The Press Did It

The MLAs were back in the House for two days and already the Premier was getting feisty.  What set him off?  Legitimate questions from the opposition.

Dr Swann started the ball rolling by asking the Premier to explain why the throne speech failed to address the crisis in healthcare.  Mr Stelmach replied:  there is no crisis in healthcare, in fact, quite the opposite is true, because over 60% of Albertans were “very satisfied with the health care they’re receiving”.*   He referred to the recent Environics poll and the Health Quality Council in support of this statement.  When Dr Swann told him that he’d had gotten it backwards—the Environics poll showed that two-thirds of Albertans felt the healthcare system was in crisis as a result of ineffective management, Mr Stelmach made the following bizarre comment:

“I think 36 percent or so of Albertans had concern(s) about health.  You know, that is a very small percentage given that constantly, every day in every doggone paper there is something negative about health care delivery in this province, yet thousands – thousands – receive health care in this province on a daily basis.”* True, thousands are receiving healthcare every day, but that’s not the question, is it?

Then Mr Mason picked up the ball.  He asked the Premier whether the PC’s had failed to meet Albertans’ healthcare needs and expectations.  (It would have been nice if Mr Zwozdesky stepped in at this point to assist the Premier, but it’s likely a career limiting move to correct your boss on the public record, even if he’s already heading for the exit).  Mr Stelmach responded with this:  “…you know, we can make all kinds of jokes about health care, especially about what you’ve seen lately in the papers, obviously:  if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.  But I’m very confident that we have one of the best health care systems in Canada.”*

Doggone papers?  If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead?  Ah, now I get it…the non-existent healthcare crisis is the press’s fault.

Let’s start with the “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” comment.  The implication is that the profit motive determines which stories make it to the front page.  Really?  Sean Collins, a senior producer with National Public Radio (the US equivalent to CBC) says “Journalism is not run by a scientific formula.  Decisions about a story being newsworthy come from the head, the heart and the gut”.** This is a very effective way to analyse a story.  A “head” story is characterized by empirical reporting backed up with verifiable data.  A “heart” story is emotionally moving, personal and often involves babies and small dogs.  A “gut” story typically creates a reaction—usually panic—but is empirically unsubstantiated.  The classic summertime “gut” story is a shark attacking a tourist which results in thousands of tourists boycotting the beach, notwithstanding the fact that only 10 swimmers are killed each year by sharks worldwide.

The “healthcare crisis” stories are “head” stories or “heart/head” stories.  The failure of the government to budget the $320 million/year required to operate the new South Health Campus hospital is a classic “head” story.  The story of an MLA’s father suffering from a heart attack but not being able to get treatment in an overcrowded ER waiting room is a “heart” story which quickly turns into a “head” story when it includes data indicating that wait time targets are not being met.  None of the healthcare crisis stories are “gut” stories notwithstanding the fact that, much to the government’s chagrin, they embolden the public to write to their MLAs demanding a solution.

But here’s the bigger issue:  The press plays a critical role in a democracy.  It brings issues which are the responsibility of the government and which affect the welfare of Albertans to the public’s attention.  To disparage the press with cheap shots shows a stunning lack of respect for both the news media and the people of Alberta who rely on that media in order to understand what the government is doing with their tax dollars.  It may make the Mr Stelmach uncomfortable to have the press and the public breathing down his neck, but that’s called accountability.

So here’s a news flash for Mr Stelmach:  The press did not create the healthcare crisis.  You and your party did.

*Hansard, Feb 23, 2011, p 10, 11

**Quoted in Dan Gardner’s book, Risk, p 192

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6 Responses to The Press Did It

  1. Some things don’t change. More than 15 years ago, when he was shutting hospitals, Ralph Klein said the media was specializing in a “disaster a day” reporting. Problem was, there did seem to be at least one a day. And while one problem a day would be a very low failure rate overall, it is a very high (and fatal) failure rate if you happen to be the “one”.

    Having said that, I do think Stelmach is more right than wrong on this one. In addition to the “head” and “heart” stories you talk about, there is another category: “explaining complex issues”. That’s harder to do than the other two, particularly given the youth and lack of experience in present day reporters. Those who cry “crisis” get attention — those who try to explain just what is being done are ignored. The media give us far too many of the former and precious few of the latter.

    As I used to observe when I was still in the business, I don’t recall ever commissioning or running a news story on how an airplane lands safely — but I do know that every time one didn’t we sure found space to cover the failure. Stelmach is not completely right by any means, but he does have a point.

  2. Kevin, I take your point about the fourth category—explaining complex issues. I’d like to think that Nenshi was right and that we’re now ready for “politics in full sentences”. However before we can provide meaningful input to the issues of the day we need to understand them. We gain our understanding, in part, from the press. This puts a tremendous burden on the reporters. We need to support those who are working hard to explain what is going on. We also need to read their stories and provide feedback to the editors and publishers to let them know that these issues are important to us and we value the paper’s efforts to keep us informed. A big job for us all. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Rose Marie MacKenzie says:

    So what was the lead news story in BC this week: “Five patients were assessed and monitored at a Tim Hortons Monday after an acute overflow in the emergency room at Royal Columbian Hospital. …: ”

    Once again you are spot on. Why does it take the overflow into Tim Horton’s to make it news worthy?

  4. Rose Marie, the scary thing about the Tim Horton’s story is that it comes from BC which was rated as the second best province (Ontario was first) in healthcare delivery in Canada last year. On the other hand, it demonstrates a certain ingenuity on the part of the hospital which, thanks to the media coverage, makes the public ask yet again–what is going on?

    The media is working hard to bring the facts forward. We need to keep the pressure on our governments to force them to address the issue in a collaborative and transparent fashion. It’s a complex issue, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in a meaningful way.

  5. Roy Wright says:

    I found myself at the boling point reading the Premier’s take on health care and the media. I agree with your view of the situation and find Eddie once again might be the master of his own fate. He accuses the media of making something out of nothing. Perhaps if Eddie reported the whole story, rather than just one half, the media would have nothing to feed on. When you open 200 beds (or a new hospital) that is good news, but when you have to close 200 beds to pay for the new beds and forget to mention it, that is pure deception. I look back at the Rocky View and Lougheed hospital announcements of new beds and now look at the new hospital with no money to open and feel I have been misled at a minimum and lied to at worst. Have we really seen a net increase in beds or is it a complete shell game? Now the media arrives, and uncovers what I say is a change in status quo (ie: newsworthy event) and gets blamed by Eddie. I was taught that when dog bites man, it does not qualify as news, but if man bites dog, it does. Perhaps if Eddie tells the whole truth, delivers on his health care promises and treats Albertans as adults who deserve some respect, the media might respond in kind! Right now, Eddie is running around and biting dogs.

  6. Roy, your characterization of the hospital expansion announcements as a shell game is bang on. It’s very difficult to trust the government on this issue when the true facts are hidden and we can’t figure out what’s going on. I’m grateful that the media is pursuing it with the vigor and diligence that they’ve shown thus far. Thanks for the feedback…it’s great to hear from you again.

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