The news media play a strong role in shaping how many Canadians understand issues like climate change—and the tensions between the fossil fuel industry and those seeking to transition to a low-carbon economy. But are the media providing a clear view of the debate surrounding these issues? And are all stakeholders’ voices being heard?
Short answer: There’s reason for concern.
A new report on press coverage of pipeline controversies—which I co-authored, and which was published today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Corporate Mapping Project—indicates that our media seem to accept the assumption that job creation and environmental protection are mutually exclusive. And, despite job creation often being touted as a rationale for high-carbon energy projects, the actual job-holders—energy sector workers—appear to be largely missing from news reportage.
Proponents of Canada’s fossil fuel industry heavily promote the assumptions of “extractivism,” an economic model based on the appropriation and removal of non-renewable natural resources from the earth, usually for export to dominant players in world markets.
We notice those assumptions in TV ads, social media campaigns—and, as our report describes, the corporate-owned press. Our analysis finds that in reporting and commenting on pipeline projects like the Trans Mountain Expansion, major daily papers emphasized themes of job creation and other economic benefits (such as royalties and taxes to governments to finance public services), among other largely pro-pipeline themes.
In contrast, non-corporate “alternative” media in BC often challenged the extractivist narrative on pipelines and energy politics. Outlets like The Tyee and the National Observer were more likely to highlight Indigenous rights, flaws in the pipeline approval process, global climate change and local and regional environmental risks.
Yet in covering pipeline controversies, alternative media’s perspectives hadn’t extended to giving a significant voice to fossil fuel industry workers—or their unions—who might understand the dangers of global warming, but who need to make a living.
In excluding these perspectives, the news media give us little to counter the idea that energy sector workers are ignorant of—or unwilling to make changes to mitigate—the climate challenges we face. But there is evidence that this is not the case.
A number of major labour organizations—representing millions of members—have called for climate action and a “just transition,” which would involve energy and resource workers in decision-making as we shift to a greener economy, provide job retraining (in renewable energy and other relevant, growing sectors), and otherwise minimize economic insecurity in their communities. Yet our analysis indicates their voice is muffled in our media system.
There are understandable reasons for this. The labour beat has virtually disappeared from North American newsrooms in recent decades; there is seemingly no longer a commercially viable market for worker-oriented news. And, aggressive climate action is a challenging issue within the labour movement itself—not helped by the media’s minimization of the economic risks of pipeline development and of the environmental concerns of energy sector workers and unions.
By excluding energy sector workers’ voices from energy and climate policy debate, the media allow fossil fuel industry proponents to lay claim to them. Perhaps unwittingly, both corporate and alternative media have allowed those aligned with fossil capital to paint a skewed picture of energy workers’ interests and concerns—and to use it to shape the public debate.
This also makes it more difficult to effectively include workers in conversations about how Canada can transition away from fossil fuels—as we must do to stave off climate catastrophe—and build a greener economy powered by suitable, sustainable jobs.
To correct these omissions, journalists and media should seek to include workers’ voices in their coverage of fossil fuel-related controversies. More broadly, in a time of newsroom cutbacks, there is a democratic case for the public funding of independent media that might offer an important counterbalance to the extractivist narrative, and bring about a more democratic conversation about the kind of future Canadians should work toward.
Author: Robert A. Hackett
Robert A. Hackett is a professor emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University. He has written extensively on media democratization, and journalism as political communication. His most recent collaborative books include Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives (2017), Expanding Peace Journalism: Comparative and Critical Approaches (2011) and Remaking Media: The Struggle to Democratize Public Communication (2006). He is on the editorial advisory boards of Journalism Studies, Journal of Alternative and Community Media and other academic journals. He has co-founded several community-oriented media education and advocacy initiatives, including NewsWatch Canada, OpenMedia and Media Democracy Days.