Canadian Journalism in Crisis

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Journalism in Canada is increasingly seen as under threat and in crisis. Economic factors, such as the erosion of the traditional advertising model, have led to the widespread shuttering of local media outlets across the country – particularly newspapers. Even large media conglomerates like Postmedia and Torstar are looking to government for assistance as traditional revenue models fail. Further exacerbating this crisis of journalism have been government attempts to constrain the freedom of journalists to report, often through the auspices of restrictive national security legislation such as Bill C-51. Recent high-profile incidents such as the surveillance of journalists by Quebec police, the arrest of journalist Justin Brake, and court orders to reveal confidential sources demonstrate how all levels of government in Canada have created a legal environment that limits press freedom and journalistic independence. Both factors have combined to limit both the quantity and quality of media coverage of issues of importance to Canadians.

Background

Journalism and Democracy

Canadian journalism is increasingly seen as being in crisis, with both the quantity and quality over journalism under threat due to both financial challenges to traditional news media and government attempts to restrict the freedom of journalists to report and protect sources. The decline in both the quantity of news coverage and quality of reportage has serious consequences for our democracy. The ability of citizens to participate effectively in a democracy requires them to be well-informed on the issues of the day. Providing credible, accurate information to the public is an essential function of journalism in a democracy. When local, regional or national issues are under-reported or neglected entirely, citizens are ill-equipped to fully participate in democratic decision-making.

Moreover, journalists often assume the important role of watchdog in a democracy, holding “public authorities and private corporations to account and conducting independent investigations to uncover corruption, miscarriages of justice, public waste, corporate greed and other examples of wrongdoing.” Diminishing the ability of journalists to provide this democratic service reduces our ability to act as effective citizens and hold powerful actors to account. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of Canadians recognize this, as recent polling demonstrates that Canadians believe that journalism is “critically important” to our democracy. Despite this, financial pressures on traditional news media result in less coverage, fewer journalists and less resources devoted to original reporting. These pressures only exacerbate the pernicious effects of Canada’s already highly concentrated state of media ownership which critics have long argued is responsible for diminished media diversity and journalistic autonomy. Government legal constraints on the independence and autonomy of journalists to cultivate sources and gather information only further denudes the quality of journalism and the ability of journalists to pursue stories that may offend powerful actors. Both factors are responsible for what is widely seen as an erosion in the ability of Canadian journalists to act as the “fourth estate” that provides the public with the critical information necessary to allow for a robust and participatory democracy.

Economic Constraints

Traditional news media in Canada (Radio, television, newspapers) face tremendous financial challenges as public attention and advertising dollars gravitate towards major online digital platforms like Facebook and Google. Newspapers in particular have been hit hard by the loss of advertising revenue and decline in circulation. According to the Local News Research Project, Canada has experienced over 200 local and community newspaper closures over the past decade. Even larger established national and regional newspapers have been forced to restructure and consolidate, often making deep cuts to newsroom staff. Indeed, the result of this wave of closures and rationalizations has been the steady decline of journalist positions in Canada. This decline has had a direct effect on news coverage, particularly at the local and regional level where cuts have been most dramatic. Public Policy Forum – an Ottawa-based think tank – found that the number of newspaper articles devoted to civic institutions like city halls, courts and legislatures has shrunk by more than a third (36%) over the past decade. Studies show that when local news coverage declines or disappears, citizens’ civic engagement, political knowledge and trust in government institutions also declines.

Moreover, the loss of traditional media outlets often means the loss of original reporting. Despite the wealth of information available online, a PEW Research Center study found that 95% of original news stories still come from traditional news outlets that have the resources and staff to conduct original newsgathering. Online news sources are often reliant on traditional news media for original news and reportage that they merely re-package as their own content. Many commentators therefore fear that the essential journalistic function of the traditional news media is not being replicated by online media, impoverishing our democracy as traditional news media gives way to digital media. Increasingly, there are calls for government to intervene to ensure that traditional news media can continue to provide quality journalism to the public. While a controversial tax on internet providers that would be used to fund Canada’s beleaguered traditional media was quickly shot down by the Trudeau government, the 2018 federal budget did set aside a very modest $10 million to assist local journalism in underserved areas. However, industry insiders have criticized the government’s efforts as inadequate to rescue traditional media from its ongoing financial challenges. News Media Canada – a group representing print and digital media publishers – estimates the federal government needs to provide $350 million to properly fund and support journalism in Canada. More recently, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the 2019 federal budget will provide new tax credits and incentives for media industries valued at $600 million over the next five years.

