Many battles left to fight: The state of media in Canada

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Why Canadian media needs more voices

Alternative Media in Canada
Kirsten Kozolanka, Patricia Mazepa and David Skinner, eds. (UBC Press, 2013; $29.95)

The need for diversity of opinion in Canadian media is dire -- many groups don’t see their concerns and successes reflected in the myriad of television shows, newscasts and print journalism being published daily. Two books are a call to action for more voices in our media.

The marginalized left out of the mainstream media

The Media Gaze explores the misrepresentation of minority groups in mainstream media, while Alternative Media in Canada looks at the role that alternative media plays to make it possible that those minority voices are heard. Both books aim to convey the importance of sustainable alternative media sources to a fair and equitable media landscape.

In The Media Gaze, Augie Fleras argues that marginalized groups, including women, visible minorities, and gays and lesbians are excluded, or included negatively, in mainstream media coverage. The book presents contemporary examples of coverage in which readers can see to what degree depictions of individuals in these marginalized groups have changed, or not, over time.

Fleras starts off by building a case that mainstream media coverage, for the most part, is subject to the gaze of white, middle-class males. The result is that the mainstream media is systemically infused with gendered, classist, hetero-centric, Eurocentric representations of marginalized groups and individuals. He writes that the negative stereotyping and invisibility of certain groups in Canadian media isn’t the result of evil-hearted reporters and editors, but instead it is the nature of news coverage, with its focus on conflict as well as the profit-orientated paradigm of news production that leaves some groups on the outside looking in.

Fleras shows how Canadian mainstream broadcast and print news and entertainment have put various groups on the outside. Two examples that Fleras focuses on, which make up the most compelling section of the book, include his analysis of CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dove soap’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Both the show and the ad campaign, it could be argued, are attempts at inclusiveness, yet Fleras opens them up to criticism because of the ways in which they categorize visible minorities and women.

The critiques of contemporary mainstream media coverage are the strongest part of the Fleras’ book. Along with the two examples noted above, Fleras talks about how shows like Trailer Park Boys portray lower-income life through a middle-class lens, which results in a demeaning depiction of those lower down on the socio-economic ladder. Fleras also provides a wide array of examples in the news, including contemporary examples of news coverage of asylum seekers, to strengthen his case that the mainstream often engages in excluding sections of society they deem outside of the norm.

His work in the field is expansive as he draws on contemporary examples and past scholarship on minority representation to reveal that even news stories, television shows, and ads that appear to be setting a high bar in terms of inclusiveness and the celebration of diversity, are, in fact, simply maintaining a power dynamic in which those with the means are able to keep control of mass communication messages.

The last part of the book looks at the efforts being made to provide counter-narratives to those being presented in the mainstream press. From the fight for net neutrality to the positive coverage of ethnic news outlets, there are numerous efforts being made in Canada to provide various groups with an outlet so they can tell their stories and discuss and hopefully resolve issue of concern. The Media Gaze ends where Alternative Media in Canada begins, by charting the people and publications that have, and continue to, challenge mainstream media.

A guide to Canadian alternative media

In Alternative Media in Canada, editors Kirsten Kozolanka, Patricia Mazepa and David Skinner put together an exploration of the history and possible future of alternative media in Canada. The book can either be a guide for those wishing to start their own alternative media outlet, or at least give you a history that has not been explored much in the past.

The chapters are broken into three sections; structure, participation and activism. In each of the sections, various writers explore who produces alternative media and what pushes them to start a venture that very often ends in failure. Within these sections, the authors discuss past and present alternative media endeavors, including a section on feminist periodicals, community radio in Quebec, ethnic media in Canada, and the fight for net neutrality -- among other issues at the centre of the debate over creating an atmosphere in Canada in which alternative media outlets can thrive.

One interesting focus deals with the negotiation between generating revenue and holding on to editorial autonomy. The two don’t always have to be in conflict, as is exemplified by donation and subscription models, yet the book presents a recurring narrative in which alternative media has to turn to advertising and benefactors to guarantee survival.

The thought-provoking issue at the centre of the book’s advocacy for alternative media is that these outlets face changes and barriers on a number of fronts, including the search for sustainable staffing and funding resources, as well as the changing technological landscape, which has helped to empower more people to put out media, but at the same time is subject to the consumerism that the book may stifle the Internet’s potential to enhance democracy.

The book suggests that creating a more democratic media system in Canada must include changes to the way alternative media is structured, the ways in which people participate in creating content for alternative media outlets, and also the activism that drives people to produce alternative media.

Alternative Media in Canada represents an attempt to move beyond the celebration of alternative media to a questioning of the inner workings of alternative outlets in Canada. For example, one section of the book discusses the unrealistic demands being put on those who work for alternative media outlets for free. The author asks how long alternative outlets can depend on high-quality work being produced for no remuneration.

While efforts to produce content that pushes back against mainstream media coverage is noted and praised, the book asks some tough questions about how these alternative voices can be heard through the myriad of media options and while operating within a system which often demands profit generation.

Both The Media Gaze and Alternative Media in Canada are bolstered by interviews with and writings of media producers, from both the mainstream and alternative media world. Those interviewed include various named and unnamed mainstream journalists, the editors of Kinesis, Broadside, and Pandora, three feminist Canadian periodicals that started and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, and Paul Jay, founder of The Real News Network, among others. These are personalities that readers may not have been exposed to if not for the both The Media Gaze and Alternative Media in Canada.  

Fleras’ work would have benefitted from a more critical approach to the news organizations producing media for and about marginalized groups. For instance, an exploration of the business motives of ethnic media organizations may bring about a more well-rounded discussion about what separates, or binds, ethnic and mainstream media.

After reading both works, the reader is left doubting whether there is a way for diversity to thrive in Canadian media. At the very least, both books accomplish a number of tasks; they urge media consumers to think critically about the way minorities are portrayed by the mainstream media; they offer a narrative of resistance by alternative media in Canada; and they show why more voices are needed and the barriers that stand in the way of them being heard.

For anyone interested in mass communications, alternative media and media policy in Canada, both of these books serve as a survey course, of sorts, conveying both the important roles that media messages play in individuals’ lives and the value of having a range of producers to generate those messages.—Paul Fontaine

Paul Fontaine is a Montreal-based writer.

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