Commentary | Q*uestioning media


Last Monday, Arts 150 was packed to capacity for the panel discussion kicking off Student Journalism Week, and hundreds showed up to see Amy Goodman, host of the independent radio show Democracy Now!, speak the Friday before. Judging by the turnouts, there’s a clear interest in student journalism and independent media on campus, and we hope the people who came out to these events, and those today and tomorrow, will act on that interest as J-week comes to a close.

It’s an old adage that journalism is democracy’s watchdog, keeping citizens informed, and politicians and CEOs accountable when they overstep the bounds of their power. Many of our established mass-media outlets, however, don’t fulfill this role. Instead, they’re linked to the interests of the very powers they should be keeping in check.

All too often, the language corporate media uses to frame the issues reflects the interests of their shareholders. With retired military generals on the networks’ payrolls and coverage taking up government euphemisms like “Operation Freedom,” Goodman points out in her documentary Independent Media in Times of War, state interests directly influence news coverage on major networks. The same is true of corporations, many of whom have vested interests in the issues at hand. General Electric – one of the major manufacturers of nuclear weapons – owns major American networks NBC and MSNBC.

These institutions determine the language of the debate and what voices dominate the discussion, and this gives them an immense amount of power.

Despite much-touted ideals of journalistic objectivity, a lot of subjective choice goes into writing and presenting the news, from what quotes are used in the articles to what’s highlighted on the front page. Working at a newspaper, the biases in presenting news “objectively” become apparent. We make these decisions at The Daily, just like other people make these decisions at all news outlets. The danger is when media becomes concentrated, these biases become less apparent.

Canwest Global Communications Corporation owns The National Post, The Gazette, and Global Television among countless other broadcasting, publishing, and advertising “brands.” While each outlet has its own editorial board and while these papers do produce quality reporting, they all answer to the same people, and are often prone to the same latent biases. And with Canwest News service around – the only national news wire Canwest papers are permitted to draw from – to employ fewer journalists, non-union staff are outsourced to write articles thousands of miles from where they hit the stands, leading to more homogenized content.

In the process, communities whose interests don’t fit with those of the powerful institutions behind the media are often pushed to the side. Since August, for instance, the charged situation in Montreal North has been covered with sensationalist language. What results is news with entertainment value that glosses over the larger issues – ethnic profiling, poverty, ongoing tensions between minority youth and police.

While we’re not perfect, at The Daily, we try to be aware of these imbalances and use our subjectivity wisely. It’s part of our mandate to give voice to marginalized groups, and we strive to challenge the way they’re conventionally represented – from recent editorials on sex workers and First Nations issues to last year’s feature on the Western media’s distortion of the election crisis in Kenya, to name a few examples.

While corporate media make politics seem like something distant and removed from us, community media bring it back into the local context. Community media like student journalism aren’t just practice for the “real world” – the one that we watch on the evening news that feels so far away. At McGill, student media – Le Délit, CKUT, TV McGill, The Tribune to name a few – keep the administration accountable to students by informing students of their actions. And it’s smaller local publications that give voice to grassroots social justice movements that corporate media often otherwise ignore.

There are newspapers, radio and television stations, faculty journals, and literary magazines that all depend on your contributions. Find one that you like and get involved; actively taking part in local media on and off campus is a way to look behind the scenes and see where the biases work there way in. Come out to the workshops for the rest of Journalism Week here at McGill, taking place from 4 p.m. onwards this afternoon. And keep in mind the subjective slant of the media sources you trust, and the influence it has on their reporting.