How Journalists Influence the News
by Lydia Miljan & Barry Cooper
University of British Columbia Press
$85.00 Hardcover, Release Date: 9/29/03
$24.95 Paperback, Release Date: 9/29/03
Reviewed by Ron Stang
Do media owners influence the news? And, in an age when Canada's
large cities are often dominated by single newspaper chains and
in which "convergence" has integrated the production of
news over various mediums, is the public at the mercy of an elite
group of capitalists who impose social control by disseminating
information that upholds the status quo?
According to media critics of the Left, a response in the affirmative
is in some way true. And, with the debate over media concentration
sometimes rising to a boil (the government-appointed Kent Commission
after the 1980 closings of the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal;
Conrad Black's Hollinger-led acquisitions in 1995 resulting in 56
per cent ownership of Canadian newspapers), the issue remains significant.
But, say authors of a new study, those who criticize media owners
for having a preponderant effect on news have never empirically
tested their claims. Moreover, the debate has taken place without
regard to the role played by the thousands of people who actually
write and produce the news.
Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper in Hidden Agendas: How Journalists
Influence the News (UBC Press) set out a critique of the Left
wing or "cultural critical" school (Chomsky, Gramsci,
Miliband, among others, and their adherents) whose analysis is rooted
in Marxist theory that says those who own the means of production
control intellectual output. Instead, the commentators, political
science professors at universities of Windsor and Calgary and affiliated
with the Fraser Institute, argue that the appropriate analysis should
be the "liberal pluralist" one. This argues that journalists
are "relatively independent" of their company bosses.
The authors blame the cultural critical school for having "oversimplified"
the role of media owners. "Evidence that cultural critics have
provided is not systematic but anecdotal" and "the belief
that owners control news content has simply not been tested."
They point to critics like Thelma McCormack or Michael Clow for
wholesale criticizing the media for marginalizing social movements
such as feminists or environmentalists or using quantitative facts
on one subject (i.e. the 1980s anti-nuclear movement) to extrapolate
about media coverage of other social movements.
The liberal pluralist school is based on the "values, attitudes,
and beliefs" of journalists who prepare the news and how in
turn these help influence how stories are reported. Therefore the
authors, using polling firm Compas, obtained journalists' views
on a range of matters from economics to social issues to national
Generally, the study (research took place over 1996-97) found that
"the individual views of journalists do influence the way they
cover the news." Also, the views differed between journalists
in the private and public (CBC) sectors and between English and
French journalists. The study also found journalists tended to be
"postmaterialist" - more concerned with quality of life
issues (environmentalism, feminism) than economic or "subsistence"
ones. A methodology was devised that coded statements in stories
by journalists or sources to show how these represented views across
the political spectrum.
On economic issues such as unemployment and inflation, most stories
were middle of the road reflecting calls for government intervention
and private sector solutions. Two print outlets, The Globe and
Mail and Calgary Herald, "offered more statements on the
right than on the left" which reflected private sector journalists'
greater support for free markets. CBC journalists, on the other
hand, were "left of centre."
On social issues, as reflected in Supreme Court decisions on tobacco
advertising, custodial parents' child support for income tax purposes,
and gay rights, the media reporting was not so much on who won or
lost "but to provide more supportive coverage of whomever the
media themselves back" such as aboriginals or gays. On national
unity - specifically support for the partition of Quebec - the divide
was by "the language spoken by the reporter."
The authors conclude that "journalism is a human endeavour"
and decisions on story content "has more to do with the journalists
than the owners."
While that may be true, it hardly gives a complete picture of how
stories are reported, including deadlines, the availability of sources
and limited space or airtime, although the authors at one point
And, frankly, while working journalists may control a significant
part of what ends up in stories the public could be forgiven for
thinking the media do push a status quo agenda. Why do the Canwest
Global papers have almost exclusively conservative columnists (Gunter,
Robson, Jonas, Corcoran, Sowell, etc.) but few if any from the liberal-left?
Perhaps the next study should be on the selection of editorial and
op-ed page content, as well as on the hiring of private radio talk
show hosts, who also trend to the Right.
Ron Stang is a Windsor-based radio newsmagazine producer and
freelance print journalist.
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