Friday, December 02, 2011

Journalism and the Toronto G20

The final major piece of work that I have to do for school before the break is a paper looking at some of the ways that the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010 showed up in media discourse. I've dived back into that assignment in the last day or two after too long occupied with other tasks and I'm not looking forward to ploughing through the thick of it over the next six days in a manner sure to be too rushed for my taste, if not downright panicked. Nonetheless, it does mean that I have the chance to think through the meaning of some material that has a wide range of politics and that is often wrapped up in complicated ways with how fraught that event has been for movement-oriented spaces and people in Ontario -- including for me, despite the fact that I wasn't actually at the protests -- but that nonethless may be a way to get at some interesting things.

I may or may not post some or all of the larger work, but for today I just want to take the chance to write a quick post about one of the pieces I've run across: "Coverage of G20 poses challenge for journalists" by Kathy English. She is the Public Editor for the Toronto Star -- that is, apparently, a position that "encompasses the roles of reader advocate and guarantor of accuracy" -- and the piece was published on June 26, 2010, the first day of the summit.

Now, as someone who has been involved in alternative and independent media work to a greater or lesser extent for coming up on fifteen years, I harbour no illusions about corporate media -- much content published there can still be useful and there are lots of reasons why we can't just dismiss them, but, notwithstanding the exceptions and surprises that do manage to come along semi-regularly, the social relations and professional practices out of which dominant media is produced constrains what gets covered, how it gets covered, and what voices are present in some pretty major ways. So this post is written not in a tone of shock or surprise, but more with a kind of morbid fascination for how clearly inconsistent parts of this piece seem to me but how smoothly consistent they likely seemed to their author.

As the title indicates, the piece is about the "challenge for journalists" in covering something like the G20. The lead lays out pretty clearly where the piece is going to end up: "It's not every day that reporters and photographers are sent out into the streets of Toronto equipped with helmets and gas masks." Nonetheless, other content in the early paragraphs makes some useful points about the character of the G20 that could, if followed through, lead in more interesting directions.

For instance, the piece paraphrases Star editor Michael Cook as describing the paper's goal as being "to bring readers all aspects of this billion-dollar gathering of global head honchos." (Note: "all aspects.") It then points out that they have 50 journalists on the case -- quite a significant outlay of resources in this time of corporate media downsizing. Then it quotes Star city editor Graham Parley: "The biggest challenge is covering something that doesn't have an agenda," he says. "At the G20, most things are secret" and even those that aren't are subject to very restricted access.

The set-up seems obvious, right? An event of global scope at which decisions affecting millions if not billions of lives will be made. Secrets, many and important. A commitment to uncover "all aspects." A huge outlay of highly skilled person-power. With all of that, how can you not think of the heroic mythologies of journalism, the risk taking, the muckrakers, the jail time to protect sources, the ending of a presidency because of a hotel break-in. How can you not think that this is going to lead to a bit of bravado, a bit of chest-beating, about how hard the Star is going to work to ensure that every one of those secrets of this secret organization of global import will be laid before a thankful public -- just be sure to pay your $1.25! The "challenge" seems like it's going to be how to get those secrets from this powerful organization. Surely that's what's coming next, right?

Except here's the next paragraph:

Parley is most concerned with the unscripted events that may occur this weekend -- "The protests, the commute, the disruption to normal life. It means having to be flexible and keeping reporters on standby to go where the news is."


And the entire rest of the article is about the possibility of conflict between police and protesters, and snippets of advice given by experts to local reporters about "how to get through a protest with minimal pain or injury."

There are lots of dodgy details in the doing of it. There is the perennial double standard of asking, "As protesters take to the streets this weekend to exercise their democratic right to dissent, will peace prevail?" without so much as a nod to the immeasurably greater violence that could be (and was) wrought by the decisions made inside the fence.

There is the use of the language of "training camps" to describe protesters sharing skills related to summit protests. I might just be out of the loop, but I'm pretty sure we mostly don't use that language ourselves -- that's language that the mainstream media uses to talk about terrorists and Taliban, and that's probably what it will evoke in readers in this usage.

Then there is the warning about possible violence from cops: "Rubber bullets, at close range, will break bones." Compare this to the following sentence: "If you are stationed at an active fence demonstration, consider a helmet. Hardcore protesters throw rocks." When it is a caution about violence from police, there is no agent specified -- the rubber bullets themselves are taking action. But when it is a caution about the other side, well, it is protesters who are doing the doing.

In the next paragraph, the police are named as a possible danger, but check out the careful rationalization built in to this sentence: "If you look like a protester, you are more likely to be treated as one by riot police." Contrast this with the following sentence: "If you don't dress like [a protester], more militant protesters may surmise that you are a member of the mainstream media or police and target you." This last is especially rich, given that I am aware of no instances in summit protests of bystanders or media being assaulted randomly by protesters -- and perhaps, just perhaps, there has been an instance or two over the last 12 years, but it is not, as this implies, some common phenomenon -- whereas I am aware of many instances of them being assaulted randomly by cops. And the language of targeting is in contrast with a mention in the next paragraph of "riot police in the heat of the moment may not care if you are press." Protesters "target" while riot police are carried away "in the heat of the moment."

All of which is minor in comparison with the bait-and-switch of the piece as a whole -- the insistence that the "challenge for journalists" is not the fact that there is this immensely powerful institution that doesn't want to give out information, the raw material of journalistic work, but rather it is the potential for conflict in the streets. And this is entirely consistent with the larger pattern I'm seeing emerge in the work, which is the near absence of the G20 itself from the media discourse in this period. I mean, it gets named frequently, but this article illustrates one common technique by which it is named without content, through the substitution of the spectacle of the conflict (or the inconvenience, or the fence, or the expense) for the actual substance of how the G20 functions, of its vicious austerity agenda, and of the ways in which such decisions trickle down and become pain in ordinary lives. (Interestingly, and this may be a topic for another post, this was not limited to the corporate media but also present in a different way in much alternative and independent work on the topic.)

Anyway, it sure was a good thing that the Star's "reader advocate and guarantor of accuracy" was on the case, eh?


thwap said...

They could have at least waxed philosophical about the G20 leaders' potential for destruction and their psychological responses to the evident failure of all of their delusions.

Anonymous said...

Here is the exact line that made me stop bothering to even -skim- the Toronto Star for news:

"Whatever his excesses, Bush is no Balkan ethnic cleanser or Rwandan genocidaire." ['Let the U.S. judge Bush' - Toronto Star Editorial - Oct 26 2011]

Scott said...

@Anonymous: Ugh. I don't blame you. Myself, I haven't been a regular reader of mainstream newspapers in quite a few years. Though I must say even despite their frequently lousy politics, they often do have enough useful information presented in their politically dubious frames that it probably doesn't make sense to entirely ignore them, either.