When impartiality is sacrificed for politics

In search of the truth, this column questions how Canada’s trash ended up in the Philippines as well as critically assesses an article that covered the dumping scandal in terms of journalistic concepts and principles.

Cut-off date: 11 December 2015

Filipino environmental activists hold a protest outside the Canadian embassy in Manila on 7 May 2015. Photo: AP Photo

 

When I first read Tristin Hopper’s newspaper article, I felt angry and ashamed. I didn’t want to believe that my native country had sent 50 shipping containers full of metro Vancouver waste to Manila. Over the past two years, Filipinos have been asking Canada to take back their trash. Whether the containers had actually been labelled “scrap plastic materials for recycling” or not, inspectors reported finding “rotting household waste and soggy paper” inside them.

After the initial shock, I took a closer, more critical look at the article. What was so important about this story that it made front page news? And why was it published on 13 October 2015 if the trash was sent to the Philippines two years earlier?

Hopper’s article is newsworthy because it is a follow-up story about subjects already in the news (Harcup and O’Neill 2001). Canada still hasn’t done anything to solve the problem, therefore the media are still covering it.

But was that a good enough reason to follow-up on it, precisely on 13 October?

The only “new” information we find out in the article is that a hearing regarding the trash took place in the Philippines a week prior to it being published. Otherwise, it lacks fresh insight or a new angle on the story.

According to Harcup and O’Neill (2001, p. 273), “competing media feel obliged to cover the same stories and issues.” Manning (2001, p. 216) adds that news organizations “continually monitor each other’s output.” However, none of the National Post’s direct competitors – The Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, for example – published a similar article the week of 13 October. This is despite the fact that Canadian and Filipino news media have been covering the story on a regular basis since 2013.

At this point, I started to get suspicious.

Isn’t Vancouver known for being green? How is it possible for the trash to have come from Vancouver of all cities?

Ironically, Vancouver aims to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan was launched in 2011. Reduction of the city’s solid waste is one of its initiatives. In 2013, 1.3 million tonnes of solid waste in metro Vancouver – where roughly 50% of the population of BC lives – was sent to either waste-to-energy or disposal facilities.

Could it be that 2,500 tonnes of waste from this figure was actually sent to Manila?

I was on to something but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That’s when I felt compelled to do some digging on the ownership of the National Post.

Along with nearly 200 other newspapers, magazines and websites, the National Post is owned by Canadian media giant Postmedia. As the largest publisher of English-language daily newspapers in Canada, Postmedia is a supporter of the Conservative political party and its dailies reach a whopping 6.3 million Canadian readers each week.

Who is the CEO of Postmedia? None other than Paul Godfrey – a powerful Canadian businessman, former politician and longtime Conservative party operative. “If news is a business,” McNair says (2005, p. 34), “it is owned by businessmen with political preferences and ideological biases.”

Curiously, from 12-13 October 2015, Postmedia published the National Post’s article about Canada’s trash in the Philippines in all of the broadsheet newspapers it owns. Hopper originally wrote it for the National Post, though it appeared in at least eight other Postmedia newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun and the Calgary Herald, among others.

Perhaps more interesting to note is that the Federal Elections in Canada were due to be held on 19 October 2015, less than a week after these articles were published.

Something about this seemed fishy.

Deacon et al. (2015) warn that in Canada, there is a danger in the concentration of the print media in the hands of a few major corporations such as Postmedia. With this in mind, I grew even more skeptical. In his research on agenda-setting, Edelstein (1993) found that “news media put emphases on newsworthy events by using various importance cues such as frequency and amount of coverage.”

What was Postmedia trying to achieve in publishing the same article in multiple newspapers all across Canada? Were they highlighting this dumping event in order to set some sort of agenda?

I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

Manning (2001, p. 214) believes that “the news media can rapidly push particular themes and issues up the hierarchy of public concerns.”

But what issues was Postmedia keen on making Canadians aware of?

Stephen Harper was still Prime Minister of Canada on 13 October. Vying to be reelected, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lost to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals six days later.

As such, I believe that there was a strategic purpose in publishing this article across the country less than a week before Canada’s Federal Elections. It was a right-wing, domestic attack on the Liberal political party in an attempt to sway voters towards the Conservatives right before the election.

Since Godfrey and his Postmedia empire are Conservative supporters, it can be argued that they aimed to shame the Liberals – particularly the BC Liberal party – as the culprits who shipped waste from their province’s largest city to the Philippines and failed to take responsibility for the despicable act.

When the trash was sent to Manila in 2013, the Liberals held a majority government under Premier Christy Clark. Clark is still Premier of the province today.

