One of the problems with reporting is that we are drawn to conflict because “that’s where the story is.”

I was as guilty of that as anyone when I covered city council, school board and other community meetings. Issues that resulted in long, contentious debate tended to get most of my attention, regardless of whether the issue was of lasting (or even any) importance to the community. It took me some time to unlearn the idea that the story was always where the conflict was.

Given that, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when one of the local TV stations, in covering the Vancouver rally in support of the people of Iran, used the word “chaos” to describe the event. What the reporter was referring to were a number of small, mostly verbal clashes on the outer fringes of the rally. There was some pushing and shoving and some posters were torn down. The reporter said a punch was thrown.

I was there. What happened was a small group of people (roughly 30) were protesting on the east side of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, while a larger group (TV reported about 300; I had estimated between 400 and 500, but my crowd-estimating skills are rusty) was rallying on the west side. The small group, marching under a banner that read “Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and waving pre-republic Iranian flags, marched to the west side, where they were met by a number of people from the larger group, who were carrying a banner that read, “Where is my vote?” There was some jostling and shouting over a period of about 10 minutes.

And that was pretty much that. Over the next hour that I spent there, the large group chanted, sang and cheered short speeches. The smaller group occasionally rallied with its own chants, but it was shouted down by people on the fringes of the larger group. The TV report included the fact that “police arrived,” and indeed they did. Two of them. (I doubt anything of significance happened after I left: the report was broadcast roughly 10 minutes later.)

Whatever the dispute — it appeared to be between a small, overtly-political group, and a larger group that went to pains to announce the rally was not connected to any political movement — it was in no way the story of what was happening. It was a sideshow to the main event, which was several hundred Vancouver Iranians, of all ages, had gathered to show solidarity with protesters in Iran.

The conflict, however minor, became the story, at least for the one TV station, only because it was conflict. That larger story was missed. (I have reports that another local station provided much more balanced coverage of the rally, mentioning the dust-up but focussing on the rally itself. As for print, the Vancouver Sun had no coverage of the event in Monday’s paper, even though rally took place within strolling distance of the newspaper’s offices.)

The lesson here — and I’m aiming this post directly at my students — is that the formula conflict=news is flawed, even as a guideline.

Sometimes, conflict is the story. And sometimes, it’s the distraction that gets in the way of reporting the real news.

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