Forget the "Canadian angle"
Published in J-Source on Feb. 25, 2010
By Claude Adams
Last night (Feb. 24) after a tumultuous day in Libya, all three Canadian networks--CBC, CTV and Global-- decided that the prime story of the day was NOT an African people's brave and bloody struggle for freedom, but rather how that revolution is inconveniencing Canadians. CTV led with higher gasoline prices at the pump: CBC and Global opened their shows with reports from Rome, about how difficult it was for Canadians to leave Libya.
Ironically, a woman interviewed at a gas station by CTV put things in perspective: "What's going on in Libya is much more serious than spending an extra three dollars on a tank of gas."
But that was a perspective clearly not shared by the lineup editors at Canada's most important broadcast news outlets. We may be living in a global village, but when it comes to broadcast priorities, it seems, we are still a collection of villages where parochial self-interest comes first, and the state of the world second. "Has anybody here been raped and speak English?" are the words that late Edward Behr had the typical British correspondent asking as he landed in an African civil war. "Are the Canadians okay?" our networks are asking today. "Okay, now what else happened?"
Of course, there are practical concerns here. In foreign news reporting, the messenger is often just as important as the message. None of the three Canadian networks had a correspondent inside Libya; they hadn't "established presence.” If the CBC's Carolyn Dunn, for example, had managed to reach Benghazi or Tripoli and send out a first-hand account of what was happening there, she would likely have led the show. Instead, it was Adrienne Arsenault first from Rome with the story about the belabored Canadians, and Dunn second at the Libyan/Tunisian border. The stark pictures and events inside Libya came third, in a report from Washington. The deployment of your network's marquee reporters abroad is always a factor in designing a newscast. (When I worked for The National years ago, they would rush to get me to a foreign capital so I could file a report from the ground, even if I hadn’t cleared my baggage yet. The news desk would feed me information, so I could sound authoritative the moment I touched down. That’s “establishing presence.”)
At CTV yesterday, the thinking (I suspect) was even more pragmatic. Everybody knew what was going on in Libya, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, so why not do a story on what was really worrying Canadians: how much is that darn revolution going to cost me at the gas pump? The hottest news, like politics, is always local. Or so the thinking goes. (I remember a news director telling me: "News is what people are talking about on the bus to work. Nothing more, nothing less." I suppose that's why we're better informed about Kim Kardashian than North Korea.)
News executives will argue that the hierarchy of stories in the first ten minutes of a newscast doesn't really matter, as long as they are in some way linked to the main story. I don't agree. A newscast should be a reflection of what we really care about as an audience, as a society. Do I really care more about the Canadian oil worker trying to get home, than about the Libyan citizen being pursued by armed mercenaries? And if I do, should a public broadcaster cater to that blinkered sentiment?
Yes, yes, I know that news today is omnipresent, and that I can find out all I need to know about Libya on the CBC's website and on radio and on Google News, anytime I want it. But still, the top newscasts are the prism through which many people view the world, and how the networks behave as gatekeepers tells us something about their values, what they deem significant. Is it too much to insist on a sense of proportionality?
When I taught broadcast journalist a few years ago, we used to play the Lineup Game. I would collect a synopsis of all the stories from the night before, from all the prominent English-language TV newscasts in Canada, the US and the UK, and I would put them up on a board. Then I would ask the students to act as lineup editors, to design their own 22-minute newscasts from all the available stories, based on their own beliefs of what mattered.
In almost every case, the shows they created gave greater weight to strong international stories, with less weight to the purely Canadian-angle ones. I told them this flew in the face of marketing dogma--where local interest always trumps global interest. A downtown shooting will almost always attract more local buzz, and thus more eyeballs, than a ferry sinking in Bangladesh. The students didn't care about these algorithms of relative importance. "These are the kinds of newscasts I would watch," they said about their shows. (Implicit in that was the obvious message: "We don't, and won't, watch the others.") I'm not certain they were telling the truth. But I did find it interesting that their shows most closely resembled BBC newscasts.
Incidentally, these students are precisely that cohort of Canadians that is abandoning traditional newscasts in great numbers. Maybe there's a lesson here.