Government Constraints

Further exacerbating the quality of journalism in Canada has been government efforts to limit the independence and autonomy of journalists in how they report. Journalist and civil rights advocacy groups were largely unanimous in their condemnation of the Harper government’s Bill C-51, which critics warned would give all levels of law enforcement unprecedented powers to surveil journalists and censor content deemed harmful to national security. Indeed, Bill C-51 was in large part responsible for the ten point decline in Canada’s press freedom ranking by Reporters without Borders in 2016.

Several recent high-profile incidents underline the need for increased legal protections for Canadian journalists and their sources.

Award-winning journalist Justin Brake faces criminal charges for violating an injunction after he covered a 2016 occupation by Innu and Inuit land protectors of a construction site for Muskrat Falls, a controversial $12 billion hydroelectric project in newfoundland and Labrador. The Ottawa-based Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom observes that Mr. Brake is “the only journalist ever to face both civil and criminal charges in Canada for reporting on a public interest issue.” 

Ben Makuch, a reporter with Vice Media, was ordered by two lower courts to turn over texts and records he’d collected from Farah Shirdon, a Calgary man who had been recruited as an ISIS fighter to the RCMP. Journalists fear the government’s actions will have a chilling effect on the willingness of confidential sources to speak with reporters if they fear exposure to authorities. In May of 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada reserved its decision in the case. On November 30, 2018 a unanimous Supreme Court that Vice had to give police screenshots of the conversations. They said the production order from the police was "properly issued" and should be upheld. "The suggestion that the production order would interfere with Vice Media's newsgathering and publication functions shrivels in a context where the source was not a confidential one and wanted everything he said to be made public."

In October of 2016, it was revealed that police in Quebec had conducted widespread surveillance of at least eight journalists, including obtaining warrants to monitor the cell phone of La Presse reporter Patrick Lagace and seize a laptop computer from Michael Nguyen, a reporter for Le Journal de Montréal. Even more disturbing was the fact that much of this surveillance was not in service of a criminal investigation, but rather to identify confidential sources who were believed to be leaking embarrassing information about the police to provincial reporters.

Emploi ou fonction

The general crisis of the media is receiving more attention from the federal government. Most recently, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced a package of tax credits and incentives valued at $600 million over the next five years to be included in the 2019 budget. However, critics caution that while federal financial aid is most welcome, it needs to focus on ensuring viable and independent journalism – particularly for underserved communities - rather than merely propping up ailing media companies. For instance, at this time, it is unclear if the government’s media rescue package will extend to Indigenous media producers and the communities they serve in keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action that recognizes the historic neglect and misrepresentation of Indigenous issues by mainstream media. Similarly, while the federal government has made efforts to reform the current legal environment to better protect journalistic independence, critics argue the reforms do not go far enough and may introduce new obstacles to true journalistic independence.

Portée et conséquences

  • Freedom of Expression: These attacks on journalists’ freedom to report have not gone unnoticed. In response to the spying scandal in Quebec, the provincial government has promised to implement the recommendations of the Chamberland Commission – the official inquiry into the scandal – including greater protections for journalists and their confidential sources. At the federal level, the Trudeau government passed Bill S-231, also known as the Journalistic Sources Protection Act, which offers enhanced protection to journalists and their sources and requires law enforcement to provide a higher standard of proof to the courts that a journalist’s source should be revealed. The federal government has also moved to reform Bill C-51 with their own revised national security legislation, Bill C-59. Journalist advocacy groups note that while Bill C-59 does address some of the constraints on journalistic freedom contained in Bill C-51, it also introduces new powers to security agencies that could have a profound effect on the integrity of journalism in the country. In particular, Bill C-59 grants security agencies the power to impersonate journalists and publish falsified information during the course of an investigation. Such powers would appear to only further undermine Canadians trust in the credibility of the information they receive.
     
  • Democracy: While the federal government’s reforms have led Reporters without Borders to move Canada up 4 places in its most recent press freedom index, it notes with concern that Bill C-59 will “chill the free flow of information online,” while the enduring financial challenges of Canada’s news media and the mass closures of newspapers could have the effect of “compromising media pluralism in the country.” This precarious state of Canadian journalism is all the more concerning insofar as it occurs at a time of increasing confusion among the electorate over the reliability and accuracy of much of the information it receives. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger frames these developments as a “potential crisis” in the making for liberal democracy as opportunistic politicians and political parties attempt to take advantage of this confusion to push reactionary and illiberal policies with the aid of distorted and often inaccurate information. Such a state of affairs only underscores how vital a robust and rigorous journalism is to the maintenance of the democratic project.

 

Published: 21 December 2018
Photo credits: CWA Canada 

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