Last weekend, from April 19 – 21, 2012, the Journalism Strategies conference was held at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal. The conference brought together attendees from Canada, Australia, France, the U.K., and Australia, to discuss some of the most pressing questions facing contemporary journalism: how should we define journalism in the age of citizen media? What potential new organizational and financial models should media companies investigate? What types of regulatory policies will foster a media that supports a thriving democracy?
The conference could not have come sooner: Canadian media is in a bad way. Over the last twenty years the number of independent Canadian media organizations has drastically shrunk: in 1990, 17.3 per cent of daily newspapers were independently owned, but by 2005, only 1 per cent were. A few large companies such as CTVglobemedia, Rogers, and the CBC control most of the flow of information to the general public.
But what do these companies publish? Salacious tidbits of apolitical “news” information stripped of any critical content, allthewhile ignoring the true activities and motives of the powerful. Why? Because in order to keep increasing profits in a fixed market, the mainstream media inevitably has had to make cuts. The advent of the internet has accelerated the cost-cutting. Investigative journalists have been the first to go: their work is relatively expensive and provides little revenue. Unsurprisingly, as the great journalist A.J. Liebling noted in 1961: “with the decline in the ‘number and variety’ of voices there is a decline in the number and variety of reporting eyes, which is at least a malign”.
In his book Flat Earth News, the journalist Nick Davies found that in Britain, in 2006, only 12 per cent of newspaper articles in the highbrow papers were the result of real investigative journalism; 80 per cent were rewritten wire copy or press releases. The consequence is that global “flat earth news” stories, like the Millenium Bug and Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction stories, are allowed to perpetuate, because there are so few journalists checking the facts; the world was flat until somebody checked. This isn’t journalism, it is churnalism: content churned out to keep up with the need to make money. Worryingly, Davies also found that more people now work in PR than in journalism. That is, more people are paid to disguise the truth than to reveal it. In service of profit the media has stopped fact-checking its own reports.
The problem with this is that many of the worlds news stories are the result of complex sets of historical forces, as most clearly described by Suzanne Pingree and Robert Hawkins:
“The myriad forms of oppression of women did not suddenly begin by Presidential decree last Thursday; they have been around for hundreds of years and have been adapted gradually as changing social and technological circumstances required.”
Replace “women” with “people” and the point still stands. Currently, 80 percent of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day; one billion people are illiterate; and 80 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with a growing income differentials. Contextualising these statistics will prompt readers to ask hard questions about the way the world is governed. That is not to say that there is a correct answer to the questions, but that news, decontextualized, ignores the political realities of the day. It is impossible for most people to address society’s ills on the basis of most modern media coverage. Bernard Roshko concluded as much his 1975 book Newsmaking: news raises awareness but does not promote understanding. Even on those rare occasions when the facts are clear and correct, the mainstream media does not provide the context to further debate.
More sinisterly, the media often do appear to actively serve the interests of those they are supposed to critique. Chris Hedges, foreign correspondent for the New York Times for over twenty years, has argued that “a too comfortable relationship exists on the part of major news organizations...with the elite.” Instead of doing their own research, Hedges laments, the mainstream media rely politicians and CEOs for their news.
As British journalist George Monbiot has asked: Did all 247 of Rupert Murdoch’s editors really just happen to support the second Gulf War? Well, according to a 2008 testimony given before the British House of Lords, absolutely not. Andrew Neil, the editor of Murdoch’s The Sunday Times for 11 years, testified that Murdoch “never left [Neil] in any doubt about what he wanted...You knew, as an editor, that you did not have a freehold, you had a leasehold [which] depended on accommodating his views”.
That the journalism strategies conference billed itself as “part of the on-going efforts to reimagine journalism in Canada” was important enough then, and the organisers were extremely conscious of the fact that a healthy democracy depends on a healthy media. But what were the outcomes?
First and foremost, the conference was a success. Media theorists and practitioners from all over the world were able to debate ideas and models, and the organisers ought to be commended for their tireless efforts. No formal policy recommendations were made - there wasn’t time - but the attendees did agree on releasing a joint statement. From my perspective, the best outcome of the conference was seeing the variety of different media models that work, and the different ways they integrate with communities. AllNovaScotia.com has had a decade of online success by doing everything wrong. They are a digital-only organisation, but hide behind a paywall and pay their journalists - shock! Groundwire are a wonderful community radio organisation based in campus-community radio stations across Canada. OpenFile.ca are following the digital route but incorporating crowdsurfing into their model; they get readers to suggest stories.
The common theme throughout all of this was the movement towards education and empowering citizens, particularly in the face of the rapidly-declining quality of the mainstream media. Many of the media models presented were local and community-based, and tried to to more than just emit news by including their audience in the production, distribution, and promotion of content. In fact, as Andrea Langlois and Frederic Dubois note, alternative media organisations tend to be characterised by an attempt to “move beyond issues of content”, while Academics Michael Boyle and Mike Schmierbach have shown that audiences of alternative media are likelier to be more frequently engaged in protest actions than audiences of mainstream media.
The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), in their “Principles for Ethical Journalism”, state that “journalists have the duty and privilege to seek and report the truth, encourage civic debate to build our communities, and serve the public interest”. Many of the alternative media models presented at the conference do just that, away from the prying eyes of Rupert Murdoch.