Stifling Debate: Canadian Newspapers and Nuclear Power

Michael Clow

Susan Machum

It is no secret that newspapers routinely open their pages more readily and less critically to official perspectives and institutional interpretations than to the arguments of social dissent. For society's critics and would-be reformers, the first great battle is always simply to be heard.

Gaye Tuchman made the point more than a decade ago in Making News, her seminal book on news themes, when she observed that by its very nature news is an "ally of legitimated institutions." Official spokespersons for government, industry, and large institutions, such as universities and hospitals, usually have a relatively easy time accessing the news media; often with their views going more or less unchallenged and their press releases not infrequently committed to print or broadcast with little alteration beyond the pro forma editorial crossing of a "t" or two, or the dotting of an occasional "i." Not so for the spokesperson for an ad hoc citizens' coalition, an upstart interest group, or a minority political persuasion off on the leftward edge. Organizations such as these are routinely greeted with suspicion, or more often simply ignored in the struggle to win a bit of ink or air.

Clow revisits the "officialness syndrome" (as someone has described it) with specific reference to the relationship between Canada's nuclear industry and four daily newspapers--The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail in Toronto and in New Brunswick the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. The basic argument presented here (excerpted from Clow's doctoral dissertation of a few years ago) is that, while there has always been much that has been both dangerous and worrying about Canada's official effort to generate electric power from the heat of the broken atom, the enthusiastically reassuring voices of government, of the nuclear industry, and of our massive public power utilities, too often provide the only information the public is likely to receive on the subject. As Clow puts it, even when the bad news predictions of the dissenters come to pass (in the form of a heavy water leak in 1983 at Ontario Hydro's Pickering nuclear installation on the eastern perimeter of Metro Toronto, for instance), they "barely gain any hearing for their perspective on problems they had predicted would arise" (p. 71). This with reference to the Toronto press, of course.

Clow's concern escalates to sheer contempt when he describes the "outright boosterism" (p. 77) of the New Brunswick newspapers (the Daily Gleaner and The Telegraph-Journal ) in their approach to news from New Brunswick Hydro's Point Lepreau nuclear installation near Saint John. "One measure of the two papers' support for the nuclear industry was their practice of publishing large numbers of features written by AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) and N.B. Power officials, while publishing none written by spokespersons for the anti- nuclear movement" (p. 75).

Clow provides an interesting description of an important area of public concern, but unfortunately he does this in the context of an approach to quantitative analysis which seems generally to lack the rigour demanded by such research situations. Appropriate pattern and precision may well be evident in the protocol and findings presented by Clow in his dissertation, but these do not come through in this spin-off publication. By way of example, a model is presented utilizing vaguely defined categorical divisions relating to news sources, and clearly requiring unacceptable levels of subjectivity in making the necessary coder judgment calls. The purpose here is to divide all nuclear news stories in the sample into one or another of six categories according to their sourcing: The three pro-nuclear categories being "Government," "Nuclear Industry," and "Other"; and the three anti-nuclear categories being the collective anti- nuclear "Movement," "Opposition" politicians, and "Other" critics. Moreover, the categories would seem to be based in questionable prior assumptions in some instances. (Will the "Government" source necessarily always be pro-nuclear, for example? And by the same token, how can we presume that the "Opposition" politician necessarily will always be anti?)

These problems, having to do with a limited capacity for the adequate quantification of data, and the seemingly uncertain control over a few important variables, are unfortunate. And the situation is not really helped by Clow's evident approach to his subject matter from a position of political solidarity with critics of the nuclear industry. He has a pretty clear distaste for "conservative" journalism, and in its essentials the case he makes has substance. Ironically, though, it would have been more credible had he expressed it in a context that gave at least passing recognition to the fact that our press gave full coverage to the potential horrors of Three Mile Island and to the very real horrors of Chernobyl. These were not domestic events, of course, and therefore outside the sphere of his analysis, but they surely had their impact upon Canadian public and media attitudes toward nuclear power generation. They are part of the context, and yet Clow gives us only one passing reference to Three Mile Island; none to Chernobyl.

For that matter, despite their tendency to favour the establishment viewpoint which Clow describes very well, in the final analysis, our journalists did give full coverage to that embarrassing heavy water leak at Pickering.

Back on the positive side, Clow provides us with an extensive and well-ordered anecdotal accounting of the dubious coverage by the four subject newspapers of nuclear power developments in their regions during the 1975 to 1983 study period. Especially well handled, too, is the discussion in the second chapter of the historic development of Canada's nuclear industry, and how the journalism relating to it has been generally without critical aspect.

The underlying theme of the "officialness syndrome" that skews much of our public information is not new to us, but an issue of great importance to the national public interest is used here to provide a rich context. For this reason particularly, and despite its elements of methodological awkwardness, this little book deserves its place in appropriate classroom case study situations.