The first time I paid much attention to American media was in 1989 when I moved to Washington for a three-year assignment. In those days, the evening network newscasts were required viewing, and had the lion’s share of the available audience. The first cable news network, CNN, was soon to redefine the media landscape with its “live” coverage of the first Gulf War in January 1991. The networks had a great number of foreign correspondents, and it felt like the United States was closely attuned to international events, particularly with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Ten years later, I returned to the US to a changed TV news environment. MSNBC and Fox News had already become serious competitors and the evening newscasts had become quite forgettable, already going downmarket in an attempt regain viewers lost to cable. You were in luck if more than 5 of the 23 minutes of content were actually news. And you were more in luck if the 5 minutes included an international news story. Even luckier if that international story was not somehow related to the US, or about a catastrophe. But there was no shortage of news stories about Paris Hilton. In fact, she did earn the title of non-political personality most covered in 2007.
I came back to Canada almost two years ago to find out that seeking to popularize the news was equally in vogue. There is one slight difference here: we do like entertainment, but our news coverage seems to favour sports. According to the media monitoring firm Influence Communication, 10 of the 15 news stories most covered over a seven-day period in 2010 were related to sports: from the Vancouver Olympic Games to the NHL play-offs. Three out of five international news stories Canadian media most reported on were related to sports as well. The earthquake in Haiti was the only event that topped the list. “Sports have reached their zenith. Never since the start of the new millennium have sports — and especially hockey — so dominated our media. And never have we paid so little attention to poverty, the elderly, or Aboriginal issues,” says Jean-François Dumas, president of the company.
In fairness, in 2010 the G8 and G20 summits hosted by Canada made the top 15 news stories the Canadian media covered most. But again, according to Influence Communication, the mainstream Canadian media devoted 58 percent of summit coverage to the riots and police response in Toronto, as well as the “fake lake” affair. Although those were very important parts of the story, it is hard to explain why the political agenda, the very essence of the summits, captured only 5 percent of media attention. The remaining 37 percent of coverage was on sidebars such as Toronto’s preparations for the event.
Canadian and American television news executives strongly believe viewers get bored with process stories, and that if they are not relating to a story on an emotional level, they will not be interested in it. Consequently, news programmers are looking for ways to engage viewers, to show more authentic and real moments. They have been slowly moving away from hard news, to offer stories that have personal relevance to the audience. This approach is not new but is certainly more prevalent. The emotional quotient (EQ) factor is becoming part of our daily news lineup.
There is nothing wrong with selecting stories we think people will care about. It should not stop us from bringing depth and context to the stories and appealing to the intelligence of citizens. In fact, people wish nothing more than to feel smart and empowered.
The revolution in Egypt is the perfect case of EQ meets IQ. The demonstrations riveted viewers around the world. Was this going to become another Tiananmen Square, or the start of a new world, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall? It proved to be latter, the fall of the pharaoh, with a ripple effect throughout the Middle East.
As we were drawn in emotionally, we also wanted to know why the Egyptians were so angry and what it all meant. It was both an emotive television moment and an opportunity to bring smarts into our coverage. This had all the elements of a perfect story with the potential to reach a huge audience. And it did. Both Canadian and American networks spent a lot of money to bring this story home.
Overall, the US coverage on the main channels was not that different from ours, except that their news anchors were on location, and the Canadians were not. Canadian television networks are less and less different from their American counterparts when it comes to international news. American broadcasters still report more international news, as their country is much more involved on the international scene, but they don’t cover international news, they cover American international stories. And so do we, but from a Canadian perspective. More often than not, our international stories are told through the eyes of Canadian witnesses, or they are about Canadians involved in the story.
If it were not for natural disasters like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes; mine rescues; or huge international sports events; Canadians would know very little about the rest of the world. Both countries’ foreign coverage has decreased significantly, and we are more often reactive. The revolution in Egypt was a reminder of that reality.
Canadian and American television news executives strongly believe viewers get bored with process stories, and that if they are not relating to a story on an emotional level, they will not be interested in it.
Before the huge demonstrations attracted our attention, most US and Canadian networks ignored the news in the Middle East. By all accounts, we were taken by surprise and had to play catch-up.
Again, the facts are telling. According to Influence Communication, the stories most covered in the United States since January have been the Super Bowl, followed by the tragedy in Arizona and then the revolution in Egypt. Canadian media faired better, as the crisis in Egypt was the first, the Super Bowl the second, and the defeat of Canada against Russia in junior hockey in Buffalo the third most-covered story.
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If the content of American and Canadian newscasts is not so different, it is quite another story when it comes to the 24-hour news channels. With the success of many radio talk shows, the American cable news networks have taken the EQ to another level, with the goal of increasing viewership. Nowhere has the audience follow-up been stronger than on the cable news networks south of the border. News has become personal. It’s about your attitudes, your values and your beliefs about what someone thinks is right or wrong. According to the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, one of the few questions about cable news in the US is “whether a channel attempting to build its brand around neutral reporting and balanced conversation can succeed.” The medium became even more partisan in tone in 2009, and the opinion programs saw audience growth ahead of more neutral programs.
