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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
changed the name from the Sherbrooke
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.
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
We've run story after story about Domtar's
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.
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
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
That's us. Get it right next time or you'll be
running three times this.
James Duff, editor,
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).
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
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
impact is lessened somewhat by the presence of the Summerside
which has a Charlottetown bureau, and by the
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
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?
Published in Sources May/June 1980
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