An Open Letter to the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail, Re: Teacher Collective Bargaining Coverage

Dear Editors,

I don’t suppose you’d be interested in some ideas for responsible journalistic pieces, would you?  How about ones that could increase readership and ad sales?

While I realize that I’m not in charge of the newsroom of national publication such as yours, I am a former columnist for a couple of small newspapers.  I’m also a communications consultant that specializes in garnering media representation for small NGO’s.  I do know a little about what makes print outlets tick.  And I do have a knack for creating content that people like to read.  Or so I’ve heard.

But on to my ideas.

Throughout the recent labour disagreement between the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation and the Government of Ontario, I’ve read plenty about calls for teacher wage increases in the (web) pages of your publications, but very little about the fact that the Teachers Union actually offered pay freezes during several stages of the negotiation process. I’ve read about sick day payouts at retirement, but nothing about how this has already been scrapped by many of the Boards and is already being grandfathered out by the others. Sure, I know that this is usually just alluded to, or is delivered in quotes by others, but it is still prevalent.  Meanwhile, coverage of post-legislative actions on the part of teachers has also been one-sided.  A Star article from today, for instance, reads: “Two York Region school boards… have scrapped after-school sports.” It fails to mention that there are a total of 34 secondary schools in that particular Board.

I know that ad revenue depends on a certain amount of pot-stirring, but shouldn’t unbiased reporting come first? Here’s the thing though — here’s your ace in the hole:  In this case, with the huge numbers of teachers (and people sympathetic to teachers) representing a massive readership, a less-biased coverage of events may, in fact, lead to an increase of hits, clickthroughs, and advertizing opportunities.  And if teachers, educators, and school board employees are as well-off as they are portrayed to be in your papers, then you’ll be encouraging an audience of readers with vast disposable incomes.  Realistically, of course, they’re not that well-off.  But they do represent a large number of professionals with respectable salaries.  Just the type of audience your advertizing clients must like.

With that in mind, a few suggestions:

It would be informative to read an article about the misconstrued facts and arguments of this labour disagreement. You could report on what teachers actually make rather than the wildly inflated numbers that are regularly tossed around. Or provide a researched study on the number of hours that teachers work per day, and per week, and how that compares to workers in other sectors. How about a comparison report on teacher salaries vs. those of other professionals with 5-6 years of post-secondary education (you could add to this the number of teachers who have gone on to get their Masters degrees in hopes of hanging on to a job in a rapidly disappearing work environment and point out the number of teachers with 7-8 years of education). You could do a focus piece on the number of teachers eligible for sick day retirement payouts versus the number of teachers who are not, exposing the budgetary myth that these government claims represent. You could do another piece on the large number of schools and the thousands of teachers who continue, even now, to do extra-curricular work, and why.  Certainly there is space for a story on the major society-wide ramifications of  removing a constitutionally protected right to collective bargaining.  This is a precedent, really, that could affect people in every union of the province — both private and public sector.  And, man, what a story there is there.

Not entirely surprising, current Star and Globe coverage is somewhat similar to that of the previous two rounds of collective bargaining negotiations (under the Tories and Liberals) when the Union kept saying “class sizes” and you kept printing “wage increases.”

The way I see it, and I’m sure I’m not the only writer/communications expert to think this way, stories like those suggested above would still rile people up. They would still feed the comment sections. And they would probably still keep the advertizers satisfied through angry web hits and teeth-gnashing print sales (a rarity in this new age of newspaper journalism). The difference is, is that the op-ed columns and comment sections might actually contain a few more relevant facts. A spin-off would be that the content would be refreshing to many of your readers.  Particularly the ones who feel under-served by the surface-level reporting that is currently being offered.

Listen, a lot of us understand that print journalism is hurting right now — that newspapers are losing out to the large numbers of people who are getting their news primarily from the web.  We understand that your budgets are slashed and that your newsroom staff have less time to do primary research and interviews.  But, really, if you are forced into superficial coverage, where it is cheap and easy to just print the sound bites, media scrum platitudes, and quickly rewritten media releases, could you not at least take the time to balance it out by regurgitating both streams of the argument?  Sure, the scrums at Queen’s Park are both sexier and easier to find, but I am confident that you are just as able to quote the Union’s Communication’s Officer as you are the Province’s.

At the same time, it would make for better reading, healthier debate, and, while I know this isn’t at the top of your list, a better sense of journalistic integrity.

It would make your news, well…  newsworthy.

Wouldn’t that be something?

As an aside, I do find it odd that both of your publications take such delight in casting Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, as a populist leader (and, really, I can’t argue with that) while at the same time taking a strongly populist journalistic stance on how you report on the issue of education and this current labour disagreement.

I almost feel like I should be asking you for a ride to football practice.

 

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