"This is a media war," Telecommunications Workers Union president Bruce Bell declared after his members were locked out of their Telus workplaces.
But it's a war his side will have a hard time winning. He faces the well-resourced telephone company and its highly paid 'war-room' diva. He also has to contend with the biased and distorted reporting by the province's newspaper of record, full of insinuations about the union and boosterism for the company.
The Vancouver Sun's coverage of the Telus-Telecommunication Workers' Union dispute has been unfair and unbalanced, violating our expectations about the role of the newspaper in a democratic society. The paper has consistently favoured the company over the union, giving Telus more coverage and more positive and supportive coverage. The union, in contrast, is mostly put on the defensive and its actions portrayed in a negative light.
An analysis of coverage over the past three months indicates that it was more balanced before the union walked out on July 23, the day before the company was planning to unilaterally impose a contract that the union had not agreed to. In the six weeks before the walkout, the union received 53 per cent of the coverage while the company received 47 per cent. (Coverage that was just factual or referred to other actors was eliminated from the tally.) Significantly, all 15 stories produced during this period were located in the Business section, meaning they were intended, not for the general public, but for businesspeople and investors. These people need accurate, timely information so the fact the coverage was balanced, at least in quantity, is noteworthy.
After the walkout, many stories were moved to the news section, where they are intended for everyone. Insinuation and boosterism took over from fact. Company coverage soared to 63 per cent while the union's fell to 37 per cent. In a typical story, the company received nearly two paragraphs for every one about the union.
But that's only the amount of coverage. More important is the quality of the coverage. Who was portrayed positively and who negatively? How were sources framed by the paper? Sources can be categorized as defining, responding or neutral. A defining source is one that helps define the thesis of the story or frame it. This can be determined from the headline and first couple of paragraphs.
A responding source denies the story's thesis or proposes an alternate interpretation. A neutral source simply provides background information. Almost always the defining source is the winner and in the Sun's dispute coverage, the winner is Telus.
Three months of coverage analyzed
Since the walkout, Telus defined 11 stories and the TWU three. But the three TWU-defined stories were weak: The union demanded an apology for alleged company comments. The union held out hope that negotiations could resume. The union hoped the company would abide by the decision of the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
Telus-defined stories, in contrast, were stronger: Telus imposed a contract and said the next step was up to the union Telus blocked access to a website run by a union member Telus sought an injunction to block website operators from posting pictures of employees.
Sometimes the Sun didn't give the union an opportunity to respond. In one news-section story the headline read "Cut phone lines 'obvious vandalism,' Telus says." The theme of the story was laid out in the headline. Company spokesperson Drew McArthur received nine paragraphs to explain the company's charges. The Sun allowed McArthur to use the word 'vandalism' twice and peppered his description with words like 'intolerable,' 'malicious,' and 'impair.' The word 'deliberate was used twice.
The story says "McArthur didn't want to speculate who might be responsible for the damage." Reporter Jonathan Fowlie allows McArthur to allege a dramatic increase in the incidence of "such vandalism" (third use of word). He says there have been 42 incidents of vandalism (fourth use of word) since the end of April when there are usually just one or two.
No evidence or proof was offered by the company nor required by the Sun.
Finally the union was allowed to speak in the story. A reader would expect that union president Bruce Bell would be hot to refute the company's unproven allegations.
Who knows? Perhaps he had evidence that the vandalism was linked to the company itself or to some hired company gun.
But the Sun didn't give Bell the opportunity to respond to Telus's insinuations. Instead, he spoke about going to the Canada Industrial Relations Board to get the two parties back to negotiations.
What does he think about the vandalism? If he's not saying, is it because he's guilty? Is this what the Sun wants its readers to think?
Front page bias
Only three stories of the total of 29 were placed on the Sun's front page. All three were framed from the company's point of view, with the union put on the defensive.
Derrick Penner's July 29 story began with company vice-president Drew McArthur saying that 45 per cent of the unionized Alberta workforce - 2565 workers - were defying their union and continuing to work. In the fourth paragraph of the story, union president Bruce Bell gets to provide his side of the story, saying the number of unionized Telus workers crossing the picket lines was around 200 to 300. He claimed that he saw more members picketing in Calgary and Edmonton than in B.C. locations.
The story could just as easily have been framed around the union's position, that few people were going back to work. But it wasn't.
Penner then undermines Bell's statements with a fallacious reference to a story from the Edmonton Journal.
"A reporter who visited Telus's biggest Edmonton call centre found some 120 employees, all of whom said they were TWU members," Penner misleadingly wrote. Actually, Journal reporter Paul Marck wrote he found 100 employees, not 120. Nor did he write they were all TWU members but that they were "all regular employees," and not necessarily TWU members. And Marck wrote that the call centre scene was in "sharp contrast" to the large group of pickets outside. Somehow Penner missed this crucial part of the Edmonton Journal story, which was headlined "Angry pickets at ground level, upbeat mood in call centre." In Penner's world there were no angry pickets, only happy strike-breakers.
