corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

17 Nov '11

How the media shaped the Vancouver election

An Angus Reid poll reported by The Globe and Mail and CTV News a few days before the 2011 Vancouver civic election asked respondents about the issues important to them. Topping the list were: providing good sanitation services, ensuring public safety, enhancing the overall quality of life, protecting the environment, dealing with homelessness and poverty, and implementing policies to help small businesses.

All of these scored higher than handling the Occupy Vancouver protests. Yet none received a fraction of the coverage the corporate news media devoted to the protest. News viewers and readers could be forgiven for thinking that Occupy Vancouver was the most important issue for them to consider in deciding how to vote.

Occupy Vancouver became central to the election as media coverage moved through three phases, each tying Mayor Gregor Robertson closer to the Occupy Vancouver movement, each becoming more negative towards him, and each blurring with greater effect Occupy Vancouver’s message of income inequality.

These stages were defined as much by the corporate media as by political actors, although media workers will deny they help shape the news. A week before the election, questions were raised about the propriety of the Vancouver Sun’s use of an internal Non-Partisan Association poll that showed NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton narrowing the gap with Vision Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. The Sun splashed this story on its front page. (Nov. 11)

In defending his paper’s action, reporter Jeff Lee called the suspicion that the Sun was supporting the NPA “hogwash,” and the people who promote this suspicion as “mischief-makers” who believe in “conspiracy theories about ‘mainstream media.’”

But why did getting rid of Occupy Vancouver become the major story of the election, why did Robertson’s fate become so tightly tied to getting rid of Occupy Vancouver and why did Occupy Vancouver’s message of the growing gap between the top one percent and the rest of us become ‘disappeared?’

If OV became the defining issue of the campaign, it must have happened because of the way the media covered the occupation. Most Vancouverites have not likely seen the tent city in person. Or if they have driven or walked by, they have not likely talked to occupants. Almost everything they know about Occupy Vancouver they’ve learned from the media, particularly from their daily newspapers and their television stations.

Phase 1 began in the dog days of summer when hardly anyone was paying attention to the civic election, still more than three months away.

During the summer Anton tried to attack Vision Vancouver’s green economy focus without much success. Early in September the independent review of Vancouver’s 2011 Stanley Cup playoff riot was released and Anton tried to tar Robertson with the policing failure. But her efforts were usurped by an Economist Intelligence Unit report ranking Vancouver as the greenest city in Canada, with the fewest carbon-dioxide emissions and the best air quality in the country.

Robertson’s green agenda also received a boost from an unlikely source. Peter Ladner, the NPA’s mayoral candidate in 2008, chastised his former party for mocking Robertson’s promotion of urban agriculture—what the NPA was derisively and repeatedly calling backyard chickens and front-yard wheat.

“Food security is marching up the priority list in cities around the world,” Ladner warned in Business in Vancouver.

Anton fought fight back, complaining that no charges had been yet laid in the Stanley Cup riot and releasing a plan for a city streetcar system. She vowed that if elected mayor she would review bike lanes, which “drive a lot of people crazy,” and reiterated her complaints about chickens and wheat fields. She also proposed to lift height restrictions on the St. Paul’s Hospital expansion.

None of these efforts gained traction. With little over a month to go, Robertson was in the driver’s seat. Anton had no issue.

Then the Occupy Vancouver (OV) protest took place. The campaign entered its second phase on October 18, when the media reported the first negative message about OV, and tied Robertson to the protest. During this period media coverage became increasingly negative towards Robertson and OV, and Robertson’s strong issues were crowded out.

A poll on October 21st had Robertson with 68 percent support and Anton with 32 percent. By the end of this second phase, Robertson’s advantage seemed to be dwindling.

Occupy Vancouver had been in the news for about a week before the October 15 march in downtown Vancouver. The reasons for the OV movement were reported clearly. Organizer Min Reyes said OV “will be connected to all the other movements elsewhere based on the one goal that humanity should come before profits and corporations.”

Some in the media seemed to get it. As Vivian Luk wrote in The Province, “Participants are united by a common grievance: that a small group of corporations hold massive amounts of wealth and decision-making power, while the majority of the population suffers from enormous debt, unemployment, and unaffordable health care and housing.”

But not everyone. The day before the march, Sun columnist Craig McInnes wrote that “The rich are getting richer, everyone else is getting left behind. That message is worth considering. But it won’t be the spark to ignite a revolution in Vancouver. On a global scale, we’re all one-percenters here.”

Gradually, over the next few weeks, media coverage of OV turned from relatively balanced to critical and Robertson’s fate was tied to his handling of OV.

Robertson tried to raise other issues. Five days after the OV camp was set up, he pledged to put an end to gambling expansion if re-elected. But this announcement was drowned out the following day by the release of the information that OV had already cost city hall $500,000 for police and services. Over $400,000 was for the Saturday march and had nothing to do with the tent city, but Anton made hay with her charge that Robertson should have not allowed the tents to be set up in the first place.

By Day 10 of the OV protest, how to handle the tent city became the campaign’s defining issue. Anton said she would order the tents removed if she won the election. Removing the tents became the dominant narrative. “Time is running out for Occupy protesters,” proclaimed the headline of a Gary Mason column in The Globe and Mail (Oct 25); “Robertson wants Occupy to wrap up,” The Province reported the same day (Oct 25).

Phase 3—the end game—began with the death of Ashlie Gough at the Occupy Vancouver site on November 5th.. Despite her family’s wishes, Gough became a mini-media phenomenon, being mentioned in more than 50 newspaper stories over the next week.

