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News Quality's Big Slide

New poll: Canada's media bosses bend news for profit say staffers.

By Tom Barrett 27 Jun 2007 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Press getting worse, survey finds.

For many Canadians this news may fall into the same category as the denominational preference of the Pope and the excretory habits of bears, but we still thought you'd like to know:

A new study suggests that unionized journalists in Canada believe that their bosses put profits before good journalism.

The survey, conducted for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, indicates that Canadian reporters, editors and camera operators are deeply cynical about media owners' commitment to journalism.

The 3,000 journalists who responded to the survey tend to believe that:

Advertising reigns supreme

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said they have been assigned stories to promote their newspaper or broadcast station's management.

Seventy-seven per cent said promotional considerations influence their outlet's news agenda.

And when asked if their newspaper or station distinguishes between advertising and news, the journalists were evenly split: 50 per cent said Yes; 49 per cent said No.

The survey, which was released in Vancouver today, was distributed to unionized employees at some of the country's largest media employers, including The Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Globe and Mail, as well as a number of smaller outlets.

Print journalists most concerned

An overwhelming number of respondents disagreed with the statement that their "corporate owners" -- as opposed to managers in the newsroom -- "value good journalism over profit." Sixty per cent disagreed, compared to 10 per cent who agreed. (The remaining 30 per cent either marked "neither agree or disagree" or gave no answer.)

Discontent was higher among print journalists than in broadcast; 69 per cent of print employees disagreed with the claim that their bosses valued good journalism over profit.

Most believed that things have been going downhill in recent years. Only 10 per cent agreed with the notion that "the owners of this publication/station put more value on good journalism than 10 years ago."

Forty-four per cent disagreed.

When it came to the statement "the values and politics of our corporate owners do not affect our editorial agenda," 27 per cent agreed, compared to 42 per cent who disagreed.

Among print workers, 22 per cent agreed; 53 per cent disagreed.

Owners bending news

Some other statements and responses:

"The financial bottom line of our owners does not affect our editorial agenda" -- agree, 11 per cent; disagree, 65 per cent.

"Advertisers have no influence over editorial decisions in this newsroom" -- agree, 28 per cent; disagree, 45 per cent.

"The politics of our owners has less effect on our editorial agenda than 10 years ago" -- agree, 12 per cent; disagree, 30 per cent.

"The ownership bottom line has less effect on our editorial agenda than 10 years ago" -– agree, seven per cent; disagree, 46 per cent.

"Advertiser influence in this newsroom has fallen during the past 10 years" -– agree, 10 per cent; disagree, 32 per cent.

Forty-one per cent agreed that the owners of their publication or station "value keeping citizens informed." Twenty-nine per cent disagreed with that statement.

The statement "the corporate owners of this publication/station encourage good journalism" got an almost identical response -- 41 per cent agreed and 30 per cent disagreed.

Owners came out slightly ahead on the statement "the corporate owners of this publication/station respect journalists" -- 35 per cent agreed and 31 per cent disagreed.

When it comes to investigative journalism, 45 per cent said that their outlet does "very little or none."

Danger, understaffing, sexism

Understaffing was also seen as a problem.

Only 25 per cent agreed with the statement that "our newsroom normally has the personnel needed to do a good job." Sixty-five per cent disagreed.

In print, 20 per cent agreed with this statement while 71 per cent disagreed.

There was a striking imbalance between the number of men who responded to the survey and the number of women. Twice as many men responded as women; CEP officials were unable to say if this reflects the overall makeup of their newsroom members.

And the women who responded had a sharply different view of sexism in the Canadian media from that held by the men.

Asked if "sexism and/or discrimination against women" exists in Canadian journalism, 79 per cent of women said Yes.

Only 47 per cent of men said Yes.

Finally, life on the job can get dangerous if you're a TV camera operator or a print photographer.

Four out of five camera operators and three out of four print photographers said they had been assaulted or threatened with injury while doing their jobs.

The study was conducted for the CEP by Bernadette Stringer, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at McMaster University, Ted Haines, an occupational medicine physician and professor at McMaster and John Miller, a journalism professor at Ryerson University.

Questionnaires were sent to 3,000 journalist members of the CEP in 2005 and 2006. There was a 28 per cent overall response rate.

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