All news not equally fit to print
Vancouver Courier
May 2, 1999

Have you ever come across a newspaper story that you think you’ve read before? Chances are you have. One of the shortcomings of news reporting is that much of what gets printed, or broadcast for that matter, isn’t really news.

Some items are reported because ritual demands they be reported. For example, the newsworthiness of the pope’s annual Easter blessing is nil, since his pleas for love, understanding and world peace are predicable. Yet, the blessing is dutifully covered because it’s important for the world’s millions of Catholic Christians.

The same kind of predictability can also be found in the advertising-driven feature sections of the Vancouver Sun, especially its annual supplements for events like the Molson Indy. Those who want to read consequential stories, though, can easily cut through this chaff. It’s bad enough that “advertorial” copy is blurring the line of respectability separating news from advertising, but when a news story is reported repetitiously and tendentiously—that’s another matter.

Take the so-called “United Alternative.” There’s nothing more to be said about this desperate but doomed attempt by Reformers to make themselves palatable to thinking Conservatives. Yet the National Post, and to a lesser extent the Globe and Mail, feel the need to be a tribune for this tedium.

At some point, readers have to wonder whether the paper is reporting a newsworthy story or surreptitiously promoting a point of view under the guise of reporting a story. (This raises the question of what happens to the important stuff that doesn’t get reported for want of space or interest, but that’s for another column.)

The granddaddy of this syndrome, of course, is the Constitution and Quebec separatism—a highly important subject that has been flogged and over-reported to the point where most Canadians, especially in the West, are simply sick of it. Today the subject has become an esoteric squabble, of interest only to bureaucrats, politicians and masochists.

What started me thinking about the quality of newspaper reporting was an April 19 story in the Globe’s business section about working women. The headline read:

“Women gaining ground in work force—better education is bringing more employment opportunities, longer job tenure, improving pay.”

The story, laden with statistics and graphs, discussed how far women have come in their quest for “equality.” (Of course it featured the typical useless aggregate graph showing that the average wage was lower for women than men, without bothering to discriminate among occupations.) The piece also featured a celebratory profile of a woman who broke into a formerly exclusively male occupation; in this case, a commercial helicopter pilot.

On their merits, the statistics—compiled by a Calgary-based firm—and the story of the pilot, Julia Henderson, seem to make for a newsworthy story. However, such stories are becoming conspicuously repetitious.

As recently as Jan. 9, the Globe’s front page declared: “Women gain most of Canada’s new jobs—robust economy results in a sharp rise in women’s employment.” This time Statistics Canada provided the data.

On Sept. 14 last year, an inside story was headlined: “Women altering look and priorities of Canadian unions—Statscan says female workers joining unions faster than men, membership is close to half.”

To go with these stories, we have those like the one on Jan. 29, that regurgitate statistics of how few women sit on corporate boards and how the “glass ceiling” impedes women’s promotion prospects. The source for this story was Catalyst—“a respected U.S. non-profit research group”—and its president Sheila Wellington, who was quoted copiously. She was also a major source for a similar story Dec. 10, 1997.

The difference between the two is that the 1997 story at least made an attempt to discuss the supplied data. The recent story read like a glorified Catalyst press release: statistics were presented uncritically and the only voices in the story came from Catalyst.

There was nothing about the Jan. 29 story to justify the coverage it got. The way the Globe presented the story gave every indication that its purpose was not to inform the public about corporate hiring practices, but to promote a particular version of those practices.

The numbers were never analyzed or made intelligible; they were meant only for our consumption. It’s time somebody investigated our distorted emphasis on male/female differences as the overriding characteristics of society. The unspoken bias in much employment reporting is that numerical equality is the sine qua non of justice.

This pious fiction is not only irrational it amounts to an active prejudice against men. At the bottom of the April 19 story was a short feature entitled “Young men facing tougher time in job race.” Presumably young women have it a bit easier.

Employment is a serious matter for everyone, women and non-women alike. The least we can expect from newspapers is that they report news, not recite partisan surveys. Otherwise, we’ll all become bored and tune out.