, is what really burns the biscuits of the right.) Then it’s onto the tale of the tape: a series of content analyses of media coverage.

The authors looked at how the media reported economic news, constitutional matters and Supreme Court decisions on contentious social issues. Not a single one of their case studies is a knock-down example of how the media have been hijacked by a cabal of postmaterial propagandists.

To pluck only one example: In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Alberta’s human rights legislation was in violation of the Charter because it did not protect homosexuals. The authors find that of The Globe and Mail‘s total coverage of the decision, 25 per cent simply stated the facts, 42 per cent favoured the outcome and 33 per cent argued against it. At The Calgary Herald, meanwhile, 18 per cent of the coverage was neutral, 40 per cent was in favour and 42 per cent was opposed.

Excuse me, but that’s how it’s supposed to work: The news media provide a baseline of steadfastly stenographic reportage, along with analysis and interpretation purposely designed to stimulate debate. Both sides of the argument should be represented, and with any luck different papers will take different positions on the issue.

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing. Even the supposed socialist colonization of the CBC is off the mark. The CBC exists to make available media content that the private sector either cannot or will not. The right is well represented on the national media stage, from the feisty Sun tabloids to Report on Business and The Financial Post. In such a media environment, if the CBC drifts slightly to the left, where’s the harm? Don’t we want a range of news media outlets that will give voice to the variety of competing perspectives that make up this country?

When political scientists don’t quite get how the media work, that’s understandable. When they don’t quite get how democracy works, that’s a little more worrisome.eg

  • Globe and Mail January 10, 2004