The Public Says They Aren't Interested But Some Issues Punch Above Their Weight In Media Coverage
There are many theories for the success of socialist Bernie Sanders and populist Donald Trump in the current U.S. election cycle. But disgust over the status quo in media is a large part of the appeal. When Trump ballyrags about even FOX TV ignoring the public’s true interests, he’s hitting a nerve in the mainstream population.
In Canada the architects of the NDP Leap Manifesto may be deranged, but they understand that they can safely make an assault on the priorities of the legacy media in Canada (or what’s left of them) and find a sympathetic ear.
And polls back them up. Polls are malleable things. (They advertise their margin-of-error as three-to-five percent.) Yesterday’s big issue can become a non-issue in the blink of an eye. Some polls prove flat-out wrong. This past year has seen numbers of Americans concerned about terrorism peak and then decline rapidly.
But there are polling numbers that have achieved consistency in the public realm over time. In Canada, concern about the cost of living polled at almost twice the importance of environmental issues during the 2015 federal election. Those priorities are in line with polling over the years, if not with David Suzuki’s priorities.
Likewise with issues in the U.S. Consider a recent FOX poll of likely American 2016 voters. The economy and jobs were by far the major issue for voters. The poll also showed just seven percent consider climate change their most important issue. Only two percent consider gay rights their top issue. That’s been a pretty consistent finding over time.
Then why do media flip these stated priorities on their ear? Anyone watching national TV news in Canada and the U.S. might be surprised by this polling. Based on what they see or read about gay rights, climate change or gender identification, they know that the consistently stated concerns of viewers are not reflected in the airtime they receive or column inches they drive.
An obvious example is the coverage of the increasing militancy of LGBTQ issues in the news. While only three percent of Americans tell U.S. census takers that they are homosexual and just two percent consider it their most important issue, the issue punches far above its polling weight.
The recent protests by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and large U.S. corporations over new legislation protecting religious freedoms in various states has been trumpeted in the press as anti-gay hate. The emotional coverage has been a inch deep and a mile wide, with little depth about what motivated the legislation. MSNBC and Canadian media sources have played the story like the Selma marches of the 1960s.
So was the notorious “wedding cake story” in which activists created a national furor when religious people in Indiana declined to participate in gay weddings based on their religious beliefs. Rather than point out that no one would expect a halal butcher to prepare pork for a customer, many in the the media instead portrayed this as a hate crime on a par with the Holocaust.
The same for climate issues. Melting glaciers, and “hottest summers on record” lead newscasts or receive play over economic issues. (Unless, of course, those economic issues can be tied by Barack Obama to the “changing climate”.) Yet polls consistently show that the doomsday agenda of climate alarmists has not captured the imagination of voters.
In Canada, how often does CBC lead with an economic story when there’s another story about a dysfunctional native community? Do we have to answer that? (BTW: aboriginals make up just 4.3 percent of the population in Canada.) Yet very few Canadians make native issues a priority issue when polled.
Likewise the flurry of stories about those choosing to identify with another sex/ lifestyle. (There is no official data on the subject, but it’s believed that the sex-change percentage of the U.S. population is well below the 0.30 figure often cited). Yet the Bruce Jenner-inspired reportage about bathroom use far exceeds its importance to the population in polling. Media can’t get enough of men with penises in women’s washrooms.
There is the natural hook of dimwitted entertainment stars attaching themselves to topical issues, of course (witness Neil Young and Leo DiCapprio’s hapless embrace of climate issues). Springsteen brought eyeballs to the debate in North Carolina. But is the attention paid to gay issues proportionate to its societal importance in general?
Does the onslaught of stories on CBC or in the Los Angeles Times saying climate science is “settled” represent the interest levels reflected in polling? Or do they represent the interest of the journalists deciding the nightly news lineups? Or is it simply they have sexy Hollywood names attached?
According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 80 percent of Americans believe "journalists chase sensational stories because they think it will sell papers, not because they think it is important news… (over 80 percent) believe sensational stories receive lots of news coverage simply because they are exciting, not because they are important.”
The fact that a great proportion of the population disagrees with the media’s priorities seems an indictment of modern journalism. But, even as legacy media collapses, the surviving journos seem oblivious to the discrepancy. Rather they consider their obstinacy a badge of intellectual independence, not slavish attention to old liberal tropes.
No one is suggesting that journalism should always reflect the proportional structure of society or the results of a poll. But if it wishes to claim authority in the modern age, legacy media must begin recognizing the voice that has been speaking in its ear for decades.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).