Last night (Feb. 24) after a tumultuous day in Libya, all three Canadian networks — CBC, CTV and Global — decided that the important story of the day was NOT an African people’s brave and bloody struggle for freedom, but rather how that revolution is inconveniencing Canadians. CTV led with higher gasoline prices at the pump: CBC and Global opened their shows with reports from Rome, about how difficult it was for Canadians to leave Libya. Claude Adams reports.

By Claude Adams

 

Last night (Feb. 24) after a tumultuous day in Libya, all
three Canadian networks–CBC, CTV and Global– decided that the prime story
of the day was NOT an African people’s brave and bloody struggle for freedom,
but rather how that revolution is inconveniencing Canadians. CTV led with
higher gasoline prices at the pump: CBC and Global opened their shows with
reports from Rome, about how difficult it was for Canadians to leave Libya.

Ironically, a woman interviewed at a gas station by CTV put things in
perspective: “What’s going on in Libya is much more serious than spending
an extra three dollars on a tank of gas.”

But that was a perspective clearly not shared by the lineup editors at Canada’s
most important broadcast news outlets. We may be living in a global village,
but when it comes to broadcast priorities, it seems, we are still a collection
of villages where parochial self-interest comes first, and the state of the
world second. “Has anybody here been raped and speak English?” are
the words that late Edward Behr had the typical British correspondent asking as
he landed in an African civil war. “Are the Canadians okay?” our
networks are asking today. “Okay, now what else happened?”

Of course, there are practical concerns here. In foreign news reporting, the
messenger is often just as important as the message. None of the three Canadian
networks had a correspondent inside Libya; they hadn’t “established
presence.” If the CBC’s Carolyn Dunn, for example, had managed to reach Benghazi
or Tripoli and send out a first-hand account of what was happening there, she
would likely have led the show. Instead, it was Adrienne Arsenault first from
Rome with the story about the belabored Canadians, and Dunn second at the
Libyan/Tunisian border. The stark pictures and events inside Libya came third,
in a report from Washington. The deployment of your network’s marquee reporters
abroad is always a factor in designing a newscast.  (When I worked for The National years ago, they would rush
to get me to a foreign capital so I could file a report from the ground, even
if I hadn’t cleared my baggage yet. The news desk would feed me information, so
I could sound authoritative the moment I touched down.  That’s “establishing presence.”)

At CTV yesterday, the thinking (I suspect) was even more pragmatic. Everybody
knew what was going on in Libya, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, so why not
do a story on what was really worrying Canadians: how much is that darn revolution going
to cost me at the gas pump? The hottest news, like politics, is always local. Or
so the thinking goes. (I remember a news director telling me: “News is
what people are talking about on the bus to work. Nothing more, nothing
less.” I suppose this is why we’re better informed about Kim Kardashian than North Korea.)

News executives will argue that the hierarchy of stories in the first ten
minutes of a newscast doesn’t really matter, as long as they are in some way
linked to the main story. I don’t agree. A newscast should be a reflection of
what we really care about as an audience, as a society. Do I really care more
about the Canadian oil worker trying to get home, than about the Libyan citizen
being pursued by armed mercenaries? And if I do, should a public
broadcaster cater to that blinkered sentiment?

Yes, yes, I know that news today is omnipresent, and that I can find out all I
need to know about Libya on the CBC’s website and on radio and on Google News,
anytime I want it. But still, the top newscasts are the prism through which
many people view the world, and how the networks behave as gatekeepers tells us
something about their values, what they deem significant. Is it too much to insist on a sense of
proportionality?

When I taught broadcast journalist a few years ago, we used to play the Lineup
Game. I would collect a synopsis of all the stories from the night before, from all the
prominent English-language TV newscasts in Canada, the US and the UK, and I
would put them up on a board. Then I would ask the students to act as lineup
editors, to design their own 22-minute newscasts from all the available
stories, based on their own beliefs of what mattered.

In almost every case, the shows they created gave greater weight to strong
international stories, with less weight to the purely Canadian-angle ones. I told them this flew in
the face of marketing dogma–where local interest always trumps global
interest. A downtown shooting will almost always attract more local buzz, and thus more eyeballs, than a ferry
sinking in Bangladesh. The students didn’t care about these algorithms of relative importance. “These are the kinds of
newscasts I would watch,” they said about their shows. (Implicit in that was the obvious message:
“We don’t, and won’t, watch the others.”) I’m not certain they were
telling the truth. But I did find it interesting that their shows most closely
resembled BBC newscasts.

Incidentally, these students are precisely that cohort of Canadians that is
abandoning traditional newscasts in great numbers. Maybe there’s a lesson here.

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