IN THE FACE OF VANCOUVER's continuing ability to mobilize major opposition to the arms race, the media persists in either portraying the peace movement in derogatory terms or in ignoring it altogether. Media bias in the coverage of the April 27, 1985, End the Arms Race (EAR) Walk for Peace serves as a case study of a problem which dogs the peace movement everywhere. This problem must be faced and overcome, for the media has the power to shape public opinion by selecting what constitutes "news."
The mainstream newsmedia in Canada used a number of techniques to present the Walk for Peace in a negative light. Most blatant was the complete absence of coverage in some instances, and the low priority given to it and the issues it raised, in others.
When coverage was provided, it was framed in a way which trivialized the issues and tactics of the peace movement, and misrepresented the broad range of people involved in peace activities by portraying participants as being outside the mainstream of society.
As in the past three years, Maclean's newsmagazine ignored the Walk completely, as did the CTV national news. Indeed, the national media, which is primarily oriented to central Canada, devoted so little column space and airtime to the Walk that their reaction verged on a veritable blackout.
Stories about the Walk made only one front page -- that of the Sunday Province. The other papers relegated the story to page three, or further back. Both of the Toronto dailies, the Globe and Mail and the Star, covered the Vancouver Walk as part of a larger article: the former devoted more space to smaller Toronto and Ottawa demonstrations, and the latter devoted equal space to the Walk and to the five peace campers arrested on Parliament Hill. The Vancouver success was sloughed off with the phrase "as usual," and was not treated substantially by any of the mainstream media.
The groundswell of participation in the disarmament movement in British Columbia was ignored in newspaper and magazine columns and editorials, on The Journal and in CBC Radio commentary. This massive movement has made Canadian political history, yet it is not being written about or discussed by the newsmakers in its own time. This lack of coverage can only be the result of a central-Canadian bias in reporting, a prejudice against any attempts to change the status quo, and perhaps a wishful thought. 'If we ignore them, maybe they'll go away.'
When coverage is provided, the media insists on portraying the protesters as kooks and/or Communists. The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the CBC national news all made a point of prominently noting the presence of the Communist Party of Canada -- Marxist-Leninist, and Punks for Peace. (Last year, it was Whores against War in the spotlight.) By intentionally distorting the picture of those who participate, the media alienates those in the general public who did not attend. By ignoring the church and community groups, the professionals, individuals, trade unions, families and students, the media prejudices audiences against supporting demonstrations.
CBC Television claimed that one of the major issues of the Walk for Peace was the Ottawa Peace Camp. Yet the Camp was not an issue in Vancouver -- it is unlikely that a single banner or placard referred to this topic. The media clearly thought that a handful of people being arrested in Ottawa was far more important and newsworthy (read: sensational) than tens of thousands of people marching in Vancouver. The media attempted to superimpose this issue on the Vancouver event to justify their disproportionate coverage of the Ottawa action.
Without meaning to disparage the Peace Campers in Ottawa, the overemphasis by the media on this action, relative to the much larger Walk for Peace, must be taken as an attempt to marginalize the movement -- the average TV viewer would identify less with a small group of protesters being dragged off by police than with 80,000 people from all sectors of society showing their concern and their opposition to the continuing arms race.
The media also trivialized the Walk's importance by discussing crowd estimates and speculating about declining interest. The numbers were often imaginative, and disparaging. For example, CBC-TV reported 62,000 protesters, saying that it represented a drop of 25,000 from last year. However, last year's CBC estimate was not 87,000 -- it was 55,000, an estimate itself contrary to estimates (from organizers and police) of 115,000 people. A mass of 80,000 people showed their urgent commitment to the issue of arms buildup, despite the miserable cold weather which lasted for days -- right up to the time of the Walk, including an unprecedented snowfall the day before, but this was not considered by the media.
Numbering is often used to disparage sister movements in cities across the country. The media do not point to one major success, but to multiple "failures." The contrived conclusion that the peace movement is declining fills the need for the constant search for a 'new angle,' and masks the media's inability or refusal to deal with the issues. In the Vancouver case, little or nothing was said about the underlying condition which led to the popular demonstration
the nuclear arms race and Canada's implicit and explicit involvement in it. The keynote speakers were given scant notice in the press, as was the platform of End the Arms Race: no involvement in Star Wars and related systems; an end to cruise testing; and a call for an immediate bilateral freeze on weapons deployment, testing and production. In some media, the press briefing and the resolution issued by EAR did not receive any coverage at all.
In fact, in both major Vancouver newspapers, columnists wrote negative articles about the Walk just prior to the event. Accounts of Soviet human rights violations and claims that the movement in Vancouver is anti-American and Soviet-instigated were printed in an attempt to undermine the Walk. Columns published after the Walk continued and even intensified these claims.
An independent poll taken in greater Vancouver just one week prior to the Walk showed 72% supported the Walk for Peace. This received little or no attention in the news. Yet 80,000 people walking for peace was seen by CTV regional news as an opportunity to interview three people opposed to disarmament.
After the Walk, some media reported on a charge, levelled by an aide to Conservative MP Pat Carney, that the Walk was politically partisan -- a charge which had no substance. The aide claimed that Carney's telegram was not read from the stage, and that this showed political bias. (End the Arms Race received telegrams from politicians in every major party, but read none of these at the Walk due to extreme time constraints.) The media provided airtime for this charge, without allowing for a response from End the Arms Race.
The media has never been fair, nor very accurate, in its treatment of the peace movement, and it has recently started getting worse. The media desperately wants the movement to change and do something new
splinter, decline, or admit defeat.
The movement must counter the disparaging and inaccurate accounts put forward by the media. The media serve as a powerful tool to influence public opinion, and are able either to lend credibility to those working for disarmament, or to discredit them. The negative image projected by the media is in sharp contrast to the unlimited and uncritical coverage that is given to the same old worn-out government excuses for more and more nuclear weapons.
The time has come for a change. Fair coverage, equal time, and media access must be achieved if the peace movement is to grow and succeed.