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Media Avoids the Dirt

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Issue: 55 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Canada Topics: Mining

November 27, 2008

Media Avoids the Dirt

Mining companies get an easy ride in Canadian press

by Tim McSorley

When the media does cover mining, the vast majority of stories are based on economics, rather than on any of the issues raised on the signs at this demonstration against Canadian company GoldCorp. Photo: Allan Cedillo Lissner

MONTREAL, QUEBEC–From developing on fresh-water-providing glaciers in the Andes, to invading First Nations lands in Ontario, to blowing off the tops of mountains in Virginia, mining maintains one of the poorest records for environmental and social policies of nearly any industry.

“Forestry can be incredibly destructive for the environment, to the ecosystem, however if it is done properly...the forestry industry can be a nice example of a regenerative, natural resource-based industry that preserves land and ecosystems and also produces economic benefits and jobs,” says Toby Heaps, Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Knights magazine. “Mining– not so much in its present form,” he continues, adding that while practices can vary widely between companies, the last 30 years has shown the mining industry as both environmentally and socially destructive.

While Canadian companies lead the way in the mining industry, with almost 10,000 projects worldwide, mining activists say that lack of coverage in the mainstream media means many Canadians remain ignorant of Canada's role in the global mining market.

“I think people aren’t really aware of the scale of the industry; that Canada’s mining sector is so active in so many parts of the world,” says Ian Thomson, Corporate Social Responsibility Program Co-ordinator for Kairos, a Canadian ecumenical social justice organization. “Little is written [about mining development] unless it becomes a total disaster, so then you may get an article when there are family members who are murdered, or there is a huge spill of tailings or other toxic chemicals that impact a huge river system. It’s only when it reaches this horrendous scale that the media seems to think to pay attention.”

Beyond a lack of reporting, Thomson also sees an underlying lack of analysis when it comes to journalists covering the industry. “I think that what’s missing is there is a pattern here—that this isn’t just one or two isolated cases, but is the case where it’s just a heavily under-regulated industry,” he explains. “A report was issued by the UN earlier this year, saying the problem is that there is this governance gap, where companies operate as multinationals but are regulated at a national level and that’s what leads to these conflicts and these violations.”

A quick search through Canadian news database Proquest, which archives articles from all major English language dailies in Canada, seems to back up Thomson’s statements. While a search for articles on mining over the past year brings up over 6,000 pieces, a search for "mining and environment" brings up just under 300; similar results are achieved with "mining and community" or "mining and sustainable development." Overwhelmingly, the articles focus purely on economics, rather than the impact of the industry.

Heaps and Thomson both point to growing cuts in foreign and investigative journalism for this lack of coverage. Over the last decade, media consolidation and the quest for higher profits have resulted in closures of foreign bureaus. CanWest Global, Canada’s largest media conglomerate, maintains only two foreign newspaper bureaus, down from eight, when the chain was still owned by Southam. Tighter deadlines in order to meet the demands of the internet has also contributed to increased pressure on journalists, says Thomson, and less coverage of stories outside large urban areas, where mining operations are located.

But it isn’t just news media that has helped obscure the impacts of the mining industry; advertising has played significant role as well. Like many industries, mining has jumped on the corporate social responsibility bandwagon, attempting to reform their image through advertising campaigns vaunting their belief in a greener, cleaner and more equitable world. While some of the advertisements may be legitimate, it is difficult to distinguish which are real and which are simply window-dressing.

One company that has attempted to reform its image over the last 10 years is aluminum giant Alcan (Rio Tinto Alcan, since it was acquired by fellow mining giant Rio Tinto last year). In the past, Alcan has been heavily criticized for its operations in central India, initiating huge bauxite mines without public consultation or environmental precautions. Concerns persist over its plans to expand hydroelectricity production for smelters in Iceland and the company has also been embroiled in a messy dispute over the future of its operations in Kitimat, B.C., where labour officials claim that the company is not meeting its promised levels of job creation.

Throughout the fall, the company ran a massive publicity campaign in Alcan’s home province of Quebec. Featuring crystal-clear water, bright green forests and fields and a blue sky that you wish you could fly away into, the advert focuses on everything—sponsoring paralympians, research and technology, and job creation—except its environmental impact. It does state, in soothing tones as a lone deer trots across the screen, that it "produces respect for the environment," but it in no way quantifies how or what it does to minimize its environmental impact.

"If an ad has a little girl running through a field, but also gives numbers on its accomplishments, that’s fine,” says Heaps. “[But] if the purpose or the effects of that ad is to slow down progress [towards sustainability] in that company or give them a decoy for people who want to accelerate the progress [towards sustainability] of the company, then that’s a problem. Those are the key questions you need to ask yourself: what was the intent of the company with this ad, and was it to accelerate its move towards being more sustainable, or was it to slow it down or turn it back?”

Consumers are becoming more wary of these advertising campaigns. Recently, advertising watchdogs in Canada, such as the Canadian Standards Association and the Competition Bureau—and in Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)—have seen an upsurge in complaints about misleading ‘green’ advertisements, resulting in the Canadian government adopting stronger rules on green labeling and terminology, and the ASA taking more and more companies to task.

But Thomson also warns that we cannot rely too much on the government to address the situation. He points to another story that has seen little coverage in Canada—the government’s complicity in mining activities.

“On many of the overseas trips [Prime Minister] Harper has taken, he has made sure to find the time to meet with mining executives,” says Thomson, adding that such meetings provide legitimacy to companies that are attempting to skirt social and environmentAL relations. In 2007, Harper met with Barrick Gold executives in Chile at the same time that residents of Pascua Lama were raising serious concerns about Barrick’s undertakings in their region; Harper refused their request for a meeting, entering Barrick's office through the back door. On other occasions, Canadian ambassadors, including Guatemala and the Philippines, have maneuvered in favour of mining companies facing difficulties in obtaining permits or facing criticism for the actions.

For now, both Heaps and Thomson say that Canadians will need to look outside the mainstream press to find out what Canadian mining companies are up to.

“What we need to see is renewed investment and commitment to investigative journalism, to work a story over the long term,” says Heaps. “That’s the only way to cover something like this.”

Tim McSorley is Media Analysis Editor at The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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