NewsWatch Canada recently released its list of the top 25 underreported stories of the past year. J-Source’s Belinda Alzner spoke with the researchers about what types of stories aren’t covered the way they should be, why that is and how journalists and the public can do better.

NewsWatch Canada recently released its list of the top 25 underreported stories of the past year. J-Source’s Belinda Alzner spoke with the researchers about what types of stories aren’t covered the way they should be, why that is and how journalists and the public can do better.

 

As news organizations start rounding up their top headlines of the last year, the lists will probably boast some familiar names: Will and Kate, Justin Bieber, Stephen Harper, Research in Motion, to name a few.

But what about the secretive Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement negotiations? Or the human rights offences committed by Canadian mining companies? The impact of abandoned oil wells in Alberta?

Wait – have those things even been in the news in the last year?

Not nearly as much as they should have been, argues a report put out by NewsWatch Canada last week.

Research conducted by thirteen senior undergraduate students at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication designated the top 25 stories that were underreported from Sept. 2010 to Aug. 2011. Topping the list was the free trade agreement between Canada and the EU that is being negotiated (CETA). Issues relating to health, the environment and Canada’s involvement abroad appeared on the list more than once.

“Here are some stories you should pay attention to according to our criteria,” said Kathleen Cross, the faculty supervisor of the project and instructor of the seminar whose students did the research. The project, which is modeled after Project Censored in the U.S. and follows similar projects done by NewsWatch Canada in the ‘90s is about highlighting “the role of journalism to inform and get us the information we need in a democracy.”

Each story was evaluated based on a number of criteria: They had to be newsworthy, of national or international interest, impact a large number of people and appear in print or online (broadcast was not included in the research) — allowing them to be qualified as underreported as opposed to unreported.

The report made clear that the researchers were not investigative journalists; their mandate was not to break or uncover stories. Their role was simply to research areas that the media can improve on and inspire reporters to notice stories they may not have otherwise heard about.

“The reason we do media monitoring is to inspire journalists and media organizations to do more investigative reporting in these areas,” Cross said.

The researchers compared 100 stories they deemed important from the independent media to the coverage of the topics in the mainstream media. They sent the stories to eight SFU faculty members, who evaluated the stories’ worthiness on a shortlist. Finally, the top 25 stories – along with research on the topic and the rationale for inclusion – were sent to a national panel of established professionals in the industry who helped decide the final ranking.  

The stories were shopped to these panels as an attempt to mitigate bias that may be present from having a group of twenty-somethings evaluating what stories are important to them, says Cross. The national panel was made up of eight judges, which included: Dr. Christopher Waddell, the director of journalism at Carleton University; Michele Landsberg, an award-winning writer and journalist; and Dr. James Compton, a media professor at the University of Western Ontario, among others.  

One of the reasons that stories are underreported and don’t receive the comprehensive coverage that they may deserve is due to some journalistic convention, says Cross. There are no fewer than seven stories on the list that pertain to environmental issues. And it is these stories that are written with the idea that balance is an indication of objectivity, Cross says.

“One side has 99.9 per cent scientific backing and the other side has 99 million dollars in PR backing,” she says. Somehow, she says, the money has “created a debate where there isn’t really one.” And journalists, when reporting these stories, need to put the idea of balance aside and instead evaluate the information they have.

In other words, it’s up to reporters to put emphasis on another journalistic convention: seeking the truth. They need to be able to evaluate the results and say which are more true than others, rather than parroting what each side tells them in an attempt to be objective, says Cross.  

While independent media may be notoriously left-leaning, Cross says that the fact the students started their research there didn’t influence the outcome of the project. “If [the stories] were covered in mainstream media, we would have dropped them [from the list.]”

“If it sounds like they’re stories that bleeding-heart liberals are interested in, maybe that matters,” she said. “You can’t dismiss it if there’s a trend that there’s a group of concerns that simply are not getting media attention.”

She stresses though, that doesn’t mean the research is an attempt to criticize the coverage by mainstream media all of the time.

“There are certainly good stories in the mainstream news – we just thought they were getting enough attention,” Cross said, adding that “it’s not that these are the only important stories; it’s that these are really important stories that aren’t getting covered.”

