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Hidden Agendas:
How Journalists Influence the News


by Lydia Miljan & Barry Cooper

University of British Columbia Press

$85.00 Hardcover, Release Date: 9/29/03
ISBN: 0077481019X

$24.95 Paperback, Release Date: 9/29/03
ISBN: 00774810203
188 Pages

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 unity.

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 mention this.

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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