MEDIA WATCH

A fatal fascination with the negative

George Bain June 18 1984
MEDIA WATCH

A fatal fascination with the negative

George Bain June 18 1984

A fatal fascination with the negative

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

The classic movie cliché of newspaper journalism is the newsroom scene, circa 1934. Battered desks littered with papers. Reporters hammering at old Underwoods. An intense, slightly mad-looking man, tie pulled loose, sleeves rolled up, yelling into a phone: “Stop the presses. We’re tearing out Page 1. Casey has just phoned in from city hall, and we’ve got a story that’s going to blow this town apart.” Fondly to himself, as he hangs up: “That Casey. And to think I was going to fire him, the big lug.”

Casey, the big lug, knew a story when he saw one. (His failing was drink.) Certainly the managing editor knew; wasn’t he making over Page 1 on the strength of a few words on the phone? And in the more prosaic real world so do all the editors and reporters anyone has ever met—newspaper, television, radio alike—who will say with utter conviction and on reading a sole paragraph, “Wow, that’s a great story,” or, “It’s a nothing story.” But what makes a news story one or the other? Don’t ask. The answers tend to run inordinately to “um” and long pauses.

Let’s pose a case. Asbestos is believed by many to be dangerous to health—not surprisingly, in light of the wide publicity given the relationship between the inhalation of asbestos fibres and a high incidence of lung cancer. But asbestos fibres may also be swallowed and are in various foods and drinks, including wine, which in many places is passed in its processing through asbestos filters. What, then, if wine from some of those places comes into our market, notwithstanding even that at least one provincial liquor commission, at the urging of the Consumers’ Association of Canada, had issued a directive against the use of asbestos filters? Would that make a story? To several news persons to whom this scenario was sketched, the answer was a clear yes.

All of those facts, incidentally, are true. Now, keeping in mind that the worry about asbestos is probably generalized and that not very many lay people would make a distinction between asbestos fibres taken into the lungs and asbestos fibres taken into the stomach, let’s introduce another fact. Let’s say it has been found on good authority that asbestos fibres ingested by swallowing

are not demonstrably harmful. Would it be equally a story to say that anyone worried about getting stomach cancer from asbestos fibres in his wine—or his beer, gin, soft drinks or public drinking water, for that matter—can now relax?

The Canadian Press, to its credit, decided in its report on the findings of the Ontario royal commission on asbestos and health that it would; the CP lead to member papers read, “The public runs little risk of harmful exposure to asbestos in buildings, drinking water, beverages or food, but workers in asbestosrelated industries are in grave danger, and more will die in the next few years from past exposure....” But, in general, a story saying what something or someone is not—is not injurious, unwholesome, unreliable, untrue, illegal, immoral or fattening—does not trip lightly from the reporter’s word processor or past the editor’s eye. We have a natural leaning toward bad news, and, for the most part, the asbestos stories dwelt on the need for more surveillance to guard against further disaster to workers in industries producing or using asbestos. A comprehensive report on the more reassuring negative, that “there is no evidence that asbestos filtration of wines, spirits and beer causes health problems,” and recommending that the Ontario liquor board lift its ban on asbestos filters, remains unseen.

In fairness, it was the occupational hazard the report was mainly about. More generally, it is not some unspeakable quirk peculiar to professional reporters to look first at what’s bad. Bell Canada would have gone out of business years ago if it were not for people rushing to be first to tell friends about miscellaneous disasters. The story Casey phoned in that got the managing editor on the phone to the pressroom was never about the mayor turning over his salary to a fund for widows and orphans. That’s three paras on an inside page, tops. It was about his absconding with the municipal treasury. Meanwhile, about those wine filters. Before all this, before it was known there was no harm, if there was a directive in effect banning the use of asbestos filters, and if bottles were coming in showing “significant concentrations” of asbestos, how come the directive was not enforced?

Stop the presses. We’re making over Page 1. Bain has a great story here, the big lug.