Toxic Spin: Spec Skews Coverage of Health Rally

A recent article ostensibly covering a rally to protest cuts to local health care spending illustrates a pernicious bias in how the Spectator reports the news.

By Ted Mitchell
Published March 13, 2009

A plea to the Hamilton Spectator: Stop hurting Hamilton.

I have noticed a consistency in how the Spectator spins news. Local coverage often tells lightweight stories and that is a perfectly fine thing for a local paper to do. Sometimes they do an in-depth, multi-issue story, generally when there is a clearly identifiable villain so we can all roll our eyes in horror.

Then there are local issues that matter to Hamiltonians and are important in steering the future of our city. These are the issues where the Spec routinely drops the ball. So predictable is their inadequate coverage of these events that I cannot help but wonder if it is intentional.

For many issues that one might assume would warrant some actual fact-gathering, discussion and debate, like the Red Hill expressway, Aerotropolis, Maple Leaf foods, and Access to Best Care: no such luck.

(I can only recall one exception to this that in six years of reading the Spec: a series on poverty downtown.)

In editorials, the Spec makes no secrets of its position on these issues. That's fine. Similarly, through its regular columnists, these opinions are reinforced. Although the leanings of these columnists are clearly skewed, that's also within the prerogative of the paper.

None of these things are good for democracy, our city, or even selling papers, but given the near monopoly the Spec enjoys, these are the choices they make.

Where the Spec commits a journalistic cardinal sin is in its straight reporting: not telling the whole story and putting more spin on the facts than Nadal can work a tennis ball.

I will illustrate this with a recent story on a rally protesting health care cuts and the resulting job losses in nursing. This was written by Dan Nolan, a regular Spec journalist who - most of the time - is perfectly capable of telling a straight story. But here he goes off the rails.

The morning after attending the rally, I read Nolan and thought "what does this article have to do with the rally I was at last night?"

The Article

Background: in a tightening economy, the province, working through the LHIN, cut funding for hospitals. The hospitals, in turn, found savings primarily through cutting nursing jobs. The Hamilton Health Coalition organized a rally to protest these cuts.

The complete article is here:

Also note the photograph accompanying the article (about which more below).

Front page teaser headline:

Don't cut our care

Crowd of about 700 comes out to rally against health care cuts in Hamilton A3

Here's the full article on page A3:

Caplan defends health spending

February 24, 2009
Daniel Nolan
The Hamilton Spectator
(Feb 24, 2009)

Ontario Health Minister David Caplan is defending the amount his government spends on health care in the face of criticism the Liberals are underfunding it and threatening patient care.

Caplan made his comments yesterday in Hamilton, a few hours before a rally organized by the Hamilton Health Coalition to denounce service cuts by belt-tightening hospitals.

More than 700 people attended the rally at Michelangelo's Banquet Centre where speakers said the McGuinty government is not giving hospitals the funding they need and it is leading them to wrongly chop nursing and caretaking jobs.

The web version omits this paragraph:

Combined, Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare is seeking to chop about 400 jobs to fight its deficits.

The article continues:

Caplan, in town for an announcement about a new program to combat obesity, said the Liberal government has increased funding to hospitals by 32 per cent since it took office in 2003.

"I think (that) tells a much different story than anyone who would claim otherwise and, in fact, we're continuing to increase funding for health care," the minister said.

He noted his government recently announced the creation of 25 nurse practitioner clinics in Ontario and will focus on funding for new family health teams.

"We're going to bring innovative models ... and we're going to see continued improvements in our health care system."

Speakers at the rally noted the province provided a 2.4 per cent increase to hospital funding over the last year. They say it will decline to 2.1 per cent for 2009-10 and services will erode further.

From here the article varies again between the print and web versions.

Print version:

HHS is coping with a $25 million deficit. St. Joseph's Healthcare has a $12 million deficit.

Web version:

Hospitals have been coping with million-dollar deficits, and some, such as Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare, have cut nursing jobs to save money.

