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How can we reform Canada's petro-friendly media?

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Newspaper pages. Image credit: AbsolutVision/Unsplash

In the race against climate change, Canada needs more critical journalism vis-a-vis the fossil-fuel giants blocking effective climate action, as the Corporate Mapping Project has shown. Why isn't there more of the kind of news we get in National Observer? And what can public policy do about it?

In our previous article, we focused on the political and economic interests of Canada's largest newspaper-owning corporation -- Postmedia. But the challenge for independent watchdog journalism is much greater than the petro-friendly chain.

The loss of newsroom jobs, resources and specialized "beats" pervades the traditional newspaper industry, as advertising and audiences migrate to internet giants like Facebook, Google and Netflix. The advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting estimates that 300 media outlets have closed in the past 10 years.

While the total number of journalists in Canada is a matter of statistical contention, academic research confirms that the proportion of journalists who are permanently employed by news organizations has dropped significantly. There simply aren't enough experienced reporters to cover complex issues like energy or climate politics. In examining powerful institutions like big oil, costly investigative journalism takes a backseat to reactive coverage.

But simply pleading poverty ignores the continued operating profitability of Canadian newspapers, as well as the broader societal power structures, histories and belief systems that inform news narratives.

The following snippets from journalists and researchers -- in writings, and conversations in recent years, sometimes off-record, often provocative -- suggest how complex that environment can be:

  • Neoliberalism and petro-extractivism permeate some newsrooms as background ideologies that naturalize the existing economy. But long before neoliberalism re-emerged from the 19th century, Canada had a long history of colonial resource development and the dispossession of Indigenous people, paralleled by racist and development-oriented media that equate prosperity with export-oriented resource extraction.
  • Compared to the crusading climate journalism of The Guardian, writes former Vancouver Sun and CBC journalist and Ecotrust founder Ian Gill, Canadian mainstream journalism has been so pale that "nobody comes anywhere near as close to calling our energy sector (and our investment community) to account." More broadly, Gill adds, "Canada's historically heavy economic dependence on our natural resources has been mirrored by an over-reliance on an unnaturally small pool of large media players… As go the tar sands, so goes Postmedia."
  • Canadian reporters have been less likely than their American counterparts to give space to climate science denialism, argues Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman, but they still don't speak "contested truths," like Canada's outsized contribution to climate change via fossil-fuel extraction and export.
  • The social ecology of the "petropolis" of Calgary, where much of Canada's reporting on fossil-fuel industries originates, has implications for journalism. There is strong pressure in daily life against opposition to big oil -- though we shouldn't exaggerate Alberta's uniformity, which is artificially inflated by the electoral and media systems.
  • The internet, with its infinite distractions, means a lack of sustained public focus on crises that unfold slowly over time, like climate change. Can public interest journalism be effective when political parties evade public pressure by playing to a diehard base, and by party discipline? (Rafe Mair, B.C.'s renowned late broadcaster, argued that premiers and prime ministers are "virtually absolute dictators.") Canadian news media may not match America's blue-red divide, but journalists arguably feel increasing pressure to show which side they are on. And in corporate media, one side has much more clout than the other.
  • In a scathing emailed statement, respected energy writer Andrew Nikiforuk described Canada as "a lucky mining republic with a low literacy rate run by second-rate politicians," and with a cultural aversion to serious science journalism that challenges the status quo or "suggests there are limits to our endless extraction of resources."

While some of these ideas are rather speculative, perhaps even overwrought, together they imply that Canada's news media, like its economy, are historically and culturally linked to extractivism -- an economic model of removing ever more raw materials from the Earth for export to dominant colonial powers where "value" is added, as defined by author Naomi Klein.

Weaning Canada from that model towards a more just and climate-friendly economy entails profound cultural, economic and political shifts, well beyond journalism. But in a climate emergency, time is short. Policies that combine climate action with other objectives provide one shortcut. Democratic media reform that curtails corporate domination could open public space for independent and climate-friendly journalism. This lesson isn't lost on Australia's Green Party Leader Adam Bandt. In a fossil-fuel-exporting country whose press is dominated by right-wing mogul Rupert Murdoch, Bandt said in a 2019 interview that media reform is a key to effective climate action.

