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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Media and the Vancouver Riots

I've been trying to understand how the Vancouver Riots of June 15th came about. There have been some excellent and thoughtful commentaries about what happened and specifically, my former CBC colleague Claude Adams has written one of the best.

While much has been said about the combination of factors including the consuming of too much alcohol downed by thousands of young people, suburban anomie, lack of police preparedness, etc., one other key element needs to be considered.

The uncritical and over the top media coverage of the NHL in general and the Stanley Cup playoffs in particular were, in my opinion, serious contributing factors to the mayhem that showed up in downtown Vancouver earlier this week.

No one news organization is more at fault than another, but all Canadian media - radio, television and print - share the blame for inciting a culture of violence.

Kovach and Rosensteil in their seminal book, "The Elements of Journalism," say journalists need to keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive. Coverage of the Stanley Cup was anything but.

The media ramped up the emotionality of the story by playing to middle class Canadians' sense of nationalism, even anti-Americanism. The Canucks were frequently referred to as "Canada's Team." The CBC's Don Cherry is a long time proponent of keeping the game physical. Newscasts on all channels led with stories of heightened expectations, pumping up the volume of the story as the seventh and final game approached.

Newspaper headlines concentrated on this story to the exclusion of anything else, even as the Greek economic meltdown, the war in Libya and the e.coli outbreak in Europe all had strong Canadian angles that were never pursued because the stories themselves were largely ignored.

CBC TV, as the broadcaster of the series on their longstanding show "Hockey Night in Canada" went all out. It was undoubtedly a huge domestic story. But it was also a colossal moneymaker.

According to the Toronto Star, CBC garnered some of its largest audiences ever (6.2 million for the sixth game) and was therefore able to charge $140,000 for 30 second spots - an enormous amount by Canadian standards. CBC News played an unquestioning and supporting role by hyping the event and never really committing much journalism. Instead there were the inevitably soft features about enthusiastic Vancouverites and the sale of Canuck jerseys.

While there has been some reporting earlier about the rise in concussions in the NHL, caused in part by a faster game, that kind of reporting disappeared almost entirely as the Stanley Cup playoffs were underway.

It wasn't as though the series was a croquet match.

Jeff Z. Klein and Stu Hackel of the New York Times called it "the most rancorous Cup finals in a couple of decades. It was less about the best hockey of the year and more about biting, taunting, slashing, cheap shots, late shots, high-sticking, slew-footing, diving, embellishing, brawling, trash-talking and name-calling. Pushing and shoving after the whistle became the norm, and by the end, the teams had combined for 342 penalty minutes, the most in Cup finals since 1986." 

But hardly any of that appeared on air or in print as newsroom across Canada drank the NHL Kool-Aid by sending out a strong message that this is how hockey should be played and woe to anyone who thinks otherwise.

So when thousands of people decided to behave outside the arena in much the same way the game is played, it sounded hollow for newscasters and editorialists to tut-tut about violence on the streets when the same media had been sanctioning it on the ice for weeks.


  1. Thank you, Mr. Dvorkin, for telling the story that most would rather not hear. Why? Because it calls us all to a level of accountability that feels a bit uncomfortable. Our collective "we" would rather blame those few bad apples that aren't "real" Canuck fans.

    In his book Exploring Media Culture, Michael Real writes: "Media culture today is significant both because of its size and invasiveness and because of its 'signifying' power. Other significant institutions today - the family, economics, education, religion, politics, the arts, and the rest - are sometimes set against media, as if each exercises power separately. Yet in the media age it is clear that all power is exercised, not independently, but in interaction with and through media culture."

  2. As I will say later today to you, what I found most striking about the protests was how familiar with them I felt. Not because of my (non) interest hockey, but because I had seen numerous protests on TV from North Africa and the Middle East and after a while was, in many ways, hard to tell the politics of the events apart. Cops against protesters. Cars burning. Windows being smashed. It seems as if the act of protesting, and the act of being portrayed in protest, has become a politic unto itself.

  3. Jeffrey, you have completely missed the point. Vancouver is full of low lifes and goons and shitty behaviour. The city looks lovely, but underneath it simmers with class warfare and anti-establishment behaviour. This has nothing to do with hockey or the media.

  4. Local Vancouver Radio One shows had a few good critics and criticisms of the Canucks obsession, including the host of the afternoon program On The Coast, Steven Quinn, who is a cynic through and through and can never quite work up uncomplicated boosterism for anything.

    On the other side, local Vancouver CBC was the first to host a "live site" on its plaza, the success of which led to the City setting up some other sites; much of the burnin' and lootin' seen on TV took place either right beside or within a few blocks of the CBC site. This is not to blame them for having a public site, but the site plus crazed boosterism on CBC TV was a bad combination.