There are also different types of undercoverage in the mainstream media, says Alex Tse, one of the student researchers on the project. “There are things like CETA … that are actually just not in the news,” she said. This is in comparison to issues such as violence against Aboriginal women in Canada, where it has presence in the news, “but it’s often reported in a narrow way. [The mainstream] miss out on a lot of aspects of a story, which doesn’t help people understand what’s going on at all.”

Tse continues, comparing the two types of media coverage on some of the issues they researched. “Even when it was in the mainstream, there would still be aspects missing from it when you compared it to the alternative media,” she said.

Tse doesn’t necessarily blame the journalists; it is the economics of the mainstream industry that are partly at fault. “[Journalists] have to produce a lot of stories on a tight deadline,” she said. “They have too few resources to do the investigative work they need to do to produce comprehensive stories.”

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But both Cross and Tse point out that a lack of money can’t be regarded as the sole reason.

“Some of the most interesting, in-depth and incredible investigative journalism is being done by alternative media,” Cross said, continuing that independent and alternative newsrooms often have far less resources than their corporate counterparts.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of money organizations have, but how they choose to spend it,” she said.

Many alternative news organizations are set up with the mandate to do investigative work, says Tse. They choose to focus on the quality of their content as opposed to the quantity.  

This is in opposition to mainstream media where “what we read and hear as news consumers is within a restricted range of what is most profitable to produce,” according to the report.

For example: The Justin Bieber paternity suit. “It’s quick; it’s cheap news,” Cross says. “It gets our attention, but it’s not necessarily what we think we need to know.” And too often, commercial media equates them – that if it gets the reader’s attention, it must be the kind of news they want to read, which isn’t the case, Cross says.

Cross says when interviewed by CKNW in Vancouver about the project she was told that it read “like an NDP manual.” But throwing political labels out won’t address the fact that the stories didn’t receive coverage.

“To partisan it diminishes its value – the value of the list, the value of the research, the value of these issues,” Cross said. “Really, the question should be: Why aren’t [the stories] being covered by your organization?”

Though if the report does what it sets out to, this surely isn’t the last we will hear of some of these stories.

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Below are the top 10 underreported stories, as identified by the NewsWatch Canada report. The full report, with analysis, rationale and critique of all 25 stories can be found here

1. Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)
CETA, a free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU that is being negotiated behind closed doors, will give European corporations access to government procurement actions down to the municipal level, including public institutions such as hospitals and public utilities.

2. Canadian Mining Companies Lack Accountability
Canadian mining companies are responsible for a large percentage of environmental and human rights abuses around the world, yet are not held accountable.

3. Corporate Lobbying Shaping Laws
Corporate lobbyists around the globe are spending billions of dollars in order to write and determine policy at the national and international level.

4. Crisis in Long Term Care
Long term and assisted living care for the in Canada is facing a crisis in the form of early hospital evictions, hospital over-crowding, affordability, and quality of care in private and unregulated residences.

5. Violence Against Aboriginal Women in Canada
More than 600 indigenous women across Canada have gone missing or been murdered in the past 30 years, 75% of aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been victims of sexual abuse, and aboriginal girls and women are nearly three times more likely to become victims of violence.

6. State of Native Reserves in Canada
Appalling third world conditions on Aboriginal reserves have stagnated in the past ten years, and indicators of wellness such as housing, education, and water quality have actually declined.

7. Health Effects of Canada’s Tar Sands
Toxic waste from Canada’s tar sands contaminates the environment while nearby Northern Albertan communities find themselves increasingly affected by cancer.

8. Long Term Effects of Fukushima
Japan’s nuclear disaster is far worse than governments have revealed to the public. Effects from the fallout have been felt in both the U.S. and in Canada but their significance has been downplayed.

9. Abandoned Oil Wells Cause Environmental Hazard
Abandoned Albertan oil wells must be cleaned up to avoid environmental contamination, but the companies that own them have little incentive to do so given the huge costs and weak regulations.

10. Global Disposable Workforce
Thousands of migrant workers are admitted into Canada every year for short periods of time, but their rights are often abused or ignored.