York profs look at media coverage of SARS

A study by York researchers says saturation coverage of Toronto’s SARS crisis helped fuel the impression the outbreak was more serious than it actually was, reported major Toronto and national media outlets Oct. 30. The study, produced by York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, analyzed the reporting of severe acute respiratory syndrome in five leading Canadian and US newspapers. “If we answer the question ‘Was it fair and balanced?’, the real answer is, the saturation coverage became part of the crisis,” said Professor Daniel Drache, associate director of the Robarts Centre, at a press conference Oct. 29 in Toronto to release the study’s findings. “The cumulative effect of the reporting was as important as the quality. It did create the impression that the crisis in Toronto was much more severe than it actually was.” Stories on the study ran in newspapers across the country via Canadian Press, as well as in leading Toronto dailies, on radio station CFRB and on CBC radio and television.  

Drache and colleagues, including Professor Seth Feldman, director of the Robarts Centre, looked at coverage of SARS in the Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, the National Post, the New York Times and USA Today from March 16 to June 15. While the economic and political fallout of SARS did become a bigger part of the story over time, the focus of the bulk of coverage remained on the medical and health-care angles. In fact, the authors praised the newspapers involved for not allowing themselves to be “captured either by political bickering or to be a simple spokesperson for tourism,” reported CP. But if this micro-level aspect of the coverage earned high marks – Drache gave newspapers a B-plus for their SARS health stories – the sheer volume of the coverage and the impression it created dragged down the overall grade, reported CP. “So on that, you’re only around C-minus, because there is a larger responsibility of trying to create some balance throughout,” he said.

Political alliances governed by money, not principle

VoteToronto, a citizen’s group promoting Toronto’s long-term health, has spent the past several months trying to assemble a coherent picture of how Toronto city hall works from the raw material contained in more than 8,000 cheques donated to more than 100 candidates for municipal office in the last election, reported Globe & Mail columnist John Barber Oct. 30. The results have just been posted on the group’s new Web site at www.votetoronto.ca and show that alliances with city politicians “are made by money, not principle,” suggested Barber. The group used a dataset provided free of charge by Robert MacDermid, political science professor with York’s Faculty of Arts; funds to obtain candidate disclosure forms from Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts; and research assistance from York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. The analysis and interpretation of the dataset, however, is purely the responsibility of VoteToronto.

Renters less inclined to vote

No one slouches toward democracy quite like the young urban renter, began a Toronto Star story Oct. 30 on voter apathy. “I think in some instances it may be because they don’t feel much of a stake in the community as a homeowner might,” said York’s Faculty of Arts Dean Robert Drummond, a political science professor. He pointed to a younger demographic and people just beginning to think about family, career and community. “They may not see it as being as significant for them as other aspects of their lives.”

On air

  • Dr. Joel Lexchin, health policy and management professor with York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, discussed a Health Canada senior official’s remarks that export of brand name drugs to the US could lead to shortages in Canada, on CBC Radio’s “The World at Six” Oct. 29. Lexchin said: “Drug companies in Canada are quite profitable, and to start restricting the flow of drugs would mean that they would be cutting into their own profit levels in Canada, and that just doesn’t make any sense.”
  • Martin Shadwick, defence analyst with the York Centre for International & Security Studies, discussed whether or not the Canadian army is equipped to do its job and the federal defence minister’s announcement about new equipment for the military, on CBC Newsworld’s “Newsworld Today” Oct. 29.