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Good Advice to the Media

July 1, 1986 -

Dian Cohen recently described a meeting of corporate and labour leaders in the steel industry as "remarkable" because it represents a new and rare cooperative relationship between labour and management. In the face of rising protectionism and fewer jobs in the Canadian steel industry (a drop from 97,000 to 83,000 since 1978) management and union officials met at the Canadian Steel Trade Conference in Sault Ste. Marie to map out a common strategy for the good of the industry and its employees. Cohen explained why news commentators tend to overlook and under-report this kind of event. Her comments about the general attitude prevalent in the media are right on and deserve to be heeded. Cohen writes:

There is a good reason why quiet conferences and agreements like these are not well reported: they don't lend themselves to the media's traditional style of reporting economic events. Within the media, few reporters have been trained to deal effectively with economic issues. They have learned to report on the economy in the same way as they have reported wars and sports: who is losing, who is winning. Or they use a style popular in political journalism, in which the press—rightly—sees itself as the loyal opposition. In political reporting, the ground rules are clear—find the hidden bad news and challenge those responsible.

The problem is that even when the economy was stable and relatively predictable, reporters never developed a theory about how to approach economic reporting. Now that the very structure of the economy is being transformed, reporters bring only the borrowed tools of a journalistic tradition of conflict and bad news. That's why the violent Gainers Inc. meatpackers strike in Edmonton has made national news—it fits into a win-lose, good guy-bad guy mode.

There are, as a matter of fact, fewer clear-cut heroes and villains in Canada's economic news. Even in labor-management disputes these days, the real fight is increasingly offshore: foreign companies that decide to compete vigorously in a business that used to be the sole territory of Canadian firms. These stories are not easy to report, the drama more diffuse and slower to evolve. It requires a different kind of reporting from political patronage scandals or picket-line violence. It requires substance and, more importantly, context. (Maclean's, June 30, 1986)