Critical Reading Exercises: Political Content of Information

Evaluating Mainstream and Alternative Media

As William Seaman (1992) argues, unless people are "genuinely aware of the sorts of information, perspectives, analyses, beliefs and images that are systematically filtered out of the mainstream media, it is simply wrong" to suggest that they are "truly free in their decisions to act" and to negotiate meanings. Insofar as they have been manipulated by a "system of causal constraints," they must have at least some knowledge of the assumptions undergirding that system of exclusion in order to orient themselves in it and to undertake negotiations from an equal position of power (Seaman, 1992: 301-11).

Negotiating Meaning or Minimizing Consequences for Ordinary People?

The Case of a Cyanide Spill in Guyana and the Omai River

In the following passage, what are the frameworks that govern the coverage? What lexical choices are made? Is the event reported as a "far-reaching tragedy" or an" isolated incident?" Juris Dilveko compares news coverage of a cyanide spill in Guyana.

Where Maclean's (a mainstream source) reports the Cambior cyanide spill as a minor event without lasting effects, the news frame establishes this interpretation and uses persons to reinforce the minor nature of the incident. While the consequences for the ordinary people of Guyana are minimized, the focus is on the negative consequences of the accident for Cambior and the Guyanese treasury. The company's stock price drops significantly "as investors reacted to the loss of the Omai gold mine's output and Cambior stands to lose 45% of its projected 1995 gold production, and the Guyanese government, dependent on Cambior for 20% of its Gross Domestic Product will experience a significant monetary shortfall.

In the Guardian [an alternative source] article entitled "Cyanide is as if a completely different incident is being described. From the first paragraph, the accident is framed as a far-reaching tragedy. More than 120 miles of the Essequibo river has been declared a disaster area as ‘up to 300 million gallons of cyanide-saturated sludge flowed downstream and engineers failed to stop more seeping' from the breeched dam... In addition to stressing the wide scope of the ‘gold mine burst' that disgorged 3 million cubic meters into a river ecosystem that was ‘badly contaminated' and on which many native communities rely for fish and drinking water, the second alternative article, "Caught in the Gold Rush" from New Scientist, emphasizes the macroeconomic and political contexts of the accident. Where Macleans concentrates on Cambior, in the Guardian the focus is firmly on Guyana. It is the people along the river Essequibo and Omai rivers that matter the most and this respect for the local inhabitants is conveyed both by seemingly innocuous descriptions and the types of sources used to gauge the event. (Dilevko, 1998b:63,64)

Dilevko, Juris. 1998. "Teaching News Media Practices in Bibliographic Instruction Classes: A Strategy Involving Framing and Sourcing Theory."Research Strategies, Vol. 16, No. 1: 53-69.

Seaman, William. 1992. "Active Audience Theory: Pointless Populism." Media Culture and Society 14, April 1992: 301-11.

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