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Conference piece informative, thought-provoking

Analyzing and judging media performance is a subjective and risky business. It is also extremely vital if media performance is to be improved—better performance comes from honest self-criticism and not false flattery.

For these reasons, I think the effort of Mary Jane Gomes and Charlotte Maxwell in analyzing reporting on the Commonwealth Conference (Content, February 1980) was a valuable exercise. The flaws in coverage are obvious: superficiality, cultural or political bias and preconception. They are criticisms of the media which business, minorities and especially labour will find all too familiar.

Coverage of such an event, of course, raises special problems for the mainstream Canadian media. Reporters suddenly dropped into the middle of the Commonwealth and southern Africa drama have two choices: play a recording secretary role, telling us who said what but putting no particular weight or interpretation on the various positions (a route I suspect Gomes and Maxwell would criticize as being a cop-out) or apply some editorial judgement to attempt to interpret the events in such a way that media consumers will understand both who is important in the drama and which groups or actions are justified in the context of the event. The problem with the latter approach, of course, is that we are then subject to the prejudices and preconceptions of the reporter and many of those subtle influences on his or her copy will be unknown to us.

This leads to a couple of points about the judgements offered by Gomes and Maxwell. They rightly deplore some of the uninformed Red and Black-baiting offered by some Canadian newspapers, yet they appear to fall victim to the other side of that same coin. The Gazette and Le Devoir were praised for their articles "sympathetic" to the guerilla arguments and they suggested more such articles would have been "a welcome Edition." Were Gomes and Maxwell judging reporters according to the litmus test of whether they were sympathetic to a cause suppported by the critics? Or were they merely talking about a better balance? I have my suspicions.

They also single out Peter Calamai of Southham News for praise and suggest other reporters did not show his insight. Calamai's performance was in part, I'm sure, due to the fact that he is an excellent and conscientious reporter. However, Gomes and Maxwell would also have been a bit more fair to the other reporters if they had pointed out that Calamai had been in Africa for some weeks before the Conference (establishing himself as the Southam Africa bureau) and previously, he had spent some time for Southam in London and Europe, where African affairs and the British role there are more of an issue than in Canada. Most of the other reporters at the Conference were dropped in without the chance for accumulated background available to Calamai.

These points aside, I found the critique informative and thought-provoking. I hope we can expect more such efforts.

Barry Wilson,
Saskatoon, Sask.

Maxwell replies: 

Where readers have personal experience of the context of events, in their own country, news can relatively easily be put in perspective and the readers make their own judgements. In the case of international events, readers are much more dependent on the journalist for interpretation as well as the facts of particular events. Acting as a simple recorder isn't just a cop-out; it's downright impossible. (The Commonwealth Conference presented more than average difficulty because the meetings were closed; press conferences and interviews were the prime source of material.) Judgements inevitably are made by reporters and editors as copy makes its way onto the pages.

Given that, it is reasonable to expect responsible journalists to try to understand and convey sympathetically the values and preoccupations of foreign cultures, even when they are at variance with our own. To do less is a disservice to readers.

As to the articles in The Gazette and Le Devoir, a couple of points should be made. First, the articles were written, not by journalists, but by individuals who were clearly identified with their backgrounds, which gave them a special knowledge and "biased" perspective on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. It is not uncommon for newspapers to print such articles because they offer a direct communication of a particular or special-interest view to the reader, unfiltered by the professional journalist. In the context of the rigid censorship imposed by the then Rhodesian government, we would argue that the presentation of views representing a large portion (and, as events have proved, a vast majority) of Zimbabweans did add balance.

Peter Calamai appeared in the analysis in part because, as Southam correspondent, his copy was used in many newspapers surveyed, albeit in differing amounts, depending on the editor. In the individual summaries, other reporters without Calamai's "accumulated background"—Michael Valpy of The Vancouver Sun, for example—were also praised for conscientious reporting and insight.

Wilson does have a point about reporters being "dropped in" and refers to the fact that, in Britain, African affairs are more of an issue. Furthermore, it is all international affairs that are more of an issue for responsible newspapers. It is not unusual to find U.K. foreign correspondents spending 10 to 20 years in a given area. The Canadian system of relying heavily on wire services and moving what few correspondents there are around the globe every two years creates real disadvantages in keeping Canadians informed on international affairs.

