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Throwing Money at Media Won’t Fix Canada’s News Deficit

We need to reform government so citizens have a reason to care, and slash secrecy that prevents journalists from doing their jobs.

By Sean Holman 25 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He produced Whipped, a documentary on the corrosive effects of party discipline, and is now writing a book on the history of freedom of information in Canada.

The federal government seems to mistakenly believe the Canadian news industry’s problems can be cured with money, announcing millions of dollars of support in last week’s budget.

But as one of this country’s digital journalism pioneers (I founded a popular online investigative news site called Public Eye before such ventures became fashionable), I believe those woes may have as much to do with whether Canadians actually want news about their own country, and whether newsrooms have not just the resources, but also the willingness, to produce such stories.

And unless we treat those afflictions, no amount of money will turn our news industry around.

In fairness to the politicians and bureaucrats who decided to dole out $595 million over five years to support Canadian journalism, many of their potential beneficiaries are also convinced that the bottom line in solving the country’s news media crisis can be found in their own bottom lines.

For example, two years ago, Public Policy Forum president Edward Greenspon, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, released a government-contracted study called The Shattered Mirror.

It stated that “journalism’s economic model has collapsed, profoundly and structurally.” As a result, it recommended government measures to “strengthen the economic sustainability” of the news media and “promote civic-function journalism and digital innovations.”

That’s fine, as far as it goes.

But there often seems to be an assumption that Canadians actually want public interest news about our country, in other words news about economic, environmental, health, political and social issues taking place within its borders. This is the product journalists have a societal mandate to produce. It’s the most important thing we do. And it’s easy for journalists and politicians to assume there is a demand for it because we associate with people who want it — from sources and existing audiences (such as you, dear reader) to supporters and lobbyists. But what about other Canadians?

I’ve found it difficult to answer that question with any certainty. Most of the data I’ve come across concerns how often Canadians consume the news rather than the kind of news they actually consume.

But what we do know is that, when the Canadian Election Study surveyed over 7,500 people in 2015, more respondents correctly remembered the last name of Russia’s prime minister (62.8 per cent) than they did Canada’s Governor General (20.2 per cent), its finance minister (17.2 per cent) and even the premier of their own province (60.1 per cent). This suggests many of us are not routinely reading, listening to and watching news about Canada’s affairs of state.

Moreover, why should we? Because of party discipline, which forces most provincial and federal elected representatives to vote the way their leaders tell them to rather than the way we might want them to, Canadians have little power over what happens in government between elections. That means there’s little reason to pay attention to public interest during those years. Indeed, paying attention could easily lead to feelings of impotence. And that’s not much of a foundation for a news industry.

Even if Canadians wanted public interest news about their own country, journalists often don’t have the information to produce such stories. Most of what happens in government happens in private, with its officials and the information they have about our country under lock and key.

What happens in public is just for show: an expensive political theatre meant to convince Canadians that we live in a democracy. And it’s exceedingly difficult for journalists to peak behind the theatre’s curtain. The sources we’re forced to deal with are political hacks or flacks who are trained to spin rather than tell the truth. Leaks are few and far between. And our freedom of information laws sometimes do more to fortify the government’s secrecy than challenge it — to say nothing of the information immunity enjoyed by Canadian corporations.

The upshot is a lot of newspapers, news sites and news broadcasts run too many shallow, uninteresting stories that only tell us what our leaders want us to know. That’s not public service. That’s propaganda.

Finally, even if newsrooms did have the information to produce public interest stories, are they willing to do that work?

The Shattered Mirror never addressed this question. But The Uncertain Mirror, the 1970 Senate committee report that was initiated by Red Chamber member Keith Davey and inspired the newer report’s name, did. It stated “a great many, if not most” Canadian newspapers printed news releases “intact,” seldom extend their coverage “beyond the local trout festival,” and haven’t “annoyed anyone important” in years.

“Their city rooms are refuges for the frustrated and disillusioned, and their editorial pages are a daily testimony to the notion that chamber-of-commerce boosterism is an adequate substitute for community service,” the report concluded.

My impression is that not nearly enough has changed in the ensuing 49 years. There are certainly some journalists and news outlets that could be described, in the words of the Davey report, as a “constant embarrassment to the powerful.” The late senator and his committee found them too. So if you’re one of those thin-skinned Canadian journalists who is reading this and thinking, “Actually, I do great work” or “I would do great work if only my editor/news director would let me,” you can assume I am referring to you. So if we see one another at a reception or conference I would probably never be invited to anyway, there’s no need for any awkwardness. You’re doing a bang-up job.

That said, too many journalists wouldn’t ever be described that way, nor would some want to be. I would even hazard there are those who would duck and cover if such words were even hurled in their general direction.

Instead, they and their similarly minded newsrooms continue to squander precious time and money covering stories based on news releases, news events and social media postings. And what passes for objective and unbiased reporting in those newsrooms too often amounts to little more than ensuring canned quotes from both sides of an issue are included in their coverage. The work and courage required to find the truth is abandoned as a result of overwork in some cases, laziness in others, and perhaps even outright fear.

If the government actually wanted to cure what ails news industry, here’s what it would do beyond providing fair financial support to established news outlets and startups alike — invest in teaching young people Canadian history, civic literacy and news literacy; loosen party discipline; reform our electoral system; and make it easier to access information held by governments and corporations.

In other words, create a demand for public interest news about our country and give journalists the information they need to produce it.

However most of these things, which would also be a boon to the civic health of our nation, are hard to do. They discomfort the comfortable. And they depower the powerful.

Instead, it’s easier for the government to pretend to be doing something meaningful, while journalists and politicians squabble over the details of the pretence. This is, too often, the story of our country. But it’s one we’ve gotten used to, just like those in our news media.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics, Media

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