Bias is a strange thing. It can be overt and obvious; but usually it’s extremely subtle and barely detectable. At other times, the dynamics of self-deception completely prevent us from recognizing our bias; something which is, I believe, especially true with media bias. Biased decisions to “not report” negative news about a person, company, political party, or government (which just so happen to be major sources of media revenue) are not likely made “consciously” very often: it’s far more likely that media management will just avoid asking tough questions or being suspicious of their main sources of revenue. They won’t come out and say that of course, they’ll just consistently and conveniently steer the attention of their reporters in different directions during their daily story meetings.
Really good reporters leave no stone unturned; but biased reporters (whether they are fully aware of their biases or not) will see those same rocks as “stepping stones” to quickly skip across to avoid sinking into troublesome terrain, which will then enable them to get other stories that day, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
Back in the early 1990s, after I finishing a major report from an investigation I undertook into the PVYn potato scandal for the National Farmers Union, the somewhat shocking claims in my report were subsequently the subject of a live media panel discussion. I had fed an exclusive news “nugget” to a certain person on that panel, and I kept waiting and waiting to hear the bomb go off, but it never did. I felt betrayed. I later confronted the person asking why the truth about what a certain senior Agriculture Canada bureaucrat had done wasn’t mentioned as promised, and heard the following sheepish apology: “Kevin, you have to realize that when this story is over I’ll have to interview (so-and-so) again and again to get other stories, and I just can’t afford to burn that bridge.” My claims were eventually proven in court and won $15 million for Island potato farmers and, in a separate legal action, another $15 million for N.B. potato farmers. It may not have taken nearly 20 years if more of the story I uncovered from the outset had been honestly reported by the media.
That’s how I learned that the media sometimes decides to report the news by “scratching” rather than “digging”…..raising questions when they already know the answers…recusing themselves when they should be accusing someone else. In that way, journalists can honestly say they’ve “reported on the news story,” but they’ve done so in a way that doesn’t expose the most important facts required to truly provide a full understanding of what happened; or that would lead to formal investigations that might result in criminal charges or indictments; or that would explain things in a way to create sufficient public awareness, concern or “outrage” to actually hold the individuals at the heart of the story accountable and bring about a degree of positive social change and at least a measure of justice.
What ever happened to the preferred “genre” of the truly savvy reporter, the exposé [Collins defines exposé as: “….a piece of writing which reveals the truth about a situation or person, especially something involving shocking facts”]? Why do media so seldom report “complete” stories? Media organizations – especially daily newspapers – usually give several reasons: (1) there are insufficient resources to do investigative journalism; (2) people have very short attention spans, and given the “real-time,” “fast-paced,” “sound-bite” technological and media culture we’re now living in, there’s simply no time to do in-depth reporting; and (3) newspapers are businesses after all and to survive they must give people what they want; and unfortunately, what people want these days is entertainment (the more sensational the better) not “hard news” stories.
There’s clearly some truth in each of these reasons, but they’re still bogus rationalisations which don’t excuse the media for failing in their primary obligation and duty to properly inform citizens. Media outlets in PEI (like anywhere else) remain the principal source of information enabling us to understand social and political life, notwithstanding the prevalence of social media. Media offers an invaluable and irreplaceable function in democratic societies; namely, to properly inform the electorate. That’s why the media has rightly been dubbed the fourth estate Many are now wondering if the media – especially as a result of the high degree of consolidation with media ownership – hasn’t become an undesirable fourth branch of government. As historian John Buescher explains:
Calling it [the mass media] “the 4th branch” not only emphasizes the amount of power it wields, but is often meant to suggest that that power is not under the control of the people in the same way that their elected representatives are. The implication is that it acts as a shadow government, unaccountable to the people, but is instead beholden to special interests of one sort or another, or that the press’s supposed separation from the government is largely an illusion.
The Guardian and Journal-Pioneer are now owned by Saltwire, a company formed in 2017 when Halifax’s independently-owned The Chronicle Herald acquired 27 newspapers in the region from Transcontinental Media. Combined with the Chronicle Herald’s existing community newspaper holdings, Saltwire now publishes 35 newspapers in the Atlantic Province (See list here) and is now the largest media group in Atlantic Canada.
All media – perhaps daily newspapers especially – have a moral and civic obligation to provide a continuous, honest and critical check on the power inherent in other social institutions such as the police, the courts, and especially, municipal, provincial and federal governments. That’s why our constitution has made the “freedom of expression” a fundamental freedom – so media can provide an ongoing check on government’s power by diligently investigating and reporting news. The real question in today’s world is whether the press (now consolidated, concentrated and controlled by huge corporations) is itself “free” from the conditions and constraints that can compromise and frustrate citizens’ right to know? The media must also be held accountable if it is to fulfil its primary duty – to hold the other institutions of power in society to their primary duties and responsibilities. But how do we do that when media is dependent on those institutions both for its news and, perhaps even more importantly, its revenue – both of which are needed for the media to survive? And we can’t be naive that this doesn’t apply to our local media; because one of the largest – if not the largest – sources of revenue comes from the two main political parties and the provincial government.
