MEDIA WATCH

The importance of personal opinion

Why it is that although the same circumstances were present and observable a month ago, what was no news then is big news now

GEORGE BAIN December 26 1988
MEDIA WATCH

The importance of personal opinion

Why it is that although the same circumstances were present and observable a month ago, what was no news then is big news now

GEORGE BAIN December 26 1988

The importance of personal opinion

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Why it is that although the same circumstances were present and observable a month ago, what was no news then is big news now

Quirky it may be, but it is hard to quarrel with the definition of news ascribed to Tommy Lytle, a onetime news editor at The Toronto Star, that “News is what I say it is.” The person who says what is going into that day’s newspaper, and where—on page 1 or, as the saying used to be, back with the truss ads—is defining news. If a story is on the front, it is big news; at the back, smail news, and, chucked into the waste-basket, no news. The same is true of people who make the lineups for news on radio and television. Where television has made a difference is in homogenizing the news. The media have always picked up from one another, either by scalping, the newspaper term for the nowdiscredited practice of taking whatever seemed useful in the opposition’s story and brazenly rewriting it or, more scrupulously, by using the other paper’s story as a basis for inquiries leading to a follow-up.

When newspapers had the field pretty much to themselves, the practice was almost entirely confined within the community. Television has extended it. What would have been purely a local story becomes a national story if carried on television because the main TV news programs are by definition national. National radio existed before television but, with rare exceptions, including the Moose River mine disaster in Nova Scotia in 1936, never managed to make people, including editors, hang on it in the same way. Such national and international news services as The Canadian Press and Britain’s Reuters news agency existed even before television was thought of. But the editor in Saskatoon could chuck out with impunity even an Ottawa story that came in over the wire because nothing existed to create an expectation in readers of finding it reflected in the paper next morning. Television does that.

The elusive nature of news is made more so by the fact that not only is what constitutes news a matter of subjective judgment, but when. Although the same circumstances were present and observable a month ago, what was

no news then is big news now. The explanation can be as simple as that no one at any news conference thought to say “We really ought to be doing a story about...” or that reader and viewer attention was rivetted on something bigger—a national election, say—and that there was no reason to go looking for something else to put in the shop window.

An illustration of some of all those tendencies is to be found in the sudden early-December spate of stories of turmoil at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, which could have left equally perplexed frequent travellers there and homebodies in the vast hinterland— the first, because they would have found nothing changed from what they had known for some time, the second, because they would have found it strange that a crisis in air traffic could have blown up seemingly overnight. As someone with a foot in both those camps, I was driven eventually by a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail (page 1, Dec. 10: “Ottawa to limit air traffic to ease chaos at Pearson”) to make inquiries. The paragraph said: “Under the 70-aircraft cap [an hourly maximum of takeoffs and landings just then decreed by Ottawa], Pearson could handle up to 1,240 flights a day. The most it has had to cope with in

the past year is 1,203 . . . . ” Given that the remedy seemed to offer more flights than were causing the chaos, questions were in order.

Seventy flights an hour, over 17 hours—the airport’s working day—comes to 1,190. The first figure in the Globe, 1,240, on the face of it could not be right. Because records of the past year show that June 8, Sept. 8 and Oct. 6 were the three busiest days of the year at Pearson International, with, respectively, 1,181,1,193 and 1,173 flights in and out, the second makes a reasonable rounded-off number. However, neither of those sets of figures supports an argument that there was a crisis in early December—except that, with many people holding tickets for flights home for Christmas, there could be expected to be a heightened public sensitivity to crisis.

Neither did figures for flights on three selected days in 1988—Jan. 8, June 10 and Dec. 9; all Fridays, six months apart—support a thesis that chaos at Pearson was of recent origin (a major element in most dictionary definitions of news). The Jan. 8 figure produced was 869, which, I was told, almost certainly was low; there were computer troubles that day. On June 10, there were 1,105, and on Dec. 9, coincidentally, 1,105. What those figures again said was that if Toronto’s airport had problems arising from an increase in the total volume of traffic, they were as legitimately national news in midyear, and probably earlier, as in December.

Although the number of flights in and out has leapt from 257,000 a year to 330,000 since deregulation in 1984, Pearson’s problem isn’t so much that the total traffic is too much but that—just as with most downtown expressways—it’s too much at rush hours. The airlines, catering to business travellers, schedule flights to get travellers into the city in the morning for a day’s business and out again at night. Those are the times when Ottawa’s 70flights-an-hour cap will exert an effect, mainly to squeeze flights other than commercial passenger flights out into the quieter times between. The larger question of the airport’s future will be discussed at a conference called for January at which Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard will sound out the airlines and others on a range of options that runs from adding runways to building a new airport. But none of that explains what elevated the airport’s troubles overnight from something dully nagging, like lower-back pain, into a national story.

Part of the answer is that The Toronto Star coincidentally started a 10-part series that it called Airport Agonies, by John Picton, one of its most senior writers, just as 61 flights were cancelled at Pearson one day, and 51 the next. Whether the cancellations arose from an unacknowledged work-to-rule by air-traffic controllers dissatisfied with understaffing is a matter of conjecture, but what is sure is that, as they drew attention to the Star's blockbuster series, the Star’s series drew attention to what had been building at Pearson for four years, and both together drew the attention of other media, which made the story national. And that, kiddies, is how a crisis is bom. A crisis is present when we say it is.