Beyond the fact that Mansbridge and his CBC bosses thought it fine for him to accept a paying gig at an oil conference, journalism professor Dan Rowe explains what the incident says about how journalists take their cues from politicians in determining what is newsworthy.

By Dan Rowe

So far, the discussion about Peter Mansbridge’s decision to accept money to speak at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ (CAPP) Investment Symposium last December has centred on why the CBC chief correspondent did it and why he and “senior management,” who apparently approved the gig, thought it was OK— and, by the way, neither of those questions has been satisfactorily answered yet.

But the controversy should also be raising questions about the news judgment of Mansbridge and his bosses, especially when it comes to the topic of oil sands development and climate change.

Mansbridge’s written response to his critics, published on the CBC’s website last week, made no direct reference to CAPP, but did refer to “a resource industry” as one of a list of the types of groups that he has often spoken to. His list also included “…a food bank, a financial services group, a teacher's association, nurses, lawyers, doctors, police officers, environmental organizations, judges.…”

If CBC News’s chief correspondent can’t distinguish the qualitative difference between speaking to CAPP and one of the other groups he mentioned, the CBC has a bigger problem than a possible ethical impropriety that can be papered over with an internal policy review.


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While CAPP represents many of the major players in the Canadian oil and natural gas industry, with a particular focus on the oil sands, it has become the public face of the pro-oil-sands-development side of the debate, thanks to a major TV advertising -campaign. The development of the oil sands, the growth of fracking and U.S. government approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, all of which CAPP wholeheartedly endorses, of course, are all major and still very much contested economic, environmental and political issues.

By lumping this resource industry group in with food banks and teachers’ associations, Mansbridge is downplaying the prominence of CAPP and the significance of the debate over Canada’s energy policy, specifically as it relates to the oil sands. And this, even if it was meant to get the critics off his back, is the most disturbing development from this story.

It’s hard to believe Mansbridge would speak to another group with as direct and significant an economic or political interest in the outcome of another comparably contentious issue. It suggests that Mansbridge and whoever rubber-stamped this speaking gig may not think that the development of the oil sands is especially contentious.

Many studies that have looked at coverage of the topic of climate change around the world have found that the political agenda leads the news agenda at most large, traditional news outlets. In other words, most journalists won’t spend much time reporting on this issue (or any other) unless political elites are debating it.

For example, when John Howard was prime minister of Australia and showed no interest in mitigating climate change, news coverage of the topic in that country dried up. The same was true during George W. Bush’s administration in the U.S.

In Canada, newspaper coverage of climate change peaked after Stéphane Dion (of Green Shift infamy) was elected Liberal leader in late 2006 and plummeted after his electoral defeat in fall 2008.

Except for an international increase in coverage around the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the number of stories about climate change in the National Post, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star continue to drop, according to the results of a tracking project led by Dr. Maxwell Boykoff at the University of Colorado. (There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a project looking at Canadian TV coverage of the issue.)

If you are a Canadian journalist who takes your cues from the public statements and sentiments of top federal and even provincial politicians—and, given the glee with which Mansbridge reports on political news and anchors the At Issue and The Insiders panels, I would put him in that category—there is little reason at this point to think that climate change should be anywhere near the top of the news agenda.

Barring any unexpected twists, the controversy over Mansbridge speaking at a CAPP event for a fee will soon begin to fade. Apparent ethical lapses by anyone, especially celebrity journalists like Mansbridge, should be big news. But in the long run, they probably aren’t as important to journalism and the audience’s perception of the world as an understanding of the influences and factors that shape news judgment.

 

Dan Rowe is the bachelor of journalism program coordinator at Humber College in Toronto. He is also the book review editor of J-Source.

 


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