In one key demographic — 25 to 54 year olds — for the first time, CNN fell behind the more opinionated MNSBC in prime time audience, an unthinkable prospect even two years ago. Both networks’ combined prime time numbers struggled to stay slightly ahead of Fox News. Fox, unapologetic about promoting a conservative point of view, did better in profit and revenue than its rivals. The strongest ratings growth was on ideological programs. Glenn Beck was up 96 percent in 2009 over 2008. The O’Reilly Factor, the top program in cable, was up 16 percent and the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC ended 2009 with 13 percent higher viewership. Overall, again according to the Project for Excellence, “these audience figures seemed to reward what had become a clear branding strategy at the channels.”
“I’m not a journalist,” Glenn Beck said in a June 2009 interview with GQ magazine. And that is part of the problem. Opinion journalism is fair game, and one should be open to all opinions and freedom of expression. Objectivity in its “pure” sense does not exist, but the attempt to reach objectivity is vital for democracy. Deliberate bias, treated as legitimate information, does not serve journalism. In the US we are witnessing an attempt to influence viewers thinking by simplifying the issues and discouraging them from developing what is known in French as “un sens critique.” The American partisan hosts are not just suggesting opinions, they are constantly lecturing, using inflammatory rhetoric. They do not use rational persuasion, but often shamelessly distort the news and polarize the debate. The media are guilty of promoting radical political discourse and looking for conflict, instead of focusing on substance and thoughtful discussions.
US President Barak Obama had a point when he said in 2009: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”
The shooting rampage that killed six and badly wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in early January was a prime example of overuse of opinionated language and beliefs instead of facts in the media. The argument over political rhetoric was the number one story line, and accounted for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the news coverage studied by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was more than the coverage about the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, and his family (20 percent) and straight news accounts of the shooting and its aftermath (12 percent).
In the mainstream media the debate resonated most loudly on the ideological talk shows on radio and cable news. On radio, it filled 57 percent of the airtime devoted to the shooting. On cable, it filled 32 percent. Almost 60 percent of the commentary in blogs, Twitter and other social media involved liberals blaming conservatives for their strident tone. By contrast, the gun control storyline accounted for only 5 percent of all the coverage, and the ones on whether the shooter was mentally ill did not even register.
The media have spent as much time trying to assign political blame for the cause of the Tucson shooting as they have trying to unearth facts about it. Why a story gets framed this way is a good question. The 24/7 news cycle has brought a crude reality about the business which inevitably has and will continue to result in mistakes and wrong information being reported. In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting. from the onset of the crisis, several news outlets inaccurately reported that Giffords had died, including the respected New York Times in its online edition. In the rush to get it first, we sometimes don’t get it right. And yes, in Canada, we made the same mistake.
It did not take too long before some news organizations such as MSNBC suggested the killer might somehow be linked to the Tea Party movement. And most news organizations prominently played the story that Sarah Palin had literally targeted Giffords’ district, showing it in the crosshairs on a map. This is a sad illustration of the pressure of time that news organizations have chosen to take to define the context of a story and to set up a frame for it, often before the facts can be fully understood. But that is not an excuse.
Commenting on the news, instead of reporting it, has become the norm on US cable channels. Canadian cable news networks are going down the same road, perhaps reluctantly, but with the knowledge that it’s a way to increase audience share. The next question is will they also follow the footsteps of their American competitors with respect to partisan content that goes far beyond opinion journalism. After all, we do have a history of controversial radio talk shows. One need only to think of host Charles Adler in the west, or André Arthur in Quebec, who for years before his election as an independent MP in 2006 promoted inflammatory debates. So, immoderate voices and opinions have been part of the broadcast land scape in Canada, too. And not only on radio: The content offered in Canada by the cable news networks has slowly taken the opinionated route. The Quebecor-owned 24-hour news channel LCN is one of them and many suspect Quebecor’s new Sun News Television will bring the concept further. Looking at the potential audience reach, it might become very tempting. As much as we like to think we Canadians are offering higher quality journalism than are our neighbours, there is no guarantee we will not let ourselves be influenced by the commercial success of Fox and the other networks that deliver opinion packaged as news.
The dérapage or unravelling in the coverage over the Arizona shooting is a wake-up call for broadcasters in both countries. Before leaving MSNBC, Keith Olbermann apologized for his partisan rhetoric. But watching CNN, which is desperately trying to keep its journalistic integrity as its numbers plummet, one can only wonder if its programming will not change. As viewers increasingly choose to watch the partisan networks, it may be difficult for news neutrality to survive.
In the words of Stephen Wards, founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists, “In a pluralistic society, a deliberative opinion journalism that skirts the extremes and brings people together is surely the journalism that our democracy needs.”
This is wise advice. In a news culture where there is less and less difference between the US and Canada, Canadian broadcasters have an opportunity to speak with a different voice from our neighbour’s, and to promote all the different voices of our country in a balanced and fair way.