The Vancouver School: Inside The B.C. Media’s Anti-Oil Crusade
How the Vancouver School is distorting media coverage of the energy sector – and what the energy sector can learn from it
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.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that we tell stories consistently in opposition to energy projects here in B.C.”
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 West Coast 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 that she would tell more stories from the energy industry’s point of view if it would allow her to.
Klassen scoffs at Solomon’s explanation, arguing that the sign of credible alternative media is how often mainstream media pick up on their stories. That’s something he says seldom happens with the Observer but more often with The Tyee, which was founded in 2003 by veteran journalist David Beers, and has won several awards for the quality of its reporting, especially its long-form investigative pieces. Klassen says The Tyee is at least up front about its biases, which are on full display in overwrought pieces such as one titled “Vancouver’s Preview of A Spill from Hell,” which paints a nightmarish but improbable scenario of giant oil tankers, invisible responders, and thousands of barrels of bitumen sinking to the bottom of the Strait of Georgia – all apparently inspired by the spill of 17 barrels of fuel oil in English Bay.
The Tyee does publish the work of more reputable energy journalists such as award-winning writer Andrew Nikiforuk, an implacable opponent of the energy industry who publishes books with titles like, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. To use Gunster’s terms, Nikiforuk “reframes” energy stories to focus on the problems and dangers of the oil and gas business. He’s more reputable but not objective. In his hands, fracking becomes a lurid tale of Cabal-like energy executives who control government regulators and shut up downtrodden Alberta land owners with hush money (Jessica Ernst, who Nikiforuk has turned into a cottage industry) or induced earthquakes that become “world record” on the strength of a PR flack’s bland statement rather than interviews with the seismologists working on the data. The Tyee serves as an effective counterbalance to mainstream media, says Gunster, and he believes it changed the way other Vancouver journalists report on energy stories. “The coverage The Tyee has provided has been one of the forces which has forced mainstream media to pay more attention to, one, the relationship between energy and the environment, and two, to make energy more of a front page story rather than a business-page story.”
As the readership figures for the Vancouver Observer, National Observer, and The Tyee suggest, there is a large audience for reframed energy news, and there is no disputing that the Vancouver School has played a significant role in marshaling opposition to West Coast pipelines. Stewart was asked where on a scale of one to 10 he would rate the Vancouver School’s potential influence on the Energy East public debate. “A seven,” he said. “We know there’s an audience for those issues.”
If there is an Eastern audience for the Vancouver School, it stands to reason there is also an Eastern audience for “reframed” positive news about the Alberta oil sands and Energy East. A cynic might argue that traditional media already do a pretty good job framing energy news to favor industry’s interests. But the B.C. experience suggests a well-organized environmental opposition coupled with alternative media trumps traditional news and advertising. If industry is looking for new strategies as it seeks approval for Energy East, it could do worse than emulate the Vancouver School.
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