Headlines/Angles Betray Points of View…

Is the glass half empty or half full? That’s a dilemma we all face when looking at various issues, incidents and even life itself.

To be honest, my own tendecy, as a reporter, was to tend to the half-empty perspective … made for better stories, more drama, greater emphasis on the need to improve.  However, in my personal life, I lean towards the half-full perspective … life is good,  I have been comparatively blessed, and even though things could always be better,   I really can’t complain.

Governments and opposition parties are similarly biased: by their very nature, governments always view themselves as doing a good job, even a great job; but the opposition sees them as falling short, sometimes disastrously so. Each is playing the game according to the rules, established over decades of precedents, tradition and even fulfilling the constitutional roles set out for them.

But how the media play stories is much more interesting and telling from my point of view.

It’s all part of how they see performance in the “game” governments, politicians, organizations and individuals  play … and the perspective the media offer can be very telling … VERY telling indeed.

But the truth is few people really notice the difference or are aware how they perhaps are being “played”, manipulated, programmed.  I’m trying to change that with this blog.

For example, just recently, the BC government announced the final deficit figure for the 2009-2010 fiscal year is $1.7 Billion.

The hard facts are VERY clear:

BEFORE the election the government said it expected (predicted) the deficit would be “$495 million MAXIMUM”.  Now, everybody knows, or should know, that governments always try to make things look as rosy as possible … even negative news like deficits …  before an election.

AFTER the election, the government … now esconced in office for another term … changed its prediction only weeks later to predict a “$2.775 billion” deficit.

That’s a HUGE change: and a sceptic like me, if I was still working,  would have suggested this was done for multiple reasons: first of all, the pre-election estimate had been low-balled for political reasons; secondly, the post-election new estimate was deliberately inflated, so that when the final figures come in at less, the government would look good, and the deficit not so bad  (if that’s possible with such a large deficit.)

So, I was not at all surprised when Finance Minister Colin Hansen announced the FINAL deficit was $1.779 Billion.

But take a look at this:

In the Vancouver Sun, the Front Page lead story headline proclaimed: “Province cuts spending, deficit drops $996 million”.

In my view, the government’s own Public Affairs Bureau couldn’t have written the headline from a more “positive” perspective!

Here’s the first paragraph of the story that followed:

“Dramatic spending cuts have helped slash British Columbia’s deficit by $996 million for the last fiscal year, driving it down to $1,779 billion, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said Thursday,”  wrote reporter Jonathan Fowlie.

And the sub-headline: “No room to expand program funding, finance minister says.”

Talk about spin!  I can undertand exactly why Hansen would play it that way … but I was appalled at the way The Sun headline and story opening played it that way, parotting the government’s view. Looked to me like they were swallowing the government’s line (PAB?) hook, line …  and stinker.

The story included all the actual figures … but the headline and opening slant, if I can call it that, was in my view exactly what  the government had probably hoped for!

Now look at the way The Province played the same story:

The headline: “Deficit soars like Whistler’s peaks”.

What a difference!  And I’d bet not so pleasing to the government and the PAB!

The first paragraphs:

“You Gotta Be Here — but it’ll cost you $38 million.

“The star-studded campaign’s price tag … with Michael J. Fox, Kim Cattrall, Steve Nash and Sarah McLachlan extolling B.C.’s virtues … was a surprise lurking amid the final deficit figure of $1.7 billion for the BC Liberals in tumultuous 2009-10,” wrote Province reporter Ian Austin.

I liked that.  Much more entertaining, and much more reflective of the healthy cynicsim I feel journalists should have in dissecting and reporting political news.   And this story too included all the actual figures.

And the sub headline, I thought, was also much more critical:  “FINAL FIGURE $1.7 BILLION: Critic slams star-studded TV spots amid cuts for sports, arts”

Right on! or should I say Write on!

I cannot say what led to the headlines or how the same story was presented so differently … and really don’t know if this was a one-time or consistent trend by the reporters involved (please no nasty personal comments or diatribes about either!).

I don’t even know if this particular incident is sufficient to reveal the newspapers’ differing overall attitudes or editorial policies.

But I hope people, starting with my own blog readers, will start to look much more carefully at how headlines and story angles can be used to shape public opinion.

Watch those headlines! Watch those opening paragraphs!

And over time, you will understand much more than most where any newspaper is coming from … and where it is heading.

Harv Oberfeld

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17 Responses to Headlines/Angles Betray Points of View…

  1. Kim says:

    Okay Harv., I think most of your readers here have a healthy skepticism level. That last comment was a touch heavy handed. People who read political blogs generally do so becuase they recognise bullshit when they see it.

