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Society is undergoing profound change brought about by advances in communications technology. The transformative effects of digital media are being felt throughout journalism, an important democratic institution that citizens depend on to monitor government and the behaviour of political elites.
In Canada, politicians and governments have gradually embraced this technological change. However, that does not mean that they are prepared to relinquish control of their message or their image.
In Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, Alex Marland lays out a compelling argument that message coordination is empowering those at the top of the decision-making tree. While the ability to advance an agenda must grapple with new realities, in the public sector we are seeing an increasing alignment of the brands of the prime minister, the governing party and the government itself.
In the following excerpt from Chapter 3 The Tumultuous Digital Media Environment, we get a sense of the context of the changing forces swirling in political journalism and the news media landscape generally. While there is much good arising from digital media, Brand Command illustrates ways that political elites are adapting as they seek out opportunities to control the message.
A hybrid news system of traditional and digital media is becoming the norm. Power struggles are taking shape as media gatekeepers’ role at the centre of news production adapts to new realities. In the public sphere, political communication is changing from centripetal (drawn toward the centre) to centrifugal (drawn away from the centre) as the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery and others relinquish their monopoly over mass media technology. At the turn of the century, British scholars Jay Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh theorized that the retrenchment of centripetal media results in audiences who are more selectively exposed to information. There is an increased role for identity politics and political agendas and widening cultural gaps in society. Centrifugal forces are putting journalistic power in citizens’ hands. However, though political elites have responded through greater grassroots interactivity (i.e., centrifugal activities), they have not relinquished centralization (i.e., centripetal behaviours), which appears in fact to have solidified. The democratization of government in the digital media age has not taken shape as anticipated. The responsibility of monitoring government is trickling down from the fourth estate to the masses, causing public sector elites to shift tactics to maintain control.
Even as mainstream media become democratized, such as by journalists interacting with audiences, this is occurring as electronic media and economic forces impose changes. News gathering is consolidating through wire services, syndicated columnists, and the sharing of cameras on trips. Media conglomeration results in news reproduction across outlets and platforms. Social media are intensifying pack journalism and groupthink, which see reporters from different news organizations converge on the same story as they race to break the news. They assemble archived information online that heretofore has been unnoticed, and sometimes uncovered by non-elites, which is homogenized into shared knowledge. Internet media specialist Andrew Chadwick refers to this as “assemblage in an information cycle,” whereby loosely connected people cluster online, wading in and out of fluid conversations to offer details and perspectives in real time. Issue publics convene through comment opportunities on news media websites and via social media such as the Twitter hashtag #cdnpoli. The finding that as a topical issue attracts more attention its treatment becomes similar across media outlets is likely escalating as a greater number of people share information electronically.
Canadian journalists express exasperation with digital media shock. In an interview, Susan Delacourt recalled spending days sitting in the Globe and Mail library in the early 1980s going over Department of Employment and Immigration files obtained through access to information legislation. When the deputy minister found out what Delacourt was doing, he invited her into the department to personally observe how things worked. She relayed that this was not unusual at the time. That approach is nearly impossible today because of the combination of journalists’ need to meet multiple daily deadlines and the guarded nature of the public sector. “You’d never be given that much access, you’d never be given that much time,” Delacourt reflected. “Today the deadlines are something happens, file while it’s happening, file right after it happens, and then file again. So three or four deadlines a day, which is ridiculous … You’re constantly looking for a shiny object to throw up onto the Internet” (CI 18). She is one of the many experienced journalists who do not have the time and space to engage in academic-like research. Instead, they work in hurried circumstances with an overwhelming number of people and topics competing for their attention.
The news industry’s market-oriented approach to giving consumers what they want is resulting in a race to be first and popular, at the cost of upholding a fourth estate principle of investigating matters in the public interest. The number of page views and comments received by online news stories are metrics that guide assignment editors about which stories to pursue. Social media comments and retweets act as a barometer of audience engagement and interest. Some Canadian news organizations employ sophisticated data analytics to assess repeat visits, how long people linger on stories, how much scrolling they do on a page, which devices are used to view sites, and whether referrals originated from social media. This comes at the cost of offering context and understanding. The strange and superficial compete with the serious and important. Funny pet tricks, pranks, cute babies, Super Bowl commercials, music videos, mundane posts by friends and family — these are just some of the many sources of online content with which news producers and public sector PR personnel are contending.
The media’s response to market forces means that breaking news and visual storytelling dominate. In the early 2000s, the BlackBerry changed the way that media and political elites interact by enabling portable email communication. Currently, smartphones such as the iPhone allow journalists to break news with photos and video rather than just audio or text. Jennifer Ditchburn, a Canadian Press reporter, relayed that, when the War Memorial and Parliament Hill shootings occurred in October 2014, she instinctively ran out the door, yet still had the tools to generate video content that circulated worldwide: “I didn’t grab a video camera, it was happening so fast. I ran all the way down there. My iPhone was all I needed. I took pretty clear video, very close up, of the paramedics trying to revive [shooting victim] Nathan Cirillo. And then I just cut it down a little bit and emailed it so our video people had it almost instantaneously” (CI 19). Meanwhile, Ottawa’s fetish with message control was evident in real time as public officials sought approval for the public release of information about the crisis.
There are many advantages and disadvantages associated with the media’s messy journey of becoming decentralized and democratized. Journalists can locate and share much information about the public sector from an affordable device that fits in the palm. Informal conversations between media and political elites are publicly visible on social media. News spreads across the country and around the world, and non-elites can uncover and circulate it themselves. The distance between media elites and audiences is shrinking, and the quality of journalism is improved by access to different perspectives and accountability. The volume of information is expanding even as the number of beat reporters is declining. But the urgency to get information out the door means that multitasking journalists miss details. They tell of entering a half-conscious state in which they are so focused on one of their multiple duties that they become oblivious to what is happening around them. For instance, getting the right camera angle at a news conference, as opposed to taking notes, and then catching up by checking Twitter to see what their peers are presenting about the event just documented. This digital media environment makes branding strategy an appealing mechanism for controlling communications.
Excerpted with permission from Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, 2015, UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.
Alex Marland is a leading expert of the study of political marketing in Canada. He is a co-editor of the UBC Press series Communication, Strategy and Politics, within which he was the lead editor of Political Marketing in Canada (2012), Political Communication in Canada (2014) and Permanent Campaigning in Canada (forthcoming). Alex also led the creation of Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy and Democracy, an innovative open access e-publication available shortly after the 2015 federal election. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science and an Associate Dean at Memorial University of Newfoundland.