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Mass media coverage overshadows actual stories

Photo illustration by Tina Wallace

2013 was a good year for journalists: there was Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, Stephen Harper and the Senate, Miley Cyrus and twerking, Vladimir Putin and the Sochi Olympics, Kate Middleton and her pregnancy, Rob Ford and Toronto.

Despite all of these great stories, it seems like the media no longer just reports the news, but also makes it. Take the white poppy story, for example, in which “left-wing pacifist” students became part of a Remembrance Day controversy. Sun News took a small symbol of protest—only 2,500 white poppies were available for distribution compared to the 18 million red poppies worn nationally this year—and turned it into a big politically, ideologically. and emotionally charged issue.

Is this a new, troubling trend?

Maybe not. It’s no miracle that somehow most news stories fit perfectly into a newspaper or a broadcast segment. Stories are selected, edited, and presented to a specific audience and for a specific purpose, usually for profit or for so-called public interest.

The objective standard of news reporting is a really nice thought, but a look back at history suggests otherwise.

Yellow journalism is the term used to describe sensational, frequently political stories of sometimes questionable veracity.  “The truth” is presented along with a moral, ethical, or political opinion intended to frame the facts’ public consumption. Yellow journalism was popularized in American media when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst built news empires and competed for circulation.

Pulitzer and Hearst believed the primary role of the press was to expose political corruption and thereby help maintain public accountability. They also focused on increased circulation. With yellow journalism, they struck an awkward balance between a democratic and capitalist ideal.

At its worst, yellow journalism encourages cynicism and that feeling of “here we go again” or “just another scandal.” At its best, yellow journalism can spark engagement and lead to progressive reform. For example, Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers had significant roles in the fight for workers’ safety and rights after the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

Is mass-media sinking to new lows by creating controversy over symbols like the poppy?  Or is the media returning to its historical roots and trying to elevate public discussion while simultaneously selling more news?  Was the Sun trying to provoke a visceral reaction or provoke thoughtful discussion?

We are constantly trying to understand who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.  For better or worse, the media is a part of that process.