Canada's media under the lens

About Canada: Media
About Canada: Media explores all things CanCon

This weekend rabble.ca and other independent media in Vancouver will gather to celebrate Media Democracy Day. At the event, citizens, artists, activists, scholars, policy-makers, journalists, and community leaders will participate in a dialogue about the state of Canadian media.

At Media Democracy Day, author and film scholar, Dr. Peter Steven, will be featured on a plenary with rabble.ca founder, Judy Rebick and communication scholar, Dr. Sut Jhally.

In Steven's new book, About Canada: Media, he examines developments in film, television, the internet and newspapers and finds that the quality of our news and entertainment media is steadily declining, as well as becoming increasingly restricted and less diverse. The following is an excerpt from the book.

The state plays a big role in regulating the mediascape and directly subsidizes the CBC and TV and film production. Nevertheless, dominant roles are shared by private broadcasters and production companies, who operate for profit and answer to shareholders. In this climate, CBC TV competes for advertising and must compare its ratings and viewer numbers with those of CTV and Global. In addition, it must also bid for U.S. programs.

The corporate media model, which requires the highest rate of profit, affects both news and entertainment programs in several ways. Sometimes owners decide that creating a better product will attract advertisers or subscribers, and they spend more to make it happen. Usually, however, this represents a long-term strategy and owners or their shareholders don't wish to wait, preferring to see their profits this year. The only other way to improve profits is to cut costs. For newspapers and broadcasters there are several ways to do this:

• cut editorial and journalist salaries;

• emphasize short-term stories, within specific popular genres;

• bow to pressure from advertisers or influential persons to cover or avoid certain stories;

• produce material that appeals to the broadest or most lucrative "demographic";

• produce lifestyle segments and programs that serve the interests of advertisers;

• avoid structural problems in the economy, replaced by micro-economics, management, marketing and business success;

• emphasize the ups and downs of the stock markets accompanied by almost complete avoidance of labour issues; and

• produce TV and films that work well for export, to the U.S. and elsewhere, thus favour U.S. styles, subjects and genres (CSI, The Border, etc.)

Corporate trends have driven all but the biggest out of the market, so that CTV, Global and Irving play dominant roles, and corporate laws allow companies to sue critics due to supposed harm to trademarks or hindrance of trade. In British Columbia, CanWest newspapers sued several artists in 2009, who created and distributed a satiric front page of the Vancouver Sun. The critique focused on the stridently pro-Israel slant of CanWest papers.

CanWest argued that the satire damaged their brand or trademark. Ignoring the issues of free speech, they instead framed the challenge in economic terms.

Within the newspaper world, the role of competition is much clearer due to fewer direct subsidies and little regulation of content (TV news must show balance, whereas newspapers are free to editorialize or take political sides). Newspapers often enter into price wars and show a long-term trend of cutting serious journalism. Most recently, Canadian newspapers have started "outsourcing" many of their tasks, including accounting, printing, advertising and even copy-editing. For example, in 2008, the CanWest newspaper chain outsourced its advertising work to a company based in India and The Philippines.

As has been the ironic trend for many years in Canada and elsewhere, unchecked competition eventually leads to oligopoly or monopoly. While theoretically, new entrepreneurs are free to jump in, the cost of entry prevents all but the very biggest and richest from joining the fray.

Underneath these general trends toward cost-cutting, maintaining profits and the long slide in quality, a broad corporate agenda shapes our entire media system. Consider the case of the 1992 Westray mining disaster, in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, in which 26 miners were killed. A thorough media study afterwards found that from a sample of 365 articles on Westray, written over two months, only one dealt with safety from a worker's perspective. More generally, all of the coverage failed to consider Westray to be a corporate crime. It was mostly portrayed as a techno-disaster, with some bad apple managers complicating the tragedy.

In the reporting on environmental issues, especially those that directly affect Canadian business, a corporate agenda lurks behind most of the coverage. Robert Babe of the University of Western Ontario studied the Globe and Mail coverage of the Kyoto accords, in which Canada agreed to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases. Babe found that the paper treated the issue as a business and economics story, or a story of Ottawa politics. Babe looked at hundreds of headlines, columns, news items, editorials, etc. and found that the great bulk of the Globe's Kyoto coverage was negative. He also found many inaccuracies and a tendency to treat industry statements as fact.

James Winter at the University of Windsor has researched many similar examples of corporate points of view shaping media coverage. These beliefs about the economic system are so pervasive that they now seem natural. Winter summarizes some of the "lies the media tell us":

• "That which governs least, governs best. The unfettered free market system is the fairest and best guiding principle."

• "Public ownership such as crown corporations [such as the post office] are wasteful and inefficient, serving no real useful purpose."

• "Democracy and capitalism are synonymous and interchangeable. You can't have one without the other."

This excerpt is from About Canada: Media reprinted with permission of Fernwood Publishing.

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