A common answer to this complaint is that Canadians aren't interested (How can they be if they aren't informed in the first place?) and international news "doesn't sell newspapers." The logical consequence from this line of reasoning is that international news will continue to decline in both quantity and quality.


Conference only part of story

The Commonwealth conference was certainly an important event in the continuing political evolution in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, but it was only one carefully stage-managed event among many events influencing developments there.

It was preceded by the Organization of African Unity meetings, by the initiatives of President Carter, by the manoeuvering of South Africa. It was succeeded by the all-party talks in London that gave rise to the ceasefire and the ultimate attempt at some sort of peaceful settlement.

To clip only selected stories from the two weeks preceding and during the Commonwealth Conference meetings and imply that they reflect a newspaper's coverage of developments in Rhodesia displays tunnel vision.

The Content survey is both flawed in methodology and so limited in scope that it fails to reflect the frame of reference in which the Journal's coverage is set.

Our first story on the Commonwealth Conference and its implications for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia appeared June 4, 1979 and consisted of a 36-column-inch analysis by The Guardian.

We updated on June 14 and on July 6 reported in some depth the controversy surrounding interpretation of the Queen's role at the Conference versus Margaret Thatcher and the British state's role. There was much other coverage of the on-going political situation in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.

I was interested in Content's ruler-wielding assessment of our coverage. The researchers record two commentaries, by Charles Lynch and Chris Young. I count four; two by Young, one by Lynch and one Herculean 57-inch effort by our own international affairs specialist Doug Goold. A 56-inch assessment by Mark Gayn on the Soviet powerplays in Africa was presumably ignored because we ran it a couple of days after the meetings concluded.

Content's selective ruler measures 190 column inches on the Commonwealth Conference. My survey of the files, calculator in hand, turns up 651 inches of space devoted to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and including the Commonwealth Conference as part of the overall coverage of events there. These stories were run from July 25, the week before the Conference, to August 15, when the peace initiatives which arose there were finally accepted by all parties involved.

The thing I want to stress, though, is that our coverage of the Commonwealth Conference was simply a small part of generally extensive coverage of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and the situation there. From our first story on the Conference June 4 to Sept. 12, when the peace talks in London finally began, the Journal carried 80 stories on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, 33 of them relating to the Commonwealth Conference in the context of developing events—which included the Organization of African Unity meetings and President Carter's moves vis-a-vis trade embargoes. This coverage totalled 1,326 column inches dealing directly with events in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. From Jan. 2, 1979, to Jan. 2, 1980, the Journal carried 323 stories on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. I haven't calculated the number of column inches, but it is enormous. The file is almost a foot thick and contains enough material for a good-sized book.

Coverage during the narrow period surveyed by Content included: a 25-inch preliminary story by Peter Calamai (July 26); a 57-inch commentary on the Conference's implications by Doug Goold (July 28); and 105-inch package of four stories outlining Canada's possible role, Thatcher's possible role, the famine in Zambia as a backdrop to the Conference pomp and ceremony, and a Calamai story specifically setting the scene for the talks themselves (July 31); a package of three stories outlining Clark's role, Thatcher's role, Britain's reaction to Nigeria's takeover of BP (Aug. 1); a package of four stones including Lynch's commentary, follow to the BP story, Clark's proposal that Ian Smith be ousted, and an analysis by Calamai (50 inches including art) of the events to date (Aug. 2); a story by Calamai outlining the peace formula (Aug. 4); a 100-inch package of three pieces including a Young commentary on Clark's performance, a 25-inch Reuter dispatch outlining Thatcher's peace proposals and African responses, a 40-inch CP wrap-up including—in plain language—the general nature of the peace plan (Aug, 7); a 21-inch follow from AP on the principles and negotiating positions (Aug. 8); a 56-inch analysis of the Soviet presence in Africa and the fact that the conference delegates would not discuss it (Aug. 10); a 30-inch assessment of the conference by Calamai (Aug. 13).

Actually, I was surprised by the amount of coverage we carried on the Conference, considering that the conflict in Rhodesia is really a rather minor one on the world stage compared, say, to the Middle East.