Media reporting on OV changed decisively. A CTV News at Six report several days before the election reframed the Occupy movement as a motley crew of “squatters” who “have worn out their welcome.” The report used the words “squat” and “squatters” six times to reinforce the point. In a related piece, CTV reported on two food cart businesses displaced from their Art Gallery location and suffering dramatic declines in business. Conclusion? The squatters must go.

During the last seven days, newspapers provided roughly equal coverage to the three major parties. The Sun led in mentions (NPA 15, Vision 12, COPE 7), followed by the Courier (Vision 12, NPA 10, COPE 5), the Globe and Mail (NPA 6, Vision 6, COPE 2) and The Province (NPA 5, Vision 3, COPE 0).

A good illustration of how the media shaped the election was the Sun’s reporting on public opinion polls. The paper seemed to follow a simple formula: the more favourable a poll was for Anton and the NPA and the more critical of Robertson, the more prominent the coverage.

In fact, one poll favourable to Robertson seems to have missed the Sun’s attention almost entirely. An October 21 poll by Justason Market Intelligence found that support for Robertson was more than double that for Anton, at 68 percent to 32 percent.

This poll was reported by Allen Garr in the Vancouver Courier and Frances Bula in The Globe and Mail, but was virtually missed by B.C.’s newspaper of record.

To be fair, the Sun didn’t entirely neglect this poll. It was mentioned in a page-six story two weeks later. It was also relegated to a secondary mention in a page-four story about a different poll that was unfavourable to Robertson. This story was headlined “Mayor Robertson vulnerable in next month’s election.” (Justason’s news release was titled “Robertson polls ahead of rival, Anton.”)

The other poll that sparked this story was undertaken by Forum Research, a global research firm, and it surveyed residents in cities across Canada, asking them if they approve or disapprove of their mayor’s performance. Robertson received 49 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval by Vancouver respondents.

Surrey mayor Dianne Watts had done much better than Robertson in this survey, receiving an approval rating of 68 percent from Surrey residents. The front-page promo for this story included pictures of the two mayors with these words: “Voters like Watts … Robertson not so much.”

Was Robertson running against Watts?

Another problem poll was a front-page story on November 4 reporting on an Ipsos Reid survey of Metro Vancouver residents regarding the OV tent city. The story reported that a strong majority of Metro residents—75 percent—said they want the tent city gone, with 35 percent saying immediately and 40 percent saying protesters should be allowed to stay, but be given a firm deadline for removal.

But it wasn’t until paragraph 20 that reporter Doug Ward mentioned a caution offered by Ipsos Reid vice-president Kyle Braid. Respondents were located all across Metro Vancouver and not just in the city of Vancouver, Braid said, which is the only location where people will be casting ballots for or against Robertson.

The poll also found that a majority of Metro residents—51 percent—agreed with the views of the protesters, with 38 percent opposed, but this was barely mentioned in the story.

The most controversial polling coverage was the front-page story on Remembrance Day headlined “Anton closes gap on Robertson.” This story by Jeff Lee claimed “the race for the mayor’s office in Vancouver has tightened up, with challenger Suzanne Anton closing the gap to a handful of percentage points of Mayor Gregor Robertson.”

The poll was controversial because it was an internal poll done for the NPA and released to the Sun.

The poll was also controversial because it didn’t start by asking the respondent who he or she was thinking of supporting in the election. Instead it started with a question that primed the respondent to think about the election in a certain way: “Do you think things in the city of Vancouver are moving in the right direction or are they pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”

What is the validity of such as poll? As Frances Bula commented on CTV News at Six, it was “an internal poll by a political party that’s involved in the race so you always have to treat something like that with a little bit of caution.”

On his blog, reporter Jeff Lee undertook herculean efforts to prove he treated the poll cautiously. He listed the standards he sets for whether he will use an internal poll for a story. And he informed readers he had asked Vision Vancouver for its polling data.

This is fine, but what neither Lee nor any reporter can see is the rest of the polling the party may be doing and where the released data fits within a larger picture.

As Bula pointed out, the polling was done between November 3 and 5. “Those were the three days with the most negative news about Occupy Vancouver,” the non-fatal drug overdose on November 3 and the overdose death on November 5. “That had to have affected people’s responses about OV and about the mayoral candidates,” Bula wrote.

As if to prove this point, an Angus Reid poll was released three days later based on polling done November 9 and 10. This poll, reported by CTV News and The Globe and Mail, suggested a dramatically different outcome, with 47 percent of respondents preferring a Robertson-led council and 27 percent an Anton-led council.

Lost in the media stampede to condemn the occupation and Robertson’s handling of it were many other important stories, such Vision Vancouver’s food security initiatives and the Occupy movement’s income inequality message.

The only mention of food security and the city’s food strategy, aside from Peter Ladner’s earlier scolding of his former NPA colleagues, was a thoughtful piece by the Sun’s Randy Shore that was buried in the paper’s Arts and Life section (Nov. 12).

Occupy Vancouver’s message of income inequality was ignored by the Sun, with one important exception. Over the three months of the campaign, Pete McMartin wrote four columns critiquing the growing concentration of wealth at the top end of the income pyramid. Other journalists who tied income inequality to the Occupy movement included Frances Bula and Robert Matas (Globe and Mail), Andrew Fleming (Vancouver Courier) and Ethan Baron (The Province).

By the end of October the story had disappeared.

Is it any wonder people are losing faith in the corporate media? And in democracy?

First appeared in Vancouver Observer, 17 November 2011


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