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Discourse analysis of the National Post media surrounding Pickton

Written by Sherwin, published on October 9, 2010

The National Post

Soon I am embarking on a discourse analysis of the National Post’s coverage of the Robert Pickton murders. This is my second foray into a discourse analysis of a major media outlet. The first was on the Calgary Herald and I was interested in their analysis and value judgments of climate change issues. 1 This time my interest is gender and race expression and analysis by the National Post. I will be using a slightly different method today. Before I discuss the method, I will speak to why this issue is important and what my some of my theoretical presuppositions are.

Background and theoretical framework to Pickton murders

On August 17th 2010, the Canadian office of Amnesty International wrote a letter to the Attorney General of British Columbia calling for a public inquiry into the police and government response to the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Amnesty International has been calling for justice for these missing women for many years. Now it appears there is evidence that the investigation was seriously botched. Now we are told, there will be an investigation, but there are concerns that it won’t be fair and transparent and the police and the provincial government will not be held accountable. Maybe, maybe not.

Regardless of how fair the investigation of the police and provincial government is, my interest in doing a discourse analysis of the National Post is of the bigger picture surrounding these murders. I am of the belief that violence in our Canadian culture is patterned and that the portrayal of violence in the media is also patterned.

The pattern I want to explore is the following. Violence is more likely to flow down the social hierarchy and less likely to flow up the social hierarchy. let’s call this the Unequal Violence Pattern (UVP). There is a corollary: when violence does flow up the social hierarchy, it is highly visible. When violence flows down the social hierarchy, it is less visible. Let’s call this the Unequal Visibility of Violence Pattern (UVVP).2

So for example, white Christian upper class men are near the top of the social hierarchy in our culture. So when a brown, immigrant man or woman is harmed by this kind of man, it is more likely to go unnoticed. No doubt, when some folks read this, they will react with incredulity. Others will simply agree. I understand that this is controversial to some people. But notice that if I phrase it even slightly differently, people will generally have far more understanding and agreement for this phenomenon: there is more justice for the upper class than there is for people of the lower class. This is quite a widely held belief that has considerable justification and that one would be hard pressed to deny.

My assumption here is that if white rich men were being killed in Vancouver, the police would have made it a priority and the killer would have been found very quickly. But by 2001, 60 women were known to be missing from the downtown Eastside and the police weren’t really doing much about it. It took advocacy by many social institutions, like Amnesty International, to force the police and the government to put more resources towards the Pickton files.

And I am of the belief that this phenomenon of unequal justice is simply one strand of the larger pattern of unequal violence. But is this belief justified? And how would I ever try to argue for this? How might I try to give evidence of this sort of thing? These are big questions.

If you have some feelings of resistance to my claims, then you have become a valuable resource to me. The reason is that I hope to be able to do a basic discourse analysis of the National Post coverage of the Pickton investigations in such a way that gives some convincing evidence towards my claims here. You can help me. Is my analysis interesting? Is it persuasive? I don’t expect to have a slam dunk. Such big questions require many more investigations than I can ever do in my hours off. But perhaps it will be provocative enough to get some resistors on board the project of being open to such an analysis. There is of course, many excellent researchers doing this kind of work. But science is always more fun, done at home.

The thing is that the National Post is the paper of choice for people near the top of the social hierarchy: white folks, with lots of money, mostly men and mostly Christian. So I expect that the reporting in this paper on issues of violence to people at the bottom of the social hierarchy

The method

I haven’t decided on the method yet! I think I will do a site search of the National Post’s website for articles with the word “Pickton” in it. Then I will search these articles of the most recent articles for instances of the word “race” or any of its cognates, like “racism” or “racialized”. Perhaps “systemic” or “oversight” are also good candidates. I thought I might undertake this analysis this afternoon. But it will obviously require some more thought and some more time.

Until next time.

  1. This is interesting: I just reviewed the article I wrote on December 1st, 2009 and tried the links to the Calgary Herald site. The links appear to be largely broken. I find it a little troubling that online newspapers seem so bad at archiving their articles. I must look into this. I worry that it is a kind of systemic memory hole and evasion of accountability.
  2. I probably don’t need abbreviations here, but I can’t resist! Nothing gives me pleasure like creating my own terms and especially terms that are vaguely official sounding.
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Archived comments

  1. C'daoim says:

    if you wish to hear a really good examination of violence flowing downhill…watch to the video Endgame (Derrick Jensen)…it can be found (both parts) at…violence flowing downhill is surrounding us and we participate in it every day…it is our tacit consent that allows this to happen…

  2. Hugh says:

    So this is the intro? I can see why twitter doesn’t work for you.

    You’re right that I feel differently about positing unequal justice than I do about positing unequal visibility of violence. If we’re going with the common definition of violence that may be more than a subtle shift.

    I would be surprised if there weren’t a differential in prevention and investigation of stranger-on-stranger premeditated murder, wrt going up the hierarchy v down it. There aren’t many of those cases in our society. It might be tricky to prove, even to a low standard of proof, but it would be interesting if you could.

    More interesting would be if you could map that pattern beyond rare serial-killer cases and onto other more common kinds of murder and especially non-murderous violence in society. That would presumably be even trickier.

    I guess I’m not sure what a discourse analysis is in this context. But I’m looking forward to finding out.