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Embedded at the Olympics

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Issue: 64 Section: Media Analysis Geography: West Vancouver Topics: independent media, 2010 Olympics

December 30, 2009

Embedded at the Olympics

Media's sponsorship of 2010 compromises coverage, begs alternatives

by Tim McSorley

MONTREAL—The announcement came nearly five years to the day before the 2010 Olympics: CTV and Rogers had won the bid to be the official Olympic broadcasters in Canada for both the 2010 and 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The broadcasting deal offered up a Canadian record of $153 million for the rights, including $90 million alone for the exclusive broadcast rights for the 2010 Vancouver games. That was an increase of 221 per cent on what CBC paid to broadcast the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics and marks the first time the bid for the Winter Olympics bested the bid for the Summer Games.

Four years later, in Spring 2009, CTV/Rogers would be joined by La Presse, Canwest Global regional newspapers and The Globe and Mail as the official Francophone, regional and national media partners, respectively, of the Olympic Games.

Together, these five media outlets, which cover the vast majority of the Canadian media landscape, have a vested interest in how the Olympics are perceived, and how many people tune in or read.

“It sort of undermines any kind of journalistic independence or any claim to journalistic independence,” Mike Gasher, chair of the journalism department at Concordia University in Montreal, told The Dominion. “It's like when Quebecor [which owns Star Academie] covers Star Academie: you know there's a sort of official endorsement and I think that 'officialness' makes a big difference.”

Gasher emphasized it's unlikely that coverage is dictated by a direct order; in most news organizations, sports and news coverage will remain independent. But he warns that there could still be unconscious implications for coverage: “Most journalists would say, 'No, no, no, that's not gonna affect me,' and it probably wouldn't on any sort of conscious level, but I think on a more unconscious level, clearly you know that your newspaper is implicated in this event in some way, and it's probably going to show up [in coverage].”

Interview requests to the CTV/Rogers consortium and The Globe and Mail went unanswered. In a press release announcing their partnership with the 2010 Olympic Games, though, Globe publisher Philip Crawley stated, “As always, The Globe and Mail will do its utmost to deliver insightful, balanced and in-depth news through the stories that matter most to Canadians coast-to-coast."

Chris Shaw, author of Five Ring Circus and member of the Olympic Resistance Network, is no fan of the Olympic Games. While he admits this taints how he interprets Olympics coverage, he believes that very few in the mainstream media are making an effort to cover the Olympics in a serious way.

“It's really been kind of a 90 per cent to 10 per cent split. The 90 per cent being really bad, non-critical coverage, and the 10 per cent being some fairly decent coverage.”

For Shaw, that 90 per cent doesn't lie simply with official sponsors, but extends to other mainstream TV and news outlets, including English CBC, which was runner-up in the bid for the Olympic broadcast rights. “By and large CBC's opinion has been see no evil, hear no evil,” he says. “Other stations like Global are far more likely to be critical, but they aren't anti-Olympics by any measure.”

Charlie Smith, of Vancouver's alt-weekly Georgia Straight, sees things as a little less black and white. He argues media has done their job uncovering stories such as cost overruns, city deficits, and legislation that could further criminalize homelessness, but has failed to provide adequate context.

“I think that certain things have been introduced because of the Olympics, but have not been linked to Olympics,” Smith told The Dominion.

Smith points to the expansion of the Vancouver Police Department as one example. “It's gobbling a larger and larger share of the budget and leaving less to be distributed elsewhere. The expansion began about 5 years ago [in 2004, the year after Vancouver was granted the Games]."

“That might be one place where the mainstream media has not done a thorough job of contextualizing.”

But oft-lacking analysis in the mainstream media doesn't mean that there will be no critical media coverage of the 2010 Olympics.

Shaw believes that international journalists coming to Vancouver to cover the games won't hesitate to report on protests or on the immense poverty and homelessness among the residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. When the International Herald Tribune or the London Daily Times begin to run stories on these issues, he says, Canadian media will have no choice but to follow, or risk embarrassment.

There are also independent journalists coming to Vancouver with the express goal of ensuring coverage of the social impacts of the games.

