Hot! Mass media in crisis, so is journalism

hilltimes.com – heard-on-the-hill/hill-life-people/2012/08/06
6 August 2012.   Bea Vondouangchanh

The digital age has transformed the media and political communication landscape, but it’s not necessarily for the better, argues an important new volume How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics, published by Athabasca University Press.

“The media now play a shrinking role in informing Canadians about politics and public policy,” writes Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, co-editor of the recently released book. “Instead of using technology to bridge the communications gap between voters in their communities and the media, the media have used it to turn their backs on the public, forging closer links with the people reporters cover rather than with the people who used to read, watch, and listen to their reporting.”

The book features a “vigorous debate” on how political discourse has changed in today’s internet society, and the traditional media’s role in all of it.

Mr. Waddell, a former Globe and Mail national editor and a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief, writes in a chapter called “Berry’d Alive: The Media, Technology and the Death of Political Coverage” that there is a “gulf” between Canadians, on one side, and politicians and the media, on the other.

“The media have come to identify more closely with politicians than with the public,” Mr. Waddell writes.

How Canadians Communicate is co-edited by David Taras. It features 16 essays from various experts, including Earnscliffe Strategy Group’s Elly Alboim, also a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief and a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, whose chapter is called “On the Verge of Total Dysfunction: Government Media and Communications” and University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, who writes about the “permanent campaign.”

Mr. Waddell attributes the decline of political coverage to the changing media landscape which has seen Parliamentary bureaus closing down over the years and companies converging to dilute local news. On top of this, the internet has undermined quality reporting because of the fast-pace, 24-hour news cycle which has reporters filing to all media platforms more often but with less context.

“Asking someone to file for print, television and online all on the same day leaves little or no time for reporting and produces simplistic stories that may contain the minimum in terms of facts, but virtually nothing in the way of the background or context that is essential for understanding what any story means,” Mr. Waddell writes.

“Convergence was a management theory that dealt a blow to the coverage of Parliament, politics and public policy, but had a much broader negative impact across the Canadian media landscape.”

Mr. Waddell says that with fewer owners and less reporters, journalists are now all general assignment reporters rather than experts on a certain beat.

“They lost the ability to break stories since they were not talking to the range of people involved in an issue who can each provide a piece of a puzzle that contributes to a news story. With fewer contacts of their own, reporters are much more vulnerable to political parties, communications staff for ministers, and the legions of lobbyists and private-sector communications people each pushing their own employer’s point of view,” he says. “The result was a slow stripping away of the knowledge, history, experience and context required by political reporters to provide coverage of complex issues.”

As a result, journalists, especially in Ottawa, are relying more heavily on the “official” spokespeople to get their stories out easier and quicker, and in the process creating “an alternative reality” of news for insiders rather than the general public.

“The key determinant now is how the issue plays among the insiders in Ottawa and what they consider important,” Mr. Waddell writes. “Technology, specifically the Blackberry as the dominant means of instant information and reaction, has played a critical role here—not in broadening political communication among Canadians but in isolating the media from Canadians in an Ottawa-insider bubble in which the political parties and their focus on strategies and tactics is the dominant theme.”

In the end, Mr. Waddell writes, voters are outsiders and cannot relate to what is being reported and are therefore tuning out of the political dialogue.

“Decisions to cut back on reporting staff, close bureaus and replace reporters from local newspapers and TV stations with national news bureaus and national network reporters have broken the link between the public and the media that has been at the core of political communication,” he says.

In his conclusion, “Final Thoughts: How Will Canadians Communicate About Politics and the Media in 2015?” Mr. Waddell writes that all of these changes show a “fracturing of mass discussion about political issues and public policies into piecemeal debates among smaller groups concerned about their own issues, receiving political message tailored specifically for them and relying on the narrowly targeted media designed with their interest in mind. The outcome driven by the digital revolution may be a further decline in the breadth and extent of national debate and discussion that engages Canadians across all socioeconomic and geographic levels.”

Florian Sauvageau, a former newspaper editor, TV host, and university professor who was director of the Université Laval’s Centre d’étude sur les medias and who recently produced a documentary on the future of news, writes in the chapter, “The Uncertain Future of News” that he believes “it isn’t just the mass media that are in state of crisis. Journalism is too.”

The other contributors are: Richard Davis, Jonathan Rose, Tamara Small, Alvin Finkel, Robert Bergen, Roger Epp, Dominique Perron, Shannon Sampert, Troy Patenaude, and Richard Sutherland.

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