Caplan couldn't say if hospitals can expect funding that would eliminate deficit leftovers in the March 26 budget, but said he is talking to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.

The next paragraph differs across the two versions as well.

Print version:

"I'm not anticipating, at this point, vast additional amounts of money, but of course I am advocating for as much as I possibly can," he said.

Web version:

"I'm not anticipating, at this point, vast additional amounts of money, but of course I am advocating for as much as I possibly can," he said. "I do understand there are significant needs for health care right throughout the province of Ontario."

The closing also varies.

Print version:

Mike Hurley, CUPE head for the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, told the rally 80 percent of Ontario's hospitals have deficits, but said they receive less than hospitals in other provinces.

Web version:

Rally organizers hoped the size and tone of their demonstration will make the government think twice about hospital funding, job cuts and patient care.

"They are gutting nursing positions across Ontario and they are gutting patient health care across Ontario," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association.

The Verdict

Here's the final tally.

In both versions, four paragraphs focus on the rally, including one quotation. The rest are devoted to Ontario Health Minister David Caplan, including two quotations. One paragraph (two in print version) provides background info.

It is unclear why the print and web versions of this article differ in some areas, but the basic focus is the same.

To tell the stories of the rally and Caplan's comments properly, you need a longer article or two separate ones.

The `tone' of the rally, referred to only in the web version, is not discernable from this brief article. One gets no idea of the impassioned speeches, frustrated voices and rowdy supportive cheers from the crowd.

The accompanying photograph shows a bunch of bored-looking people, which is an odd choice if you were trying to accurately describe the tone of that night.

In stark contrast to the page one headline, Caplan's comments are the main focus of this article, consuming twice the space given to the rally. Think about that: Caplan is responding pre-emptively to a rally which has not yet happened and which he did not attend.

Unbalanced Weighting of Coverage

There is something unethical about the order in which the article presents the two events (the rally and Caplan's statement) and the unbalanced weighting given to each.

Straightforward reporting would present the bulk of the article on the rally, and then add Caplan's comments at the end or, better yet, in a separate accompanying article.

The article even includes off-topic political rhetoric that functions as a plug for the provincial government.

If the paper took a "Hamilton bias", they would try to promote the local and criticize the province. Instead, they do the opposite. That is bizarre.

The pairing of Caplan and the rally makes the inference that there was some kind of discussion or debate going on between the parties. In fact, people at the rally had no idea that Caplan was even in town, never mind making comments to the press that were unrelated to his reason for being in Hamilton. Nor had they any idea that Caplan's comments would dominate the Spec's coverage of the rally itself.

How Caplan's interview with the press was obtained was not mentioned. If you want to investigate bias, it matters greatly if these comments were spontaneously offered by Caplan or are in response to questions asked by journalists.

Statics without Explanation

In addition, presenting statistics without explanation is misleading. The reported 2.4 percent and 2.1 percent annual increases appear to be reasonably in keeping with inflation.

At the rally those numbers were presented in the context of demand growth between 3.5 percent and five percent, consistent with the rest of the province. This tells a different story.

Similarly, claiming a 32 percent funding increase over six years should not go unchallenged. That could mean five years of 5.2 percent annual increases and one year of 2.4 percent.

I don't know if this is accurate for Hamilton. I suspect it includes things like the P3 money pit in Brampton, while real funding increases to local hospitals is much lower.

Poor quality writing an accident?

It is instructive to view Nolan's other article in the Spec on the same day, covering Caplan's visit to Hamilton to announce $75 million in funding for a new obesity treatment program.

Caplan is given extensive coverage in this story, but that is appropriate as there is no apparent controversy.

Contrasting Nolan's two articles, one is struck by the straightforward journalism in the obesity article, and the imbalance and lack of relevant information in the rally article. I find it difficult to believe that this is an accidental occurrence.

