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

February 02, 2016

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How the Vancouver School is distorting media coverage of the energy sector

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.”

– Linda Solomon, publisher of the Vancouver Observer

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.

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Vancouver’s “alternative” media – seeing itself as a counter-balance to mainstream “corporate” media – has played a significant role in rallying opposition to B.C. energy projects, including providing positive coverage of energy project protests. the influence has spread from regional to national, Given the success of B.C.’s environmental and community organizations in holding up pipeline projects. to get Pipelines built the oil industry will have to reckon with the power of this unconventional media.

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.

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.

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.

More posts by Markham Hislop

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17 Responses to “The Vancouver School: Inside The B.C. Media’s Anti-Oil Crusade”

  1. Mike- Great article, thanks!

  2. character says:

    that’s interesting, as I know of at least a couple of people who have gone on from working for the Observer to working for fully ‘legitimate’ Postmedia organizations (and I don’t mean the Toronto Sun). The Observer has received several industry awards too as I recall.

    I read both the Observer and the National Post (and the G&M, Province, etc.) and have found the Observer’s articles to be as rigorously sourced as any of the others for the most part, and well balanced between the two sides of the debate, by which I mean they give equal weight to multiple sides of the issue. I haven’t always found the same from the National Post, but maybe that’s why equal weight is coming across as bias here.

  3. Tom says:

    Alberta should stop all natural gas from BC crossing it’s boundaries. Also put a 20 percent premium on all oil sold to BC. Effective immediately.Tell BC to publish that

    • Steven Forth says:

      And what impact do you think this will have on BC’s economy? Basically none. It might lead us to source oil from the US rather than Alberta. Is that in Alberta’s interest?

      • DocDan says:

        Lower mainland BC activity will be under severe duress.
        BC oil refining capacity is ~70K b/day total for 2 refineries.
        BC imports approx 12% of its refined product from refineries in Washington state which has 5 refineries with total refining capacity of near 632K b/d. Crude oil supply to these 5 refineries are from Canada 21.5%, Alaska 58%, USA shale 8.5% and foreign 12%. Hence, ~88% of BC’s gasoline consumption is sourced from refineries in AB & are transported by road to east & central BC and through the TransMountain pipeline to the lower mainland. The crude oil to the 55K b/d Burnaby refinery arrives via the TM pipeline. Edmonton refining supplies 50-60% of refined product consumed in greater Vancouver.

        So by all means BC folks, please shut down the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline! Source your energy needs from your vast coal reserves & stop exporting your fossil fuel GHGs so as to preserve your ‘pristine’ enviro-culture.

  4. Steven Forth says:

    Among mainstream media journalists I know both the Vancouver/National Observer and The Tyee are considered to be as professional and as good for a career as, say the Vancouver Sun. I think Mike is wrong on this one.

  5. Margi Corbett says:

    Interesting sub-heading: “distorting media coverage of the energy sector”. Nice try. In my experience, The Vancouver Observer and The Tyee are far more trustworthy sources of truth about the energy sector than are any other print media.

  6. Sandy MacDonald says:

    On the other hand, the “Vancouver school” is vastly counter-weighed by the Koch-funded Fraser Institute, Postmedia, and the usual suspects in the MSM – not to mention the sad reality of the NEB If anything, the gross intrusion of the petrochemical sector’s scribes in daily discourse has made it quite clear that the few countering sources perform a necessary and healthy perspective; and will continue to enhance their positive role in the national debate.

    “Ethical Oil”, anyone?

  7. Kevin Tyler says:

    The Tyee has journalists as credible as any MSM. And a publisher /editor not influenced by big advertisers. Currently the most cynical columnists seem to be with the National Post after Canada’s recent change of gov’t. Don’t tell me there is no bias in your trade association journal’s perspective.

  8. L. Visser says:

    Question 1: who is Markham Hislop and who is paying him to write this?
    Question 2: what industry has legions of paid PR hacks to spin out all manner of obfuscation (activism journalism for the 1%)?
    Question 3: is the oil industry so thin-skinned that it can dish it out but not take it?

    As a former oil-patch PR flack myself (thank God I got out alive), I can tell you first hand that yes, it is absolutely an industry run by Cabal-like energy executives who control government regulators and (try to) shut up downtrodden Alberta land owners with hush money.

  9. Mark Wolfe says:

    As a former Editor-in-Chief of Alberta Oil magazine, and indeed part of the editorial cohort that really made the magazine about important issues, I find it amusing that the author of this piece refers to “re-framing” energy industry coverage when A) re-framing is how he makes a living (and rarely in the public interest, no less) and B) as if news was otherwise a static commodity living around somewhere ready to be but scooped up and presented as pure truth.

    Just for starters, all coverage of anything is a socially constructed and a very complex human process. Conservatives often have a hard time parsing that reality, so their natural inclination is to simplify and render complexity into easily digestible pablems like “ethical oil” and news “re-framing.”

