By Sheri De Carlo
Canadians value news and see it as a pillar of our democracy, yet only about one out of four people follow news very closely, according to a new survey that gauges public opinion. New findings about how Canadians get their news were presented in “Finding A Way Forward,” by The Canadian Journalism Foundation, in partnership with the Public Policy Forum, with the survey conducted by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, to a sold-out crowd at TMX Broadcast Centre in Toronto on January 26, 2017.
Ed Greenspon, President and CEO of Public Policy Forum, along with April Lindgren, associate professor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism, and Allan Gregg of Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former host of the 1993 to 2013 TVO talk show, Allan Gregg in Conversation with…, discussed the newly released study, “The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy, Policy and Trust in the Digital Age.” Christopher Waddell of Carleton University moderated the discussion.
As the mirror that media holds up to society shatters, and cries of fake news gather momentum in Canada, the risk is to the health of democracy, as news organizations are left in a financial crisis with their credibility at risk, and the telling of Canadian stories threatened. Public relations practitioners might say traditional news organizations are in dire need of an industry-wide public education campaign, as people are losing faith in the trustworthiness of the news, and the best defense against fake news is a strong offense.
Canada is not the United States in this regard, at least not yet. In his mandate letters to cabinet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed ministers to be respectful of journalists, as they are “professionals who, by asking necessary questions, contribute in an important way to the democratic process.” Despite all the talk of a loss of faith in news media, data suggests that Canadians still trust journalists and journalism; however, if Canadians are not wise to the issues at hand, democracy is at risk of being lost in the shuffle.
“‘How could there be a problem? I’ve got more news than ever before’ – that’s what people are saying,” says Edward Greenspon, President and CEO of Public Policy Forum. He points to the paradox that “there is more access to more news than ever before,” but less ability to produce original news. Greenspon worked as a senior editor in Canada and internationally for Bloomberg before joining the Public Policy Forum. Before that, he was Vice-President of Strategic Investments at Torstar Corp., publisher of the Toronto Star. At The Globe and Mail, Greenspon was a business reporter and editor, Ottawa bureau chief, European correspondent, founding editor of globeandmail.com and Editor-in-Chief for more than 20 years.
“I’m not shocked that people don’t understand the economics of the business. We have two messages: we say loudly that we have more reach than ever before to attract advertisers and whisper ‘we’re in trouble.’ No wonder the public is confused; the message is confused,” says Greenspon.
“It’s shocking to me that in 10 years, there hasn’t been one iota of growth in traditional media’s digital revenues, and two platforms companies, Google and Facebook, have 82.4 per cent of digital advertising, and people that actually produce journalism have 11.5 per cent of advertising revenue. He said that may be fair given the success of the platform companies with consumers, but added “in the marketplace of ideas that’s a problem.”
Only nine per cent of Canadians pay anything for online news, according to the Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism. More and more, their stories are accessed not from their own website, but through Google News or via Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Facebook and Google users pay little attention to where their news content originates. Both are adamant that they are not publishers, they are distributors. A 2016 report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that news brands are “clearly noticed” by readers less than half the time on social media. Most of the content is generated by their users, not subject to the journalistic standards of verification and balance. In 2014, Donald Trump famously described having a Twitter account as “owning The New York Times, without the losses.”
Canadians feel they are inundated with news, yet only about half are aware of financial difficulties facing news organizations. Therefore, the notion that “news is in peril” is counterintuitive to the actual consumer experience and public consciousness. Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, wrote: “Democracy has many problems, but there are few things that could impact it better, more than Facebook starting to care – really care – about the truthfulness of the news that its users share and take in.”
Facebook has made it clear it is a platform not a publisher. In June 2016, Facebook announced it was changing its algorithm to promote news stories shared by friends and family over those promoted by professional news organizations. Seeing that its 1.8 billion monthly users worldwide were interested in news and wanted to be informed, as part of the company’s social media strategy two and a half years ago, it courted news organizations to post on Facebook.
Today, fewer than one in five households pay for newspapers. Canadians seek to be informed at the time of their choosing and with little or no cost to themselves. “There is an absence of link between essential news and refusal to pay journalists. People insist news must be free. Within the internet culture of free, most people will pay for something, but won’t pay for it if they can get it for free,” says Gregg. “The public makes no link between funding traditional news. [The] public believe as artists, dancers make art, so journalists will make news.”
It is important to remember that Canada has always pursued public policy to ensure that there is journalism by Canadians for Canadians. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is an instrument of public policy. So is the CRTC. As in Section 19 of the Income Tax Act, introduced in 1965 to assist Canadian-owned media in the competition for advertising revenue, The Ontario Media Development Corporation’s tax credit for digital media innovation, altered for fiscal reasons in 2015 is a policy. Several provinces have chosen to exempt newspaper subscriptions from their provincial sales tax.
Governments in other countries have responded more quickly with initiatives to level the tax and copyright playing fields. First in France and then in the European Union as a whole, digital innovation funds were established after negotiations with Google. Germany is considering legislation to hold Facebook to account for fake news that appears in social feeds and then goes uncorrected.
Still, there are concerns about editorial independence, as Canadians believe so strongly in journalism and its role in “keeping the powerful honest,” that many find the mention of government support to be at odds with the purpose of news media. Yet in 2009, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, various media, policy and civic leaders concluded that news is as vital to democracy as “clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.”
Is local news poverty now a thing in Canada? In total, six daily newspapers either closed, merged or reduced their publication schedules in 2016, bringing to 36 the number that have done so since 2009. Between 2012-2015, the 1,060 community papers in the country lost abut one-third of their revenue. Lindgren’s research shows this to be happening to communities across the country. She is studying how important news is to democracy in communities across Canada and the huge unavailability of local news. “There are lots of closures happening in community newspapers,” says Lindgren. “Where you live impacts local coverage and there is an unevenness in availability in civic and political information. Local news has a big impact for civic and political news in particular.” Small-city dailies and weekly newspapers, radio and in some cases, television serve an important civic function. They provide a mix of news, community information and local advertising, connecting residents with where they live and one another.
Those that do read, listen or watch the news often try to discuss what’s going on and discover that friends, family and colleagues will simply not engage because they do not trust the news, or claim the news is all negative, so it’s for the best to turn it off or not turn it on; or for some of my beloved yogi friends, news is not considered to be zen. To them, I say, an interesting finding is that there is a direct correlation between news consumption and civic involvement. In other words, the more people consume news, the more they behave in a civic and kindly way.
“Those who follow the news ‘very closely’ are 20 per cent more likely to volunteer; 33 per cent more likely to donate to charity; twice as likely to have been involved in a political campaign; and 3 1/2 times more likely to try to convince others of their point of view than those who do not follow the news ‘very closely,'” says Gregg.
The news industry in Canada must look at fresh business models, and the extent of government support, but it’s important to note from a public relations perspective, an awareness campaign of the situation in Canada is overdue. Canadian stories matter. Truth matters. Democracy matters. “Who has a bigger megaphone than the media? ” says Allan Gregg. It’s time Canadians, news organizations and ethical public relations practitioners work in solidarity to use it. And that’s democracy!