As McNair (2005, p. 35) says, “Journalism has always been ideological, and deeply political.”

According to Miller and Riechert (2000, p. 50), the ways that news media frame issues can come directly from stakeholders with vested interests. In this case, Godfrey was a stakeholder who wanted the Conservatives to remain in government. Godfrey promoted his views in Postmedia’s newspapers and Hopper had no choice but to accept how this issue was framed, ultimately giving voice to Godfrey’s views.

Moreover, public opinion poll averages in Canada reveal that on 13 October, 35% of eligible voters supported the Liberals whereas only 31% supported the Conservatives. These statistics reiterate how crucial it was for Postmedia to paint the Liberals in a bad light and relentlessly compete for votes mere days before the election. This was the political context within which Hopper was working. He reports the way he does due to pressure from his company and its owner. The quality of his newsgathering methods and sources suffer as a result.

Deuze (2005) categorized objectivity as one of the five ideal traits in the ideology of journalism. Yet Hopper makes no attempt to persuade us of his objectivity.

His article contains quotes from Filipino officials, politicians and environmental campaigners who all condemn Canada for committing the dirty deed, whereas only one quote from the owner of the Canadian company who denies having sent “waste” to the Philippines at all.

Hopper made no effort to interview Canadian politicians, or other relevant Canadians who might have had opposing insight on the dumping situation.

He also didn’t do any old-fashioned investigating. Phillips (2010, p. 274) argues that original reporting should question and follow-up information provided by official sources. Not only is Hopper’s reporting second-hand, he doesn’t bother to follow-up on his secondary sources. One of his quotes by a Filipino senator, for instance, was lifted from a press release. And three of his sources are quoted as having said things either a few months ago or last year.

Why didn’t Hopper contact these sources and get updated quotes from them? What made him resort to lazy newsgathering techniques?

One reason could be the constraints in today’s newsroom, where journalists feel pressured to produce more stories and there isn’t enough money in the budget for foreign correspondence. “With staffing costs regularly being trimmed,” argues Manning (2001, p. 55), particularly for foreign news, the costs of maintaining large numbers of foreign correspondents has become excessive for many news organizations.

Davies (2008, p. 59) thinks it is because “no reporter who is turning out nearly ten stories every shift can possibly do his or her job properly.”

These increasing demands could be the reason why Hopper’s choice of sources and newsgathering methods emerge into a story that isn’t as fair, thorough, and factual as it could be. Readers are not left with a better understanding of what really happened after reading this article. Instead, they are left asking more questions.

A former National Post journalist told the National Observer on condition of anonymity that, by the end of 2014, reporters at the newspaper were being asked to produce more and shorter stories, with less in-depth coverage. Assuming this is true, maybe Hopper was and still is one of those reporters?

In any case, working under the constraints of an organization with a political agenda cannot make it possible for any journalist to be simultaneously loyal to readers as well as the company’s owners. In this type of environment, objectivity would always be what McNair (2005, p. 34) describes as, “threatened by the interests of those who own and control journalistic media.”

Critical assessment of this current affairs story shows that journalistic concepts, principles and techniques can be at the mercy of bigwigs who own media outlets. Impartiality and fairness mean nothing to journalists who must heed the wishes and interests of those at the top of their organization.

To be a journalist is to accept that truth may sometimes, if not always, have to be sacrificed for profit and politics.

Bibliography

Davies, N. 2009. Flat earth news. London: Vintage Books.

Deacon, L. et al. 2015. Environmental justice: An exploratory snapshot through the lens of Canada’s mainstream news media. The Canadian Geographer.

Deuze, M. 2005. What is journalism: Professional Identity and Ideology of Journalists Reconsidered. Journalism 6(4). pp. 442-464.

Edelstein, A. Thinking about the Criterion Variable in Agenda-Setting Research. Journal of Communication. 43(2) pp. 85-99.

Harcup, T. and O’Neill, D. 2001. What is news? Galtung and Ruge revisited. Journalism Studies 2(2). pp. 261-280.

Manning, P. 2001. News and News Sources. London: Sage.

McNair, B. 2005. What is journalism? In: de Burgh, H. Making Journalists: Diverse Models, Global Issues. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 25-43.

Miller, M. and Riechert, B. 2000. Interest group strategies and journalistic norms: news media framing of environmental issues. In: Allan, S. et all. eds. Environmental risks and the media. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 45-54.

Phillips, A. 2010. Transparency and the new ethics of journalism. Journalism Practice 4(3). pp. 373-382.

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