    (Response: The problem is most people don’t read blogs on politics or the media. They much prefer blogs on Hollywood gossip. Hopefully that is changing though. And you may not like my last line, but I stand by it: most newspaper readers do NOT spend much time analysing headlines or slant ..and very very few would actually have the time or interest in comparing what one paper says compared to another. h.o)

  2. SB says:

    It is manipulation of perceptions unfortunately it now appears the majority of BC taxpayers have figured it out .
    I read the comments in Victoria paper today and outside predictable PAB writers who always spout off the same look at what the NDP did line people are out and out screaming recall and saying enough Liberal lies im not sure what message the news media is getting though, they went broke and the buyers who will keep them alive are saying dont lie to us anymore but they keep going.
    Many now look ti the web for blogs knowing full well truth will not be told in our media i think your blog about advertising on Global tells all we need to see why , ill hope maybe the Post will see alienated readers who dont buy = no advertisers when numbers show it dosnt pay = some idea they owe responsibility to be honest to keep alive but doubt that will happen .
    i cant wait to see what they come up with when recall actually works .

    (Response: I agree many more people are much more perceptive these days in scrutinizing the media, but I dont think it’s yet the majority, as you suggest. Hopefully, with time, that will change. h.o)

  3. kootcoot says:

    In my view, the government’s own Public Affairs Bureau couldn’t have written the headline from a more “positive” perspective!

    Thanks for reminding me Harv, that the Vancouver Sun ISN’T a Public Affairs Bureau publication – it is so easy to forget they are just free market volunteer PABsters.

    Now I gotta get my butt in front of the TeeVee for the World Cup Final………

    (Response: I’m also watching. Go Nederlands! h.o)

  4. kootcoot says:

    SB suggests:

    …….maybe the Post will see alienated readers who dont buy = no advertisers when numbers show it dosnt pay = some idea they owe responsibility to be honest to keep alive but doubt that will happen .

    Sales of the Post or its advertising have pretty well be irrelevant ever since Convict Black started it, as long as it succeeds in promoting the Reich Whing corporate message in a slick and glossy style. If they could be sure people would pay attention to it, they would give it away advertising free…………

  5. Kim says:

    “The problem is most people don’t read blogs on politics or the media. They much prefer blogs on Hollywood gossip.”

    Fair enough, but I was talking about your blog readers and not the scan the headlines newspaper readers.

    I don’t know about your numbers, but many others here in BC., The Legislature Raids, The Gazetteer, House of Infamy, The Straight Goods, all are reporting really encouraging numbers in the last few months.

    Chris White has shown us that facebook can also become a political forum and many have started useful and meaningful groups, including Mr. Teileman, as you probably know.

    These new media do provide for the dissemination of information and misinformation as well. I have met a lot of people this way who think and feel deeply about the state of world affairs. These are the ones who will take the issues into the realm of general discourse, and there will be a wider understanding of the huge issues we face. Critical mass.

  6. Norm Farrell says:

    Are you supposing the Sun’s treatment was unpredictable, resulting from too little consideration by the person assigned? Or, was it the result of considered policy determined by senior officers who establish the style of messaging they want consistently employed.

    That policy might be something like:

    “The VanSun supports the BC Liberal Government and all news coverage must take account of this policy. Without being too obvious, put a positive spin on any reporting involving Gordon Campbell, his policies and his entire administration. If you cannot say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. No coverage is preferred to criticism.”

    (Response; I don’t really know what happened in this case. Easy to speculate ..but really not fair to draw a conclusion of what a headline writer or reporter does based on one story. Of coursem, as I have blogged here before, I believe the MSM has definitely been easier on the Libs than they were on the NDP … esp at election times. But this instance was noteworthy on its own for the very different perspectives it offered. I leave it to the reader to decide why it happened the way it did. h.o)

  7. Annie says:

    I still subscribe to the Vancouver Sun but expect I’ll cancel my subscription once “the Dean” retires. I also get the G&M. Sometimes the BC section is okay. Mind, the horoscope and cartoons are quite good. As for the NP–well, my spouse likes to read it but I can’t wait to get it into the recycling bag. Never subscribed to the Province, but I do check out Mike Smyth on line. Otherwise, I troll the blogs. Always like yours.

    (Response: We have very similar tastes … in newspapers .. and in blogs! 😉 h.o

  8. SB says:

    I was only telling about responses in comment section in a T-C article i read the other day a majority of posters that day up to that time were out and out calling Libs liars and for recall the anger is growing no doubt.

  9. Crankypants says:

    It does seem very strange to get two different types of headlines based on the same information considering both dailies have common ownership. It would seem to indicate that the two authors may have different political views. I do get both newspapers everyday and get the impression that the Vancouver Sun is more supportive of the BC Liberal Party than The Province.

    The Vancouver Sun publishes many articles that are written by members of the Fraser Institute, cabinet ministers and leaders of the business groups that have been very supportive of the Gordon Campbell led Liberals. The Province doesn’t carry many if any such articles. Maybe Canwest, or whatever their new name is, are trying to give each daily a different personality to entice people to buy both to get different perspectives on similar issues.

