Media bias: Private good, public bad

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The following e-mail is from Jim Guild, a friend of mediaspin and a perceptive media critic. In this message, Jim points to a long-standing bias in news reporting—the routine habit of criticizing public institutions and politicians while ignoring or minimizing the shortcomings of private institutions and business leaders. This happens partly because the news media see themselves primarily as public-sector watchdogs and partly because our libel laws have a chilling effect on coverage of the private sector.

Under Canadian law, it’s almost impossible to libel a public institution or politician, but the law is much stricter when it comes to the private sector. Every journalist knows that big companies and powerful business execs have legions of lawyers at the ready to file lawsuits that can take years to fight and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, journalists tend to steer clear of criticizing the private sector.

As Jim points out, this media bias creates the misleading impression that the public sector is wasteful and inefficient while the private sector nearly always operates smoothly. This message is reinforced by propaganda from right-wing politicians, think tanks financed by big corporations and the media themselves.


Back-to-back CBC-TV Halifax stories last night continued an ongoing trend in all media not to identify private consultants and contractors who are to blame for public sector problems or cost overruns.

1. An unnamed “contractor” punctured a water main near the Dartmouth Crossing shopping mall causing a geyser of water and hours of traffic tie-ups. No apparent effort was made by CBC to find out which contractor caused the damage—the most important part of the news item I would suggest—and what liability might ensue. It became a public sector story with Halifax Water now responsible for cleaning up the mess.

2. Paul Withers’ piece on a sewer replacement project in downtown Halifax talked about foul-ups, cost overruns and unexpectedly high tenders (again private contractors who bid so high were not identified nor were the names of any private consultants, etc.) Again, Halifax Water was left to explain what remains to be done, etc.

No wonder CBC can perpetuate the myth that governments don’t know what they are doing and the private sector can always be more efficient. If you never identify the private sector “perps” and only have government people on camera explaining the mess, the business world always comes out looking good.

For a public broadcaster, this approach seems shortsighted in many ways and against its own self-interest. It’s a short leap to believing that private broadcasters can do a better job at journalism than the “bloated” CBC.

Jim Guild reports frequently for the Halifax Media Co-op. His most recent piece can be read here.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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