Nfld. & Labrador

Refugee health, and when the story doesn't quite come full circle

Even balanced reporting is not immune to the negativity bias. In theory, balanced reporting means presenting all sides of a conflict; in practice it's used far too often just to keep the conflict going, Azzo Rezori reports.
Around 150 Syrian refugees arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador since late December, including the children who are pictured here. (CBC)

The 2012 decision by the former Conservative government in Ottawa to cut public health benefits for refugees was arguably one of the more significant stories of the last few years.

From a humanitarian perspective, the decision was nothing short of scandalous.

The Supreme Court of Canada condemned it as "cruel and unusual." Even senior Ottawa bureaucrats had problems with it and urged the government, unsuccessfully, to reconsider.

There were numerous cases over the years where Stephen Harper's agenda to remake Canada rubbed Canadians the wrong way. Slamming the health care doors on refugees in order to save $20-million a year went even further. It crossed a moral line. 

Doctors from coast to coast spoke out, open letters were written, national days of protest were held four years in a row — to no avail. The government responded with strategic retreats but never backed down.

It was a classic conflict. 

Issue of balance

Then came last October's federal election. One of the first moves by the new Liberal government was to do what's right and reverse the offensive policy. 
End of story? Not quite.

There's still an issue of balance between what was reported and what wasn't.
Locally, CBC's Here & Now covered the story three times: in May 2012, when St. John's family physician Dr. Pauline Duke, a member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, called a news conference to denounce the Conservative policy; one month after that, when a number of local medical students spoke out; and a year later, when the doctors and supporters held their own march here on one of the national days of protest.

And that was it.

Dr. Pauline Duke is a member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

There was no Here & Now follow-up when the new Liberal government made true on its promise to reverse what the previous government had put in place. Any reporting on further developments was left to national correspondents in Ottawa, as if the local angle had been exhausted with covering the protests a few years earlier.

Would Here & Now have covered a march celebrating the Liberals doing the right thing if such a thing had been held? Possibly, if only for the sheer sake of novelty.

But let's face it, once the Liberals had come through, the conflict was gone. And we know the rule. Where there's no conflict, there's no story.

In psychology, this tendency to focus on the negative is explained by what's known as the negativity bias. 

Simply, the human brain is wired to respond more strongly to the unpleasant than to the pleasant. And researchers say the evidence is all around us.

Magnetic effect of the negative

One went through the trouble of showing that two thirds of all English words convey the negative side of things. Anxiety has been shown to be far more common in dreams than happiness. Losing is a more powerful experience for most people than winning.

The fascination with all the things that can go wrong runs the entire length of human history. Like the entertainment industry, media organizations have caught on to this magnetic effect of the negative.

Dysfunctional human behaviour, and all the conflict and violence that comes with it, dominates the daily news.

There's still an issue of balance between what was reported and what wasn't.

According to one study, so-called negative news items outnumber positive news items by 17 to one on American newscasts.

To put that into perspective, the success ratio for a good marriage has been identified as a minimum of five positive experiences to every negative experience.

Even balanced reporting is not immune to the negativity bias. In theory, balanced reporting means presenting all sides of a conflict; in practice it's used far too often just to keep the conflict going.

And so, more often than not, newscasts are nothing like a true reflection of what might have been happening on any given day.

At their best they're a selective digest of the day's conflicts, at their worst they're dark theatre.

Kind of work that 'fills your sail'

Which is not to say that conflict isn't real and shouldn't be reported. But lack of conflict is no reason to stop reporting, which is what happened in the case of the health benefits for refugees.

And so an opportunity was missed to discuss not just what was wrong with the Conservative policy, but what was right about the Liberals reversing it.

There was everything right about it, according to Dr. Duke, a thoughtful and utterly caring professional, who's been looking after refugees for the last dozen or so years and sees them, not as a potential security risk or an unnecessary expense, but as a gift.
"What I hear time and again from our refugees, not just our Syrian newcomers but from refugees from other places, is that they're so thankful to Canada and Canadians and Newfoundlanders for being here. And people say thank you all the time," she said.

"It's a very positive kind of experience. It's the kind of work that I think, as a physician, fills your sail."


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.