Readers hoping for news get railroaded by celebrity Twain
Vancouver Courier
August 13, 2000

On its front page The Province boasts of being “B.C.’s best-read newspaper.” This presupposes, of course, that the Province is actually a newspaper, a publication that delivers news (important information) to its readership. Of late, that supposition is hard to sustain.

With the Aug. 7 issue, the “Tab,” as it’s affectionately known, plumbed such depths of journalistic shallowness that it’s worth wondering if its editors can distinguish legitimate news from prurient trivia and celebrity worship.

The front-page story and photo concerned a fluffy wire story about Shania Twain attending her high-school reunion in Timmins, Ont. This story belongs in the “Take a Break” section, not on the front. Ah, but Twain is a lust magnet and a celebrity, and as we all know sex and celebrity together equal newsworthiness. Ergo, she gets the cover, even though this Ontario-based story is of marginal relevance to B.C. at best.

Not even the fig leaf of a B.C. connection could cover up this news judgment travesty. In the front-page précis we read how Susan Ford, a former classmate from Victoria, said Shania “stole the show.” Upon reading the story, however, you discover the woman didn’t say this and disappears after the third paragraph. Two of these paragraphs were pulled from the middle of the original story in the Timmins Daily Press and tacked onto a new lead. (The Vancouver Sun ran the story properly and gave credit to the original journalist.) To make matters worse, Ford was also alluded to the subhead, compounding the fiction that this story had a useful B.C. angle.

One more thing—the inside photo of Twain. The cutline says her old classmates are giving her the “thumbs up” sign (for what we aren’t told), yet as anyone can see, she is giving the sign. Also, it was not taken at the reunion, yet we are meant to believe it was, else why use it? Her outfit in the front-page photo matches the description in the story; this one doesn’t.

What gives? If the Province didn’t have another photo, it shouldn’t have wasted the one it did have on the front page. But then, that would have meant putting something else on the front—like relevant news, maybe.

The Province is designed to be a breezy, quick read, and is targeted at people who need something to read on the SkyTrain or to distract them during a 15-minute coffee break. That doesn’t mean that it should necessarily offer a lower quality of news—longer stories aren’t necessarily better for being long—but you get the sense that the Province has different priorities.

How else to explain its much ballyhooed sex survey. If ever good newsprint were wasted on filler, this is it. Tedious statistic after tedious statistic assaulted the eyes of those unlucky enough to follow this multi-day snorefest.

Here are a couple of pearls of wisdom: The likelihood of having “dynamite” sex decreases with age, and men outnumber women almost five to one as viewers of Internet porn sites. Well, I’ll be gobsmacked. Moreover, we learn that Internet sex is more complicated than real sex because the hands are tied up typing. Whatever can this mean?

To glean this valuable sexual miscellany, a polling firm interviewed a mere 800 British Columbians, 0.02 per cent of the population. Clearly, this exercise was designed to sell papers by playing upon our insatiable appetite for trivia, especially sex-related trivia. Small wonder my colleague at the Vancouver Courier Geoff Olson now refers to the paper by his wonderfully apt anagram “Pornvice.”

Leaving aside the dubious value of the sex survey, the way it’s presented shows a disturbing tendency to conflate news with entertainment. It’s not enough for B.C. teens to speculate about whether they should have waited longer before having sex; we have to preface the idea with “Just like TV’s Felicity [Keri Russell]…,” a useless photo of whom appears inside with a cutline that repeated what you read on the front.

Stock photos of celebrities who have nothing to do with the stories accompany these and other survey results like so much pretentious window-dressing, as if to say a celebrity’s validation were needed to make these stories meaningful. Note also the cheesy celebrity photos that obscure the front-page banner in most editions, as if Hollywood gossip were a major reason to pick up the paper.

This same slavishness is also seen in news stories. On Aug. 9, the front page carried a story about a person on an Internet chat room site threatening a 13-year-old Coquitlam girl with images from the movie Scream 3. A front-page photo of the Edvard Munch-like mask from the movie was appropriate, but an inside photo from the movie featuring two actresses was utterly gratuitous, especially since the movie was only mentioned once in passing.

After all this, I wondered what news was cut to make room for Twain and titillation. Only one local news story of any size made it into the issue and that also concerned sex—the Gay Pride parade. How badly were the readers of the Pornvice shortchanged?

Readers deserve better than this, but as long as the Pacific Press monopoly persists, they’ll get the infotainment other people think they deserve. Without legitimate newspaper competition, it’s too much to expect the editors of the Pornvice to change. Maybe it’ll have to get so bad that CanWest will feel obliged to put the paper out of its misery.