Interestingly, with the stated goals of fostering "a sustainable, pluralistic media ecosystem" and Canadians' access to "reliable information from diverse, trustworthy sources," the Trudeau government introduced several tax relief and subsidy programs for news media in 2018 and 2019:

  • A fund of direct support to Canadian paid print magazines, print non-daily newspapers, and digital periodicals
  • A $50-million, five-year Local Journalism Initiative to support hiring journalists to provide original reporting for underserved communities
  • Tax credits to support journalism worth an estimated $595 million over five years, to incentivize donations to eligible news organizations, subscriptions to Canadian digital media and the hiring of journalists to serve specific needs

While commendable in its intent, these programs drew criticisms around the criteria of eligibility, and the makeup of agencies that allocate funds. The existing initiatives, it has been argued, unfairly privilege "legacy" print newspapers over digital media, and (similarly) established news organizations over startups. Of the 105 positions funded by the Local Journalism Initiative in its first round, 93 went to newspapers, including 12 to Postmedia, which at the same time has been making deep cuts in newsrooms (announcing layoffs of 80 employees and closing 15 community newspapers in April 2020), rewarding executives, and paying interest (not dividends) to the U.S. hedge funds that control it.

There should be stronger guarantees that public funds to support journalism are not funnelled through to executives and shareholders; and that newly financed journalism positions aren't nullified by layoffs. Such funds should be confined to outlets that have unionized newsrooms, or that offer equivalent salaries and benefits.

Marc Edge argues that the program should be confined to companies that are owned by Canadians, not foreign investors. Appropriate enforcement of existing competition legislation, and advertising-related tax provisions that disincentivize foreign ownership of print media oriented to Canadian readers, would have precluded a foreign-owned monopoly like Postmedia from acquiring such dominance in the first place.

Ending the tax deductibility of advertising purchased on online platforms that act as broadcast and newspaper services -- like Facebook and Google -- could provide up to $1.3 billion, according to a study for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. That's preferable to forcing the tech giants to pay news corporations directly for linking articles, which federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has reportedly proposed. In Australia, that approach has led to 90 per cent of the funds going to large media companies, according to Emma Gilchrist, chair of the independent media's association Press Forward.

New investments in public service media could both rebalance the public agenda and harness the talents of professional journalists, as distinct from hired ranters. CBC's independence could be enhanced through long-term funding independent of annual parliamentary grants, and its mandate reformed to encourage collaboration with local non-profit documentary and news producers.

Some newspaper-owning corporations in North America, particularly hedge funds, are hollowing out their journalistic core, selling off assets and potentially the papers themselves. Anticipating that possibility, Canadian governments could facilitate non-profit organizations acquiring such papers, and grant them charitable status for tax-deductible donations. A regulatory framework could provide for local ownership, a written mandate to serve local communities, and a genuinely journalistic mission -- including specialized journalism in areas not well covered by conventional corporate media. That would shift the business model from primarily advertising to a more reader-supported subscription, donation or membership basis that independent media like the Tyee and National Observer have already adopted.

More broadly, transpose the "just transition" concept from the energy sector to news media. Journalists and their organizations ought to be involved in planning (and administering) a policy and funding framework to facilitate a digital mediascape with adequate space for sustainable local and investigative journalism.

Ideas abound. The underlying philosophy is not to attack a particular company or the right of various political viewpoints to public expression. To the contrary, it's to acknowledge that independent, accurate and diverse journalism is a public good -- increasingly difficult to finance through market mechanisms, but essential in a democracy. And in the multi-dimensional struggle for climate action.

This is the second part of a two-part series on the relationship between Canada's energy industry and corporate media. Read the first part here. An extended version of the first article is scheduled for the May issue of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Monitor magazine.

This article was first published in the National Observer and is reprinted here with permission.

Robert Hackett, contributing columnist, is professor emeritus, and Hanna Araza a graduate, of the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Research for this article was supported by the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement project investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (B.C. and Saskatchewan offices) and Parkland Institute. This research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Image credit: AbsolutVision/Unsplash

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