“We are less interested in covering Olympics themselves than the effects, and covering what is happening in the streets. Paid media will be interested in the sports and games, while we'll be trying to fill the void on covering social issues,” says Franklin Lopez, who is helping to organize independent media coverage of the Games.

Online and new media, such as video, photo and audio posts to various sites including the Vancouver Media Coop, will play a critical role in such a project.

But while there will be alternative media coverage, the resources at the mainstream press' disposal and the sheer amount of coverage they will provide—CTV will be airing 22 hours of Olympics coverage per day on its national affiliates—mean they will certainly capture the bulk of the audience.

And as long as media outlets continue to fly the Olympic flag, people will be right to raise questions.

“If the whole point of journalism is to give sort of objective, independent, non-partisan account of events, then it really casts doubt because the media are partisans, officially,” says Gasher. “It's the same issue as embedded journalists with the military. It does raise questions about what kind of compromises are in play, whether they're conscious or unconscious.”

Tim McSorley is the Media Analysis Editor at The Dominion.

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The Olympic games is historically a time when all politics and wars are put aside and the entire world comes together for the love of sport. This has a tremendous impact on the area in which the games are held and there should be media coverage of such impact whether it is positive or negative. casino online

putting aside war and politics

Interesting idea, I haven't found much evidence that this has ever really happened. There is the ironic example of the boycott of the 1980 olympics in moscow, an action taken to highlight the russian war and occupation of afganistan. I find this ironic as canada is currently leading an illegal occupation and war in afganistan. There were 65 countries who boycotted the games in moscow, plenty of other nations did not see fit to do so. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1980_Summer_Olympics_boycott)

I think its more accurate to say that capitalist nations with enough internal peace to win the bid, put certain politics aside(homlessness, poverty, prostitution, indigenous rights, environment) and continue their wars in greater privacy (more profitable media event).

War and bailouts and games, things we can always find money(billions) for.

Apparently canada has more international social credit(capital) than russia did. Well, not according to the united nations

"The United Nations' committee on economic, social and cultural rights said in 1998 that Canada's failure to provide decent, affordable housing had "exacerbated homelessness among vulnerable groups during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence."

more coverage, not less...

Hi Gemma,

Interesting comment. I'm not sure if you're arguing for or against the piece... Either way, to me the main issue here is that that coverage needs to be more open and less contigent on funding or exclusivity contracts. It's this kind of exclusivity that leads to soft-glove reporting because everyone is vying for the IOC's favour. I definitely agree with you that both negative & positive coverage should be allowed - it's just a matter right now of so much positive coverage, and an apparent blind eye to negatives.

I have no grounds for this

I have no grounds for this opinion, really, but give it until after the Olympics for the negative press to come through (keeping in mind that it will be presented through a filter, after all, it is corporate media).
This is, of course, incredibly problematic for a variety of reasons. In a way, it is commodifying journalism and debasing the integrity of journalism, as well as its service to its readers and the general populace. At this point, the corporate media will only purvey the positive because it would be a financial loss to perpetuate the Olympics as negative because it will sway popular opinion (which is that the Olympics are a positive event in every sense- culturally, economically, &tc). The problem, as you've put it, is that the restrictions that have been put on journalists through VANOC/IOC are ridiculous and against all journalistic principles. This is, unfortunately, consistent with every other move on VANOC's part; appropriation and commodification of First Nations culture and symbols, limited access to public places like parks (from what I know the Sea Wall has limited access, in the very least), censorship of artists performing for the "cultural olympiad," and restriction of reporting to corporate, sponsoring news sources. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as I'm sure many realize.
It's definitely strange-and problematic- that there is a major lack of public outcry against these moves on VANOC's part (which are arguably neo-Fascist), but, of course, one needs to go outside of corporate press to realize the extent of oppression that the Olympics (and specifically the 2010 Olympics) are perpetuating. This, obviously, is the information and the opinion that VANOC is afraid of reaching the general populace.
Like I said earlier though, after the games will be different. After the money has been made, journalists will be free, and more than likely encouraged, to report on the backlashes because, at that point, no significant change could be made that will inhibit maximum profit for VANOC.

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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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