The MEDIUM is the MES­SAGE

Alberta Oil - - REPORT ON NATURAL GAS -

Late on a Thurs­day after­noon in April, recre­ational boaters skip­ping over the sur­face of Van­cou­ver’s English Bay no­ticed the un­mis­tak­able rain­bow sheen of oil in the water. Three hours later, after the Coast Guard fi­nally ver­i­fied the se­ri­ous­ness and source of the leak, clean-up crews, al­ready on alert, rushed to in­stall booms around the MV Marathassa, a shiny new grain car­rier on its maiden voy­age. It was a 17-bar­rel spill.

VAN­COU­VER RES­I­DENTS AWOKE THE next morn­ing to the rau­cous din of politi­cians, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and lo­cal me­dia out­raged at the pre­sumed car­nage vis­ited upon the pris­tine shores of the Lower Main­land. Lead­ing the charge was the nascent and in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial “al­ter­na­tive me­dia” – pri­mar­ily the Van­cou­ver Ob­server and The Tyee – for whom the spill was the ful­fill­ment of an eco-proph­esy they’d been warn­ing their read­ers about for years. They’ve been very in­flu­en­tial in gal­va­niz­ing pipe­line op­po­si­tion.

The English Bay re­lease came at an in­ter­est­ing time for Van­cou­ver’s alt-me­dia com­mu­nity. The Ob­server had built on its lo­cal suc­cess, which was due in no small part to its cov­er­age of B.C. op­po­si­tion to pipe­line projects, and launched the Na­tional Ob­server with a man­date to bring a “pro­gres­sive voice” to the na­tional en­ergy dis­cus­sion. The Tyee, which is funded by B.C. la­bor unions and af­fil­i­ated with the Tides Canada ENGO, was also ex­pand­ing na­tion­ally, and its en­ergy re­port­ing was also play­ing an im­por­tant role in that growth. To­gether with lesser known and more du­bi­ous web­sites like the Com­mon­sense Cana­dian and West­coast Na­tive News, the Ob­server and The Tyee are part of an emerg­ing Van­cou­ver School of me­dia that is chal­leng­ing tra­di­tional jour­nal­ism and find­ing a ready au­di­ence among eco-ac­tivist read­ers. More im­por­tantly, their in­flu­ence is start­ing to spread beyond the borders of the Lower Main­land, and ral­ly­ing Cana­di­ans against en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture projects out­side B.C, such as the $15.7-bil­lion En­ergy East pipe­line.

“There is no ques­tion Van­cou­ver has be­come a hot­bed of al­ter­na­tive me­dia that fo­cuses on sus­tain­abil­ity and the en­vi­ron­ment,” says Shane Gun­ster, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity and un­abashed fan of the Van­cou­ver School. “Part of that comes from a con­stituency that is broadly pro­gres­sive and likes to un­der­stand it­self that way. We live in a city that is ac­tively try­ing to brand it­self as the green­est city in the world.” He points to Yale Univer­sity sur­veys that in­di­cate one-third of Amer­i­can vot­ers are very con­cerned (16 per­cent “ex­tremely”) about cli­mate change, and sug­gests the re­sult can be ex­trap­o­lated to Canada. If that’s true, the Van­cou­ver School has a ready au­di­ence, both on the West Coast and across the coun­try.

The Van­cou­ver School treats en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions as news­mak­ers rather than as an af­ter­thought, says Green­peace’s Keith Ste­wart, and “nar­row casts” to his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s core au­di­ence. That’s espe­cially true in On­tario and Que­bec, where En­ergy East has a much higher pro­file early in the reg­u­la­tory process than North­ern Gate­way or Trans Moun­tain ever did. “Those kinds of

out­lets are re­ally im­por­tant for us to get out a par­tic­u­lar kind of anal­y­sis that is of­ten hard to make it into the main­stream press,” he says. “It’s not im­pos­si­ble, but their pri­or­i­ties are dif­fer­ent.”

How big is that au­di­ence? Van­cou­ver Ob­server pub­lisher Linda Solomon says that her web­site gets 350,000 unique vis­i­tors monthly, and that the na­tional ver­sion quickly leapt to 700,000 shortly after launch­ing. That’s nowhere close to the 12 mil­lion uniques that the Na­tional Post gets each month, but it’s still im­pres­sive for a new en­trant to the na­tional me­dia scene. The Tyee, which did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view, says on its web­site it has 210,000 to 300,000 monthly vis­i­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to Gun­ster, the rapid growth of the Van­cou­ver School was due in part to the dom­i­na­tion of the lo­cal mar­ket by main­stream cor­po­rate me­dia, which framed en­ergy around business rather than en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and frus­trated pro­gres­sive news con­sumers in the process. The Ob­server and The Tyee re-framed en­ergy jour­nal­ism to in­clude cli­mate change (pri­mar­ily the im­pacts of the Al­berta oil sands), lo­cal eco­log­i­cal im­pacts (oil tankers off the West Coast), and po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance to en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture projects (the North­ern Gate­way and Trans Moun­tain pipe­lines).

English Bay re­port­ing by the Van­cou­ver School fea­tured all of Gun­ster’s “re­frames” – the spilled bunker fuel, which pow­ers ships, that was com­pared to bi­tu­men, lo­cal beaches that were de­scribed as “pol­luted” and a dozen birds “fouled”, al­leged mis­steps by the fed­er­ally man­dated re­sponse team, out­raged res­i­dents and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. Cov­er­age by both The Tyee and The Ob­server was neg­a­tive, with head­lines like “Kit­si­lano res­i­dent shocked to see school­child­ren play­ing in water after toxic spill” and “Four Things We May Never Know about the Van­cou­ver Fuel Spill.” Crit­ics dom­i­nated the re­portage, gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try sources were given cur­sory treat­ment, and opin­ion writ­ers strafed the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for its spill re­sponse and called for the de­feat of the Harper gov­ern­ment.

Vet­eran Van­cou­ver pub­lic af­fairs con­sul­tant and civic blog­ger Mike Klassen pulls no punches about the Ob­server’s en­ergy re­port­ing, call­ing it ac­tivism jour­nal­ism that borders on “agit prop” for the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. “I can’t re­ally imag­ine any­one writ­ing for the Van­cou­ver Ob­server who wanted to get a jour­nal­ism job would find it help­ful on their re­sume,” he says. Solomon bris­tles at the al­le­ga­tion. “I think it is our role to be crit­i­cal of en­ergy. We aren’t go­ing to write puff pieces,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a se­cret that we tell sto­ries con­sis­tently in op­po­si­tion to en­ergy projects here in B.C.” Echo­ing Gun­ster, she says that what she saw a decade ago was re­ally com­pelling sto­ries that were not be­ing well re­ported by Van­cou­ver news­pa­pers. The Ob­server doesn’t ad­vo­cate, she in­sists, but sim­ply re­ports fairly on en­ergy is­sues, and she main­tains

MIKE KLASSEN, FOUNDER OF COM­MU­NI­CA­TIONS FIRM TCG PUB­LIC AF­FAIRS AND A FOR­MER DI­REC­TOR OF PRO­VIN­CIAL AF­FAIRS WITH THE CANA­DIAN FED­ER­A­TION OF IN­DE­PEN­DENT BUSINESS, IS ONE OF THOSE WHO TAKES IS­SUE WITH THE RE­PORT­ING OF ENGO-FUNDED ME­DIA OUT­LETS IN B.C.

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