Whenever government becomes a main source of revenue for media organizations (e.g., the Guardian and Journal-Pioneer newspapers) such a relationship can’t help but weaken the investigative, critical and challenging role those daily newspapers should play in our day-to-day lives. To its credit, the Guardian recently published an article reporting that the MacLauchlan government spent nearly a million dollars on advertising since coming into power. However, it must also be noted that the largest beneficiary of that spending was the corporation owning the Guardian and Journal-Pioneer during this period (Transcontinental Media) which received $290,669. Add to that Transcontinental’s substantial “revenue relationship” with the current MacLauchlan government in the pre-election period, and the total contribution is substantial, as can be surmised from the following chart:
A lot of people were shocked when the Guardian formally endorsed Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal Party in the last general election, brazenly arguing that Islanders should do the same. Many Islanders questioned how a newspaper could adopt such a partisan preference and still ensure that decision doesn’t impact its neutrality, or compromise fairness in reporting political news. Some supported the move, including Holland College Journalism instructor Rick MacLean – who, coincidentally, has a weekly column with the Guardian – saying:
“Newspapers have a leadership responsibility,” stated MacLean. “What could be more important than picking the people who are going to spend the money you give them in taxes?”
But many other Islanders saw the Guardian’s endorsement of Trudeau and the federal Liberals as completely inappropriate, believing that the role of the media should be to “inform” the public, not “persuade” the public.
I have published a significant number of Guest Opinion articles in both the Guardian and Journal Pioneer since MacLauchlan came into power in early 2015, and I must say that both the Journal-Pioneer and Guardian have published almost all of my articles as submitted, with several important exceptions. The Guardian, Journal-Pioneer and Eastern Graphic newspapers all declined to print two investigative articles I submitted which exposed close ties between Premier MacLauchlan and various individuals and businesses (Insider Connections Part 1: Wade, Duncan and the O’Neils; and Insider Connections Part II: Wade, Duncan and Frank Zhou).
I still haven’t heard back from the Journal-Pioneer [clickHEREfor a J-P update] or Guardian on whether they’ll publish my more recent investigative article (Three Premiers and a Business Tycoon) which I sent to them about a week ago[click HEREfor a Guardian update (published February 28, unedited under the title “Long-standing relationships” ]; however, I have heard back from Paul MacNeil at the Eastern Graphic who has decided not to publish it because I had already put it on social media and his “….preference is to use our editorial for fresh content.”
When we look at partisan media bias it’s a fair bet there’s a similar Liberal bias at the Guardian and Journal-Pioneer regarding a preference for the Liberal Party as there is with the federal Liberal government, not simply because of an obvious affinity between the MacLauchlan Liberal government and these newspapers on various policy and social issues, such as abortion access, but also as a result of the much larger amount of revenue which the Guardian and Journal-Pioneer receives from both the Liberal Party and the Liberal government.
Which certainly begs the question: “how is a close relationship between an incumbent Liberal government, the Liberal Party, then re-elected Liberal government and the media all that different from corporations and unions giving donations to political parties?” We all know money talks – we just don’t know exactly what it says to the media at any given moment because those conversations are secret. Nevertheless, we need to be aware of the extent to which media are dependent upon revenue from political parties and the government, and recognize that there is also a definite correlation between the extent of that dependence and the amount of self-imposed constraint media will inflict so as not to jeopardize a major source of revenue by being excessively critical or scathing when reporting on government. The old adage fits: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” (with a slight caveat)…”but make sure you periodically inflict a few good scratches to establish a public perception of political neutrality.”
What we really need is for all Island media to risk reporting really bad news about really bad government decisions with absolutely no sugar-coating, and without a single thought of potential negative fall-out! There’s only one thing worse than “fake news” about government, and that’s “incomplete news” about government that passes as “complete news.” We mustn’t forget that a half-truth is also a half-lie which politicians can spin to make us believe that something that’s really bad is really not that bad at all.
Fake news is usually easy to detect and expose: incomplete news requires a lot of hard, dedicated, investigative work. And we’re just not getting nearly enough investigative news in PEI these days, which is at least part of the reason why we’ve had a litany of government scandals in recent years with millions and millions of tax dollars wasted by government. It’s long-past time that Islanders started receiving news that’s “complete” news; news that tells the whole story….ESPECIALLY when that news is BAD. As Marshall Mcluhan once famously declared: “The real news is bad news.” He was absolutely correct. So how about it Island media? How about giving us more bad news? We’re all adults here…we can handle it!