Institutional Victims, No Perpetrators: Analyzing Discursive Trends in Canadian Financial News, 2007-2008

An office building collapses in the background while, in the foreground, several people take photos of the catastrophe on their phone

By Leigha Smith, MA student, Concordia University

To peruse Canadian financial news, one is tempted to believe that financial institutions are routinely oppressed by the very markets they control. The assignment of victimhood in newspaper coverage of the financial crisis has been closely studied by Pier-Pascale Boulanger and René Lemieux in "Qui est « victim* » dans les pages économiques et financières des journaux canadiens en période de crise ?" Analyzing major Canadian newspapers in both English and French like La Presse, Le Devoir, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star, the authors found that institutions—particularly legal persons, a category which includes banks, ratings agencies, corporations, and refinancing organizations—were characterized as "victims" of the 2007-2008 financial crisis about three and a half times more often than were human beings.

The recurring description of institutions as victims is particularly striking in this media discourse. The language of "victim*" is in and of itself interesting, though not necessarily surprising to keen observers of dramatization trends in daily newspapers. Catherine Resche (2009) found that victimization discourse is one effective way daily newspapers routinely arouse readers' sympathies.

The marketing tactic of dramatization (Charaudeau 2005/2011) also exacerbates negative press coverage, deepening the already-present negativity bias in newspaper media. As found by Soroka and McAdams (2015), negative news coverage tends to compel a stronger reaction in readers than positive press. As noted by Boulanger and Lemieux, creating relational sympathies of this kind is part and parcel of a journalist's work. The reader of a newspaper should, ideally, be compelled to read its contents. Because negative coverage of financial news can result in reduced consumer and investor confidence, however, the language of "victim*" to describe institutions may be a way to compel readers of financial news without sacrificing their confidence in the markets.

These factors may have contributed to the significant uptick in the language of victimhood used in French-language financial news around the time of the crisis. Usage increased by about two and a half times in 2007-2008 compared with its average over the previous six years. Interestingly, the term "victim*" was generally used in French at about three times the frequency of English sources. As noted by the authors, this may be partly owing to English use of synonyms like "casualty" to describe the same phenomenon.

The alliance of these terms reveals the passive positioning of institutions in financial news during the crisis. The term "victim," in part owing to its etymological origins, positions institutions in opposition to the agents of the crisis. Put another way, institutions positioned by news media as victims were implicitly—and at times explicitly—discursively stripped of their agency in creating that same crisis.

A particularly salient example is found in the coverage of Coventree, a Canadian non-bank financial institution who packaged asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) with U.S. subprime mortgages and marketed such packages as safe investments when they were anything but. These investments eventually collapsed when the U.S. housing market did. In 2011, Coventree and its founders were fined two million dollars for misleading investors as to the security of ABCP investments.

But what exactly was Coventree a victim of? To ask newspapers, much: One Francophone paper described Coventree—quite evidently a perpetrator of many Canadians' financial woes—as "la première véritable victime du reserrement des conditions de prêt," while Anglophone papers described Coventree variously as the victim of "disruption in the domestic asset-backed market," "subprime loans," "credit crunch," and "turmoil."

Boulanger and Lemieux note that, as a function of the journalist's duty to make complex concepts accessible to the average reader, the original definition of "victim" (and similarly applied synonyms, like "casualty") has been buried in these applications. Furthermore, only in four cases of the canvassed major newspapers (thrice in French, once in English) was it mentioned that the institutional “victims” of the crisis were also its perpetrators.

The role of newspapers' language of victimization is thus manifold. Not only does it build the compelling narratives and compulsion to read that newspaper media relies on to thrive, it effectively removes agency from financial institutions during times of crisis. As noted by the authors, erasing the causes and perpetrators of the crisis from the discourse also contributes to the popular perception that regulation of the financial industry is a moot effort. If events like the 2007-2008 crisis can—by seemingly impossible-to-foresee events—make "victims" even of financial institutions, what can regulation possibly hope to achieve? The language of victimhood is an effective smokescreen: one that compels newspaper readers at the same time that it convinces them such tragedies have no perpetrator or cause.

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