13 Jun 2014

True Confessions of a News Junkie

I’m a self-confessed news junkie. Everyday I devour four newspapers and up to 12 blogs. In my downtime I can be found watching TVO’s The Agenda or endless hours of the Canadian Parliamentary Affairs Channel. If that doesn’t satisfy my cravings, I may watch CNN for a scream-fest.

I bring this passion for news to Atkinson by preparing weekly media reports on issues that matter deeply to us. We’re committed to changing the headlines. We want more headlines about fair wages and safe working conditions, and fewer headlines about “welfare moms” and child care space shortages. What does it mean to change the headlines? I’ll describe two possibilities.

Making the headlines

When it comes to exposing murky business practices, sunlight has always been the best disinfectant. There’s nothing a company fears more than becoming click-bait for the media’s audience.

As an example, let’s take a look at the recent attention on the temporary foreign worker program. Since its inception, workers’ rights advocates knew that the temporary foreign worker program was ripe for abuse. But aside from the occasional op-ed or small news story, the issue was unable to gain traction or interest with the greater public.

When the story broke of a McDonald’s franchisee allegedly abusing the temporary foreign worker program, it was picked up by media organizations across the country. Public awareness of the program’s flaws skyrocketed. Media attention created a platform for migrant workers and their supporters to voice their experiences. This set in motion a series of more in-depth articles, leading companies to double-check their hiring policies for compliance and ending with the federal government stating its intention to make changes to the program.

To think a tiny story with the headline of “B.C. McDonald’s franchise investigated over temporary foreign workers” could lead to federal policy changes blows my mind. It does, however, serve as a reminder that social change is possible when an important issue comes to the forefront in this way.

Staying in the headlines

In our 24/7 news world where a magazine may pay $15 million for celebrity photos and cute puppy videos reign supreme, issues that are important to advocates can easily fall by the wayside.

Pop quiz time! Do you know the answers to the following? (Scroll to the bottom for the answers)

  1. When did the Fair Elections Act become law?
  2. For victims of the clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh during 2013, how much time passed before they were able to receive long-term compensation?
  3. When will changes be made to the temporary foreign worker program?

With around-the-clock news channels, social media and Netflix, it’s increasingly difficult to wade through all the information at our fingertips. A great news story on one particular day can be completely forgotten and overshadowed by a crisis the next.

Case in point: when the factory collapse in Bangladesh first occurred it made front page news worldwide. People were horrified that a factory in such bad condition was connected to their favorite brands. But as time passed by, so too did the public’s attention. In fact, one retailer’s sales actually increased by 20% in the weeks following the disaster!

More than a year later there’s still a significant number of clothing manufacturing issues in Bangladesh that consumers can positively influence through our purchasing decisions. But as public interest diminishes, so too does the potential for affecting social change.

On the flip side, when an issue is able to regularly make the news for over a period of time, progress becomes a real possibility. Let’s look at the Ontario minimum wage debate as an example. It’s been in the headlines and the subject of op-eds for years thanks to relentless community organizing by the Workers Action Centre and its allies. We owe the recent increase in minimum wage to $11/hour and the province’s promise to keep it in line with the rate of inflation to this kind of media-savvy campaigning.

Breaking news

At Atkinson, we’re getting ready to launch a new fund to support social movements engaged in this kind of work. You can watch our Twitter feed and subscribe to our mailing list for more information about this grants program. The news junkie in me can hardly wait to read the stories you and your colleagues are ready to break.

So tell us, what are the headlines you’re working to change?

Phillip Roh is the Atkinson Foundation’s Executive Assistant. Previously, he worked at Newspapers Canada managing the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards which included the category of Best Headline Writing.

ANSWERS

  1. At the time of this writing the Fair Elections Act has not yet become a law. It was passed by the Senate on June 12, 2014 and is awaiting Royal Assent.
  2. While a number of victims in the Bangladesh clothing factory collapse have received short-term compensation immediately following the disaster, it took 11 months before long-term compensation became available.
  3. Changes to the temporary foreign worker program will be announced “in a few weeks.”

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