Media bias in covering the University of Toronto TA strike
Mar 12, 2015

Media bias in covering the University of Toronto TA strike

At a bare minimum, when the media covers a major conflict between two sides - a union striking, say - it should include the briefest of quotes from people representing both sides of the conflict. This is not exactly a high bar to meet requiring the cheapest and simplest method in journalism: asking the leadership of both sides to provide a quote. We could well wish for higher standard, but this is a bare minimum. 

Unfortunately, coverage of the University of Toronto strike by the union representing Teaching Assistants and Course Instructors (of which I am a member), fails this lowest of standards. 

Take, for instance, this piece in the Globe and Mail, which covers first York University then University of Toronto. In the latter half, it quote at some length from an open (and rather misleading) letter posted by the University on the University's website. There is no attempt made to go to the Union's website, to quote from open letters on the Union's website, or to quote in any way any representative or supporter of the Union. We get the Universities perspective at some length, with absolutely no mention of the Union's. 

The lack of better media:
One of the most systemic biases in the media is that they are so often stenographers for the powerful, repeating their statements and views while ignoring that of the less powerful. There are many factors that reinforce this bias. 

Firstly, it is cheap and easy to just publish quotes from spokespeople, to show up at organized press conferences and repeat what was said. Doing research to contextualize issues, back up statistics, trying to source well reasoned quotes from the general public or the disenfranchised and package it all together in an objective and detailed way is far harder. Better, of course, but harder and more expensive. 

Secondly, there is a need to preserve access for the future that encourages non-critical coverage. Media that are known to excoriate certain groups end up not being able to get interviews with those people. Conversely, media that typically white wash authority figures will be able to keep getting access to those authority figures. 

Thirdly, there is always a need to present information with credibility. For instance, on a scientific issue, actual scientists are needed so that the issue is presented with credibility. Spokespeople for governments and companies and the like have a built in sense of credibility with the public. Humans operate based on appealed to authority more than is often recognized, and using these figures makes conveying that sense of credibility easy for the media. The problem is that on issues where the powerful has a definitive bias (such as the University wanting to make their position in the strike seem very reasonable), such authority figures are not actually very credible commentators on the issue, despite the simplistic appeal that they are by definition "the authority". 

There are many more, but collectively these result in a system that tends not to spend the time and effort to provide objective, unbiased, contextualized news, but instead tends far more towards being stenographers for the powerful. The position of governments and companies and the like is widely disseminated no matter how ridiculous those positions are, and countervailing voices get a far smaller microphone. To exacerbate this, given these the pressures the system starts to habitually work this way, employing people that think that way, promoting people that think that way, and extending this type of reporting outwards into far more than is needed by the pressures alone. 

How this works in this case:
In this case of the Union/University coverage asymmetry, I don't believe there is anything intentionally malicious going on. It isn't that collectively the media is deliberately trying to distort the coverage so as to sway people to support the university over the union. Instead, it is simpler but no less powerful effects going on. 

Very likely, to the writer this was a fairly low priority piece, written under a time crunch. The simple, fast, and (most importantly) cheap way to fill in some context and interest beyond the headline is to do nothing more than go the university's website and quote a couple sentences from the open letter published there. The reporter doesn't need to know anything detailed, doesn't need to call people, doesn't need to go and travel to the university and speak with people, doesn't need to research facts, and so on. It can be quickly whipped up and sent out and on to the next story. 

If they had managed to go to the union's website as well, to quote from one of the open letters from key union members just as they quoted a key university member, I could have accepted this. Lazy, context-less, repetition from officials is its own set of problems in the media, but at least it would be equally lazy to both sides and get those couple sentence quotes out for readers to compare. But for this to be taken so far that they don't say anything - not one word - from someone either representing or supporting the union is simply unacceptably bad journalism. 

And why not? Why didn't they go to the union's website and quote something from there? While at campus to take photos anyways, how hard is it really to get a quote from any of the protesters? Perhaps it really is nothing more than that less than ten minutes was spent on this story and this is what you get. But I suspect it is representative of the systemic pattern of behavior that just gets exhibited in a situation like this even when it is so trivial to put one quote from the Union in the article. 

In this case, students are just intrinsically not the kind of authority the media tends towards. For the general public the view of a generic student is not going to be taken with the same level of credibility as that of the University leadership who have this sort of default assumption of being the more reasonable and more authoritative. Regardless of how valid this assumption might be generally (lots of students say lots of unreasonable things), when it comes to a core conflict between the University and the Union, taking just one of the sides because of these default asymmetries results in a massive bias. 

We might wish for a media that rose to a much higher standard. Indeed, this is a big part of why I blog here. But the media is failing to uphold even the lowest of standards. 

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