And since the story was about Alberta, why was it on the front page of the Sun. Shouldn't it be a short business brief like so many others? Score: company one, union zero.
Low point for Sun
Front page story number two was a company-sourced story about Telus fibre-optic lines being "apparently" deliberately cut. The company wasn't pointing fingers, the spokesperson said (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but he did note that 'vandalism' had significantly increased since the workers walked off the job a few days earlier.
The company received the first seven paragraphs to expound its theory about vandalism. The union then received three short paragraphs to say it didn't support violence or vandalism and it wasn't responsible for the damage. The story then described the impact of the vandalism on the loss of service to business. Score: company two, union zero.
Front-page story number three was another company-sourced story explaining that Telus had blocked subscriber access to a web site run by a union member. A company spokesperson said the site was intimidating non-union employees and encouraging pickets to jam company service lines.
In the seventh paragraph, Bruce Bell questioned whether the company action was legal because it seemed to block freedom of speech. This was a good point but was not allowed any development by the Sun. We can consider this article a draw. Final score: Telus, 2.5, TWU, 0.5.
This story was a low point in Sun coverage. The paper has been a long-time advocate for stronger freedom of information and free-speech laws. The blocking of the union-related web site - and 766 unrelated sites, according to a University of Toronto study - has serious consequences for these cherished principles.
The Sun's silence was deafening. Reporter Brad Badelt limited comments to the union president and another union member, plus a denial from the company spokesperson.
To find out the ramifications of Telus's actions, you would need to read an opinion piece by Michael Geist, a leading expert on Internet law and policy, in the Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen, which are a long way from B.C.
Or you could read the piece in The Tyee by former Sun reporter Tom Barrett, who provided extensive quotes from three Internet access experts, including Geist.
Unions don't make news
How did the Sun report union initiatives and actions? Were these more balanced? On Thursday, July 28, BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair called for consumer action against Telus among the Fed's 500,000 members, by canceling some Telus call features and putting financial pressure on the company.
Big news? Not in the Sun. Sinclair got the last two paragraphs on the turn page of the misleading Derrick Penner story about Alberta Telus workers going back to work. He got more coverage the next day in the Business section but the Sun twisted it to fit the company perspective, in an article headlined "Telus boycott would undermine jobs, company says." Telus vice-president Drew McArthur was allowed to frame this story. A consumer boycott "would erode the job security that the company's union says it is on strike to protect," he said.
What was the point of the proposed boycott? We'll never know because the union leader wasn't given an opportunity to explain his plans in the pages of the Sun.
The Sun's negative portrayal of organized labour is not unusual. Many studies have shown that labour coverage in mainstream media typically focuses on the confrontation and controversy of strikes and contract negotiations. Labour is always portrayed as the active and disruptive party, even if it isn't.
Forget about finding any reports of the many good works undertaken by trade unions and their members.
A NewsWatch Canada study of the Vancouver Sun in 1997 found that business received twice as much coverage as labour and that articles on labour mostly focused on disruption. Strikes and negotiations accounted for 43 per cent of labour stories, while stories about working conditions accounted for six per cent of stories. The study also found that business news was five times more likely to be framed positively than were labour stories.
And business sources were three times as likely to appear in stories as labour sources.
Most mainstream papers got rid of their labour-beat reporters in the '80s and replaced them with legions of business reporters. No wonder coverage is skewed.
Telus's 'PR diva'
Bell has another obstacle to overcome in his quest for fair and balanced coverage. Telus's secret weapon in this war is its crisis communication consultants. You won't see her name at the bottom of Telus news releases but, operating behind the scenes in her communications war room, Mat Wilcox and her team are devising Telus's media and PR strategies.
BC Business Magazine calls Wilcox "Vancouver's reigning PR diva."
The Wilcox Group - she is principal - are experts in "managing the most contentious labour relations issues," the web site says. The company has handled "communications for labour disruptions ranging in size and scope from localized 'wildcat' strikes, work-to-rule and symbolic solidarity campaigns to company- and city-wide strikes and unionization drives."
Wherever an employer is fighting its organized workers, Wilcox is probably behind the scenes, pulling the strings.
Wilcox worked for TransLink during the four-month labour dispute in 2001 and helped Starbucks fend off a union organizing drive. She devised a successful campaign highlighting the" damage" of the seven-week long hotel workers' strike in 2000.
She helped with the privatization of BC healthcare food and cleaning services and handled crisis PR for Sun Peaks Resorts.
Wilcox Group is the PR agency of record for Telus. The firm has worked for the company since the negative publicity of the Telus-BC Tel merger in 1999.
Wilcox also worked for the Pacific Newspaper Group, the Sun's publisher. She helped devise the strategies Telus and the newspapers used to bring the 2010 Olympics to Vancouver.
Telus and the Sun are partners in B.C.'s biggest story: the Olympics initiative (or, some would say, boondoggle in the making).
So it's not surprising that Bruce Bell and the TWU are having a tough time getting their message in this paper.
Donald Gutstein, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, writes a regular media column for The Tyee.