Interestingly, no coverage was given to the role of the LHIN in carrying out the fiscal dirty work of the provincial government, despite recent widespread criticism of this new entity based on its mishandling of the Access to Best Care approval process, currently under review by the Ontario Ombudsman.

Even the Spec, although supportive of ABC, admitted that the LHIN failed to live up to its obligations.

Similarly, no coverage was given to the fact that hospitals chose to cut frontline nursing jobs, instead of getting any significant savings from much less essential administrators.

What can be done?

There is a body which is responsible for addressing journalistic bias. The Ontario Press Council probably would refuse to get involved in such a case. But the damage is cumulative: this article is just one example of a consistent bias and superficiality devoted to many important local issues made all the more important by the Spec's near-monopoly in Hamilton.

Any school of journalism could devote entire courses to the spin on articles written on Red Hill Creek, Aerotropolis, etc. where the Spec takes a side.

I don't mean the bias inherent in editorial or opinion columns, but in their news coverage: selectively printing facts and giving extra coverage to favoured people.

Perhaps the best evidence of the Spec's bias is comparative. At the risk of flogging this issue to death, I will rewrite this story from my perspective, having attended the rally, given that I had no knowledge of Minister Caplan being in town, or his comments on the issue. The same length will be used.

I ask readers to compare the articles for style, content, engagement, and bias.

Health care rally frustrated by tight-fisted province

Ted Mitchell

More than 700 people braved frigid weather Monday night, packing Michelangelo's Banquet hall to voice their anger at provincial health care cuts and job losses in Hamilton.

The rally was energetically emceed by local talk radio hosts Mike Nabuurs and Jason Farr. It was organized by the Hamilton Health Coalition, a branch of the Ontario Health Coalition, dedicated to defending quality public healthcare.

Five speakers addressed the rally before the floor was opened to the audience. Dr. Gordon Guyatt made an impassioned, evidence-based case for public health care funding.

Dr. Marianne Talman gave an account of basic patient needs going unmet on a daily basis due to inadequate staffing and overcrowding. As Talman recounted to a mixture of laughter and gasps, "my elderly patient waiting for a bed in the emergency room simply wanted a pillow, but the staff was too busy to bring one for over three hours, so I went upstairs and got her one myself."

"They are gutting nursing positions across Ontario and they are gutting patient health care across Ontario," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association.

Mike Hurley, CUPE head for the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, blasted his message about underfunding in Ontario relative to other provinces, the details of these multiple shortfalls quantified in an accompanying handout.

Hurley noted that hospital funding increased by 2.4% this year and will fall to 2.1% in 2009-10, falling short of the annual growth in demand of between 3.5 and 5%.

The audience made several impassioned speeches about having to fight to defend healthcare and told stories about the grassroots activities they undertook to get medicare established in the Pearson years.

There was some frustration in the audience about the lack of an action plan by meeting's end.

Councillor Terry Whitehead and NDP MPP Paul Miller were in attendence.

Liberal Health Minister David Caplan was in Hamilton earlier Monday for the announcement of a new obesity program. He was asked by reporters for comment about the upcoming protest rally.

Alternate ending:

Liberal Health Minister David Caplan was in Hamilton earlier Monday for the announcement of a new obesity program. He volunteered his thoughts to reporters on the upcoming protest rally.

Caplan claimed the Liberal government has increased funding to hospitals by 32 per cent since it took office in 2003. "I think (that) tells a much different story than anyone who would claim otherwise and, in fact, we're continuing to increase funding for health care," the minister said.

Rally organizers were not aware of Caplan's comments. He did not attend the rally.

Perspective Matters

Now I think this tells a very different story than Nolan's article, one that is more informative and honest and relevant to the Hamiltonian perspective. I am puzzled by the fact that Nolan can write well on other topics, but gave a glaring omission on this story and a free ride to a provincial politician.

One plug would be expected, with the obesity program announcement (less sensitive writers than myself might joke about this being a pork project). But how can you defend hijacking the rally topic so as to give Caplan twice the coverage and failing to tell the gist of the original story?