It is true the Journal coverage did not go into detailed item-by-item lists of peace formula principles. It was our decision that for most readers a general account of what was proposed and reactions to the proposals would be sufficient. Presumably the small minority desiring highly detailed coverage of the developing situation in southern Africa can subscribe to Safrican News, the specialized periodical published by Mary Jane Gomes and Charlotte Maxwell, the two who conducted the survey for Content.

Stephen Hume,
News Editor,
Edmonton Journal.


Maxwell replies:

We share Hume's frustration over the isolation of a particular event from its continuum. However, he is a little like the man who wanted to see all of Shakespeare's historical plays and saw only Henvy IV, Part II. The assignment was the Commonwealth Conference and the central issue was Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Hume may disagree with the frame of reference, but the same frame of reference applied to all newspapers in the survey.

The Edmonton Journal does have a legitimate beef in that the articles of July 25, 26 and 28 should have been included in the analysis. The clipper for the Journal stuck to the July 30 to Aug. 9 schedule and we were remiss in not hunting up the additional coverage when we returned from Africa. The Young commentary and Goold analysis contributed a reasonable historical perspective on Canada's role to date in the Commonwealth, Canada's official position on the Muzorewa regime and the current position and difficulties surrounding the Muzorewa-Smith government. The Aug. 13 Article, which Hume describes as "an assessment of the Conference," was only marginally relevant as it in fact was a round-up of Clark's African tour—a legitimate exercise, but hardly a Conference item. There is a puzzling disagreement on column-inches. Measuring a second time and including all the articles which Hume includes in Conference coverage, I still get only 302 inches. Unless Hume adds graphics, heads and some magic multiple for 3 inch-width columns, I don't see how he can come up with 651 inches. And, if column-inches subsume substance as an important aspect of coverage, the Halifax Chronicle, for cxample, could complain because it carries more words per column-inch than does The Globe and Mail, which in turn carries more words per column-inch than the Edmonton Journal, and so on.

After reviewing the Journal's coverage again, we would add a plus for the preConference commentaries by Young and Goold, but restate the essential critique. Nowhere did we suggest that it was essential to carry "detailed item-by-item lists of peace formula principles." (In fact, the final communique was a brief nine-point statement that could have been reproduced in seven or eight inches.) What would have been welcome was an interpretation of the crucial points of the peace proposals and how they differed substantially from previous proposals.

The comment that the "conflict in Rhodesia is really a rather minor one on the world stage" ignores the context of the conflict, involving the whole Southern Africa region (40 million people) and a linked process of decolonization and anti-apartheid struggles which will certainly continue in Namibia and South Africa.


For The Record

There I was, thinking Content has really gotten it together. I even renewed my sub without being asked to. Then I came upon Bob Carr's item about The Record in the March-April Omnium. It has me so pissed off I'm going to blow our goddam horn long and loud. And you'd better print every word.

We are Quebec's second-largest English daily. We are very healthy. We publish at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday and we would publish Saturdays if there was any way the Post Office would deliver it.

We have an ABC-audited circulation of more than 8,000, up almost 2,000 in less than three years. This is the highest since the Bassetts owned the paper; so much for the dying-English-community myth in Quebec.

We are an independent and have been so since publisher George MacLaren bought the Sherbrooke Record from Conrad Black in 1977.

We changed the name from the Sherbrooke Record to The Record as part of a new-look and promotional campaign which included the new logo (and you'd better run that). The idea behind the name change was that our readers are strung out across the Townships and would somehow feel we were giving them better coverage without the Sherbrooke specific. It's a North American trend, probably because it makes it easier to sell ads.

We have done what has come to be known as investigative reporting before it became something to hold conferences about. Our man Nelson Wyatt wrote a fierce series about asbestos in local education institutions when most Canadian dailies were running stories about asbestosis among U.S. shipyard workers.

We wrote a three-parter about punitive solitary confinement and other practices in local juvenile detention centres when it was a very unpopular local issue.

We've written stories on water, air and land pollution when it was in our best interest not to. And not only have we survived the unfriendly blasts, but we've managed to get the local French press to follow our lead. Our people have been threatened, harassed, bullied and cursed on the job and, believe me, it means a helluva lot more when you've 8,000 readers than when you have 80,000.

