Media Ill-Advised to Ignore Problems
That This Book Deals with Unevenly
The Newsmongers: How The Media Distort the Political News
Mary Anne Comber and Robert S. Mayne
McClelland & Stewart, 178 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by Derek Suchard
Those who live in the media world daily often feel that they are
the best qualified to criticize it. And indeed most print (and all
broadcast) critique of the media are produced by journalists of
Interesting about this tome from Comber and Mayne, a political
scientist and researcher respectively, is that, as Peter Trueman
notes in his foreward:
"This is not another reporter's look at the news business."
More interesting, though, is that while castigating the media for
their abuses, the authors tumble headlong into the same pitfalls
that they have identified as being wrong, wrong, wrong.
This pattern is not long in revealing itself. On page 23 the loss
of many newspapers over the years is rightfully lamented. "Today
there is only one newspaper available in many Canadian cities."
Before that lamentation, though, in the introduction, we are told
that, " in the first phase we conducted a systematic review
of selected media coverage of the 1984 Canadian federal election."
These selected media, we find out one page later, consisted of the
Globe and Mail and the CBC's The Journal. Hardly the
broad spectrum of opinion that our authors so long for (and which
they could find should they choose to cast their net across the
vast number of non-daily periodicals in Canada, which range from
local ward newspapers to esoteric special interest magazines, and
which do deal in subjects of weight to their audiences.)
This lack is evident in the second phase of the investigation,
during which, we are told, they "interviewed many people, both
inside and outside the media." Fine and well. Whom? With but
one exception, we don't know. They criticize the media later for
using unnamed sources and deep background. But the authors have
resorted to the same anonymity to (wait for it) protect the identity
of those who wouldn't have felt free to express their opinions under
their own by-lines as it were. Now where have we heard that before?
Certainly there is a lot of merit in this book, both in often-accurate
assessments of the end-product of journalism, and in the feeling
gained that there is a contingent out there dissatisfied with that
product. A dissatisfaction that newsgatherers are ill-advised to
Yet one is still at a loss to divine what the authors consider
the right path to follow to correct that dissatisfaction. We are
early on urged to emulate our opinionated predecessors who "argued
for reform, sometimes radical reform, of the economic, social and
political structures of the country." Later that approbation
is turned on its head when we are criticized for providing "
a new interpretive and personalized journalism..."
Whatever is one to do?
Setting aside these trivial digressions, though, let us proceed,
accepting for the moment the strictures of the investigation.
The most telling point made, and it has been made before, concerns
the trivializing of the news, especially political news, largely
at the urging of television, which must deliver more jolts-per-minute
to compete with Hill Street Blues. Gone are the days of Earl
Cameron dispassionately delivering the day's events. Instead, we
have brightly-attired, always-smiling, anchor persons trying to
entertain (as well as inform).
And this has consequences far outside the television studio, for
it has changed the way our politicians conduct election campaigns,
and, in fact, has often replaced a traditional campaign with a series
of poll results, giving neither style nor substance to the electoral
battle being waged.
The more so, since, as they correctly point out, newspapers (and
don't be so smug, magazines, too) feel they have to deliver more
bounce to the ounce, as well, giving over what would have been inches
of analysis to photos and graphics that may or may not tell the
story. And examples are provided where the use of a photo colours
the whole complexion of the story, giving opinion where none is
Unlike some critiques, which only serve to vent some discontented
spleen, Newsmongers does have a prescription for what ails us. Unfortunately,
for them and for us, it is a prescription which will never see the
light of day, couched as it is in reason and logic, and not in the
dog-eat-dog mentality of ratings and circulaton in which we in the
real world must contend.
The prescription, briefly, is for journalists to keep their opinions
to themselves unless they clearly state otherwise. Journalists are
simply to provide facts on which readers can base their own conclusions.
Looking with a critical eye, a journalist can find much fault with
the arguments here presented. Lay readers, though, will not be as
concerned with the finer points, but rather, should want some sort
of honest discussion of these issues. For that reason, among others,
the working press should find out what these issues are seen to
be by two very eloquent spokespeople.
Derek Suchard is Assistant Editor of Travelling on Business
This article originally appeared in Sources, Tenth Anniversary
Issue, Summer 1987.
Ten Censored Stories of 1988
Ten Censored Stories of 1989
and Dissent: The Press and Politics of Peace in Canada
Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, and the Gulf War
the News that Wasn't
Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
and Democracy are not Compatible
at the impact of investigative journalism
the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
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