For the record, I left a message with Nolan asking why he would write such a skewed article and received no reply.


Big projects that benefit the old-boy friends of the Spec, such as Red Hill and Aerotropolis, might be expected to elicit bias. But why this little issue?

My speculation is that the Spec is scared of grassroots democracy. This appears to be the consistent current that flows through its position on contentious local issues. Don't give the people a voice; pick and choose facts to support the establishment squelchers, and discourage debate.

Whether this is intentional is not the point, but it's what they do.

This helps to keep Hamilton politically apathetic, which is perhaps necessary for the old boys club to continue its reign of horror. Shining some light on local scantily-clad emperors might peel back the veneer of authority that shields them from justifying their positions based on merit.

The Spec does print letters and opinion articles contrary to its positions, but over time, it fails to develop quality, unbiased investigative journalism and debate on these topics, and the few letter writers look freakishly marginalized and likely will slip into apathy.

Yet I am hopeful because of independent media. It has more to do with democracy than most people will ever realize.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 15:21:09

It's simple really, according to the Spec what the Health Minister has to say is more important than what 700 citizens have to say.

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By WeNeedDocs (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 15:34:54

Here is the master of spin, who quit being a doctor from what I've read to become a social commentator, now criticizing a reporter for reporting the news as he saw fit.
I was at that NDP rally and was amazed that the real story of the political machinatiens wasn't told by the spec. I thought Nolan did too much justice to the NDP crowd there.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 15:48:01

I think everyone gets frustrated when what they read doesn't echo how they feel things should be said. Every single media outlet has it's bias and it's important for the readers/listeners/watchers to do the appropriate research before formulating opinions.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 17:44:17

Hey, don't criticize the Spec too much. RTH wouldn't exist today if not for the huge lack of decent local news coverage in this city. If you don't like the spin of a particular media outlet, look no further than their main advertisers.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 18:46:31

Every single media outlet has it's bias and it's important for the readers/listeners/watchers to do the appropriate research before formulating opinions.

With all due respect, I think that's a bit of a cop out, Frank. Ted isn't talking about the editorial and opinion content, he's talking the straight reporting. People who call themselves reporters should do their damnedest to be as unbiased as possible, for the sake of the image of their profession, if for no other reason. If we take the cynical view that media outlets are inherently biased, and it's caveat emptor for the hapless few remaining consumers of traditional media, then there's no incentive for journalists to provide their readers with a better product. I for one am not going to go gently into that dark night. I'm a reluctant Spec subscriber, and I will continue to demand better from them.

At a panel discussion on local media at the AGH last year, the Spec representative imperiously answered "we don't do process!" when asked why the Spec doesn't cover council meetings, yet we recently had Nicole MacIntyre liveblogging the council meeting on the Pan Am games decision and she got over 5600 hits, so it is possible for them to improve, but it won't happen if we roll over.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 23:39:33

highwater, I applaud your position and desire to help improve the Spec. I threw in the towel last year and cancelled my subscription. Sad to say, I haven't missed it a bit.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:04:41

Anyone can write down statements taken at face value. While reporting what people say is important, actually verifying the accuracy of the statements is the more involved part of reporting. I realise the Spec lost a lot of the editorial staff recently, but if you can't file actual reports, leave it as all op-eds.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted March 14, 2009 at 20:03:38

Ted: I will agree with you, that despite the ideal of free speech, that with the Spec, there is always the mantra of the corporation. There have been many grassroots things going on around the city but you are right that the spec does not cover those events that may cause contravesy toward the message that the system tries to give.

I guess the question to ask is, what are your morals? Does earning a pay cheque supercede ethical questions?

Why did you switch fields?

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By Insider (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2009 at 08:59:20

"Background: in a tightening economy, the province, working through the LHIN, cut funding for hospitals."

Problem with your argument here. The province hasn't cut funding for hospitals. But the rest of your piece has a point.

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