    (Response: I agree with your perspective on the two papers ..although The Province seems to come around to the Libs just in time for an election! The Province also seems a bit more cheeky in its approach to stories …which I think has a place, esp in covering politics! h.o)

  10. Crankypants says:

    For anyone that has an interest on budgets etc., please go to The Tyee.com and read Will McMartin’s story on Colin Hansen’s pre and post election budgets and the MSM coverage of said budgets.

    Harvey, I think that Will’s article just corroborates your suspicions. All is not well in Lotusland.

  11. Ian says:

    Will McMartin has a very good piece on bias and budget coverage in the Tyee today. I’ll have a bit on this on my blog later today looking at headlines in 97 vs. today…. http://reidandwrite.ca/blog2/

  12. Norm Farrell says:

    Harvey, your catch and Will McMartin’s Tyee analysis can only lead to a conclusion of intentional bias of the traditional media in BC. There is a book published by Illinois University Press, the title of which is itself informative:
    Rich media, poor democracy.

  13. Paul says:

    How the media play stories?

    Look at the nice podium The Vancouver Sun gave Gordon Campbell just before last year’s election.

    Gordon Campbell: B.C. has come a long way in the past eight years

    By Gordon Campbell, Canwest News Service April 13, 2009
    © Copyright (c) Canwest News Service


    And why did CANWEST donate $50,000 to the BC Liberal Party in 2005?

    That’s the question Charlie Smith from the Georgia Straight was in the middle of asking Gordon Campbell about when suddenly an off-camera woman’s voice interrupted and objected to this line of questioning.

    Charlie Smith: “My question is, Canwest donated $50,000 to the BC Liberal Party in 2005. What you say to someone who wonders if the government has directed government advertising to Canwest in return for political contributions?

    It turns out that the woman was Brigitte Anderson, the premiers press secretary.

    Enjoy the clip


    Is this the resultant journalism?

    *** HEADLINE ***
    Campbell and the Liberals have earned right to a third term

    – Vancouver Sun EDITORIAL (May 8, 2009)


    [1] “With a couple of minor exceptions, compared to past B.C. governments, Campbell’s Liberals have been relatively scandal-free.”

    [2] “Campbell says his priorities for the next term are reviving the economy, fighting climate change and establishing better relations with aboriginal people.”

    [3] “If re-elected for a third term, Campbell will become part of an elite group.”

    [4] “In the past century, only three other premiers have been so rewarded by British Columbians.”

    [5] “We think he has earned a chance to show he belongs.”

    That read more like a PAB Gordon Campbell infomercial to me.

    It probably was.

    (Response: Says it all ..or at least quite a lot, doesn’t it! h.o.)

  14. Leah says:

    Cranky, you had the same question as I. Why the difference when ownership is the same…but that’s not the only difference between the two.

    According to someone who used to work there a few years ago, The Province is written for those who are comfortable with a Grade 8/9 level of grammar…while The Sun caters to those whose level is Grade 12 and higher.

    Perhaps that makes a difference to content and attitude as well? What do you think Harvey?

    (Response: Having worked at The Sun for 8 years before joining BCTV, we always saw that paper as “the paper of record” in BC but the Province as “a tab” … aimed at the bus riders. How they each see themselves now …I’m not sure …BUT I believe we were much more equal in going after both the Socreds and the NDP. I find The Sun much duller now … filled with too many puff pieces, and I definitely get the feeling there is less editorial independence now … especially at election crunch time, in favor of the Liberals. h.o)

  15. Norm Farrell says:

    Well, we caught Global TV News cheating on a report about Toronto demonstrators. Perhaps to make it Toronto look more dangerous, they used February footage from Vancouver.

    Reporter Mike Drolet claimed 5,000 protesters had been expected – without saying by whom – and only 2,000 showed up. He reporter said this was evidence that civil rights advocates were losing public support. Oh, really?

    (Response: Are you sure you got the details/context correct? I did not see it but Drolet is generally a pretty good reporter so I doubt there was some sinister plot. Possibly a contectual error on his part..or yours? h.o)

  16. Norm Farrell says:

    The segment containing Mike Drolet’s report is now linked at Northern Insights. Look at it and show me how I made a contextual error. Other than his last words and the editor mixing in phony Vancouver footage, the report is not bad. But, those are large exceptions that need to be explained.

    “The hardcore protesters are still yelling. But, are they starting to lose their followers? Over 5,000 were expected for this rally. Fewer than two showed up.”

    Who expected 5,000? Who counted fewer than 2,000? Did Drolet pull numbers out of thin air to deprecate the protest movement.

    (Response: Interesting. I agree he should have said who predicted 5,000 would show up ..but overall I think the report was quite fair to the protestors, with adequate quotes from them. As for the footage… yup ..I certainly caught the pic of The Vancouver Sun/Province boxes being toppled. Likely a rushed editing mistake … but I don’t think worhy of saying Global was Cheating …which I believe presupposes a deliberate act. h.o )

  17. Captan says:

    Would it make a difrefence?Actually, I think it might – especially if it did for Mr. Palmer what the buy-out did for Ms. Bula..

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