We've run story after story about Domtar's clearcutting activities in the Townships, about Quebec's ongoing use of Agent Orange as a herbicide, about foreign land speculation in the Townships, about various agricultural scams, about Hydro-Quebec's development plans wiping out this or that.

I could brag on, and will. We do this with a staff of six, plus about six more trusty stringers and a few score local correspondents sending in the occasional news tidbit among the social notes. The staffers all take pictures, write stories, edit copy, lay out pages and write heads, and in both official languages.

Two of us have had previous newspapering experience, myself at The Gazette and The Montreal Star and Carole Treiser at The Gazette. Our staff photog, Perry Beaton, has won distinction and prizes in his profession, but the rest of us can't wait to win our first NNA. We're not a staff of superstars.

We cover the community well. We don't spend money on surveys; our readers write and phone to tell us themselves. Until we saw the little item in Omnium, we didn't figure it really mattered what the rest of the world thought. But on reflection, I guess it does. Hence the long, loud honking of The Record horn.

That's us. Get it right next time or you'll be running three times this.

James Duff, editor,
The Record,
Sherbrooke, Que.


Good points in Black piece

Despite its reactionary rhetoric, Conrad Black's piece ("A Black View Of The Press") in this winter's issue of the Carleton Journalism Review raises some valid points about our profession.

Journalists, both in the print and the electronic media, are younger and better educated than ever before. But the semi-star status some of us have achieved in the past decade, coupled with a more opinionated style of reportage, means we must examine our motives that much more closely. The bandwagon journalism fingered by Tim Grouse in the 1972 American presidential campaign has become painfully prevalent of late, especially during such media events as the two recent federal elections and in the half-baked news reporting from the Third World (Content, February 1980).

Which brings me to the recent takeover by the Thomson organization of FP Publications Ltd. The clear and present danger to Canadian journalism here is that the trend to subjective reporting already mentioned is compounded by Thomson's control of 44 Canadian dailies, most of them in one-newspaper towns.

Here in Charlottetown, Thomson publishes two dailies-the morning Guardian and the afternoon Patriot. The latter bills itself as "An Independent Newspaper," despite the fact that it contains primarily regurgitated stories from the Guardian. The Thomson impact is lessened somewhat by the presence of the Summerside Journal-Pioneer, which has a Charlottetown bureau, and by the Montague-based Eastern Graphic, which enjoys a province-wide circulation and is the best of a bad lot.

The economic factors involved in newspaper publishing these days dictate to a certain extent that large chains are one of the few ways around the enormous costs of print journalism in the 1980s. But the cost-cutting techniques employed by chains, especially Thomson, undermine journalistic standards to an unacceptable degree. Both Thomson papers here do without proofreaders (having freelanced a few articles for them, I speak from experience—I have deliberately left in typos which faithfully appeared in the story) and employ novice reporters who, as soon as they have any skill at all, leave for greener pastures.

Moreover, they publish photos and stories which purport to be "news" but are, in effect, simply free advertising.

The danger of news manipulation, or even sloppy journalism, has never occurred to people in small cities and rural communities, most of whom have had no exposure to the mainstream dailies.

Thomson, although never found guilty, is suspected of what could be construed as monopolistic tactics in its advertising campaigns. The Kelowna, B.C. Daily Courier, a Thomson paper, conducted a savage advertising war against the now-defunct weekly Kelowna Today, where I worked as a reporter for 10 of their 20 months in business. Cut-rate ads, with the proviso that advertisers deal exclusively with the Courier, were offered in a successful attempt to put Today out of business. These charges are still under investigation by the federal department of consumer and corporate affairs. Sadly, they come too late to benefit a free press.

I now work for CBC Radio here in Charlottetown, as a story editor and commentator with  the agriculture and resources department. The three-year-old radio service on PEI has been fighting an uphill battle for acceptance by the xenophobic Islanders. There's a siege mentality here which harbours a great distrust of anything or anyone who comes "from away."

Curious, isn't it, that such an attitude would fear the national radio network as interlopers while embracing the organs of the multinational Thomson group? 

Paul Grant,
CBC Radio,


Published in Sources May/June 1980

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