    In actuality, the economic transition we are already well into — away from legacy industries and toward highly-integrated and advanced technology systems — comprises significant shift, and I would submit that alternative news organs, their alma maters notwithstanding, are simply living interpretations of that shift.

    Conservatives might like to think we can stay in 1970 but their overall angst, reflected no better than what we see in the US electin run-up these days, suggests they too are well on to this change but just can’t face it.

    • L. Visser says:

      Well-said, Mark Wolfe. All media coverage is framed, it is impossible to not frame or we would be lost in a morass of excruciatingly contradictory detail. While my heart bleeds for the poor, poor oil industry, going back to their oligarchy as exercised in the 1970s is no longer on the table. Time to move on, suck it up, and embrace the transition to both conservation and new sources of energy.

  10. Thomas Chan says:

    To cast a more relevant perspective, the Tyee’s “overwrought piece”, ‘Vancouver’s Preview of A Spill from Hell’, was inspired more so from the events of the Enbridge Line 6B diluted bitumen pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, than the respective Vancouver Harbour bunker oil spill.

    The former happened to be the largest inland oil spill, and one of the costliest spills in U.S. history; the latter was merely a warning.

  11. Tony Russell says:

    Sensationalism most often sells the most papers, obtains the most subscribers and achieves the highest ratings, not the most unbiased and objective report from both sides, without an opinion, but allowing the reader to make up his or her own mind. Fear and scare and sponsorship from foreign sources to publish anything that serves the foreign interest at the expense of the citizens of the country they pump money into and try to destroy as competition and impoverish it’s citizens.

    Case in point, there is absolutely no opposition to or reporting of anything with any negative connotation toward foreign oil tankers sitting in our coastal waters ready to unload oil and lots of it into our country. How is the oil from another country which provides jobs and prosperity to other countries somehow invisible or ultra clean? Some countries who’s human rights practices would contravene several of our laws if practiced in our own country? The consumption of that oil is okay in our country when it comes from countries that do not invest or share wealth in our country? Except to provide “environmental agencies and cyber news 100’s of millions of dollars in sponsorship to ensure their product is consumed and not our’s, by absolutely any means possible.

    They fight wars in their own lands and behead each other and then ask us for aid and to take in the refugees created by their greed and lack of respect for human life, and we should give them more and ensure their supremacy by destroying one of the major backbones of our economy? Wealth sharing occurs here to the highest levels. Public stocks are available, to anyone, employees are paid well and they in turn spend almost the entirety here in this country, recreation centers are built by those domestic oil companies the public will be bought and paid for into besmirching, fist nations are assisted to start companies and realize their own dreams and aspirations, yet these so called journalists and money laundering cyber foreign media houses will be bought and paid for with foreign money, to ensure they turn hearts and minds against people of their own country by any means possible. When was the last time Saudi Aramco lent Quebec billions from its trust fund knowing it will never be paid back? When did Aramco or others plant trees here or invest in alternative energy here like the billions that come from domestic oil companies to build wind farms, solar plants etc. Never that’s when.

    Treason used to be a very serious offence. Now it can be bought and paid for with emotional self righteous, ideological irrational negative advertising masquerades as journalism

    • Mark Wolfe says:

      How did this become about our oil companies versus their oil companies?? Oil is pretty much finished as the primary fuel, period. Get over it, join the 21st century and be party of the solution, not the problem. And BTW, Masdar City’s 54-acre solar power plant project in Abu Dhabi is no greenwashing, pilot project. On par with Germany’s ability now to routinely meet half it’s power needs via renewables, the Masdar City project is so efficient and smart they don’t even need light switches. The World Bank’s Noor concentrated solar project in Morocco will ultimately power more than a million homes at less than half of what Alberta spent on now land-locked bitumen production. But the real irony is Alberta has one of the strongest wind and sun regimes on the continent.

      And don’t even think of hitting the Ezra Levant button about the huge costs of renewables. The Alberta government spent billions developing and enabling in situ technology alone — the time has simply come to repeat the process for next generation energy technology.

  12. David Beers says:

    From the wording in this piece, it’s not clear who gets it wrong, the writer or his source Michael Klassen. But it is not true that the Tyee opinion piece “Vancouver’s Preview of a Spill from Hell,” was “apparently inspired by the spill of 17 barrels of fuel oil in English Bay.” The inspiration and basis of that 2015 piece was the truly hellish spill of a million gallons of bitumen in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010. The “Vancouver’s Preview” piece updated what The Tyee reported 1n 2012 about the public health emergency caused by off-gassing from bitumen in the Kalamazoo. That piece is here: As founding editor, I am proud The Tyee publishes such reporting in the public interest.

  13. To oppose these “environmentalists” you need only explain to them that Deisel is comprised of something like 32 Carbons while jet fuel has the least Carbons possible 8! It has to be light to llift that weight up in the air! By switching to jet fuel we’ll both lower the Carbon pollution and switch over to the future of getting gasoline from Potash Rock (KCO3) and Limestone (CaCO3) which produce 3 Oxygen for every Carbon! I can be reached at 709-834-9700 just tell the phone answer that his mother wants to speak with William!