Canadian journalists, BlackBerrys and the crisis in political reporting: an interview with Christopher Waddell

How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics, edited by David Taras and Christopher Waddell, assembles essays focused on the various forms of political communication in Canada.  Though the collection gives weight to how politics is communicated through film, art, music, and even museums, over half of the chapters are concerned with politics and the news media. J-Source editor Lisa Lynch interviewed Christopher Waddell about the book’s conclusions about the state of political reporting in Canada. 

How Canadians Communicate IV: Media and Politics, edited by David Taras and Christopher Waddell, assembles essays focused on the various forms of political communication in Canada.  Though the collection gives weight to how politics is communicated through film, art, music, and even museums, over half of the chapters are concerned with politics and the news media. J-Source editor Lisa Lynch interviewed Christopher Waddell about the book’s conclusions about the state of political reporting in Canada. 

LL: Chris, can you give us a narrative of how the book came to be?

CW: The book came out of a November 2009 conference. Our original plan was to bring the book out in 2010, but we were worried that if we committed ourselves to this, they’d call the election. So we kept delaying and delaying; and when the election finally happened, we said to our contributors ‘okay, is there anything in your chapters you want to update?’  So there were some edits, and then David and I wrote a chapter specifically about the election. In other words, what started out as 2009 project ended up getting published in the spring of 2012.  It took longer than we wanted it to be, but if those darn politicians had only decided to have their election when they were going to…

LL: I think the book is much richer as a result, though perhaps a bit more critical in tone given the way the elections are discussed.

CW: It’s true:  the parts of the book that relate and the relationship between journalism, media and politics are pretty critical.  The chapters reflect the concern about changes that are taking place that may not necessarily be good for journalism, be good for the public or be good for the state of democracy in Canada. The authors are asking: What’s going on here? Are we doing what we really want to do? Who are we serving? Are we better off with the way things have devolved?  And I think they conclude that no, we are not.

LL: It seems like a persistent focus of the book is technology: one theme that emerges is that a ‘technological fix’ is being applied to the structural crisis in journalism that actually causes more problems than it solves.

CW: It’s a bit more complicated than that. I would say that the key thing that’s been going on in journalism over the last decade or so is downsizing. Ten or fifteen years ago, there used to be editorial workers in journalism who were largely reporters and there were technical workers in journalism, who were the editors, the camera operators, the studio cameramen, the layout people. Over the last fifteen years or so, what’s happened is much of those jobs have been eliminated and put on the back of editorial workers. Before the shift, if I was a television journalist, I would go out and do a story, and bring my tape back and the editor would sit and look at it. Well, I would be doing my own editing as a reporter now. 

At the same time, the other part of the technological revolution — the rise of the Internet — results in the feeling by every news organization that they have to be keep developing their online presence.  This drives media organizations to do things quickly without necessarily thinking whether a.) they really need to move so quickly or b.) whether what they’re telling us or doing is really all that profound or interesting.

LL: I think this is a lot of what Florian Savageau talks about in his chapter. He points out that part of the rhetoric of the industry is that we have to create new forms of storytelling, and then argues: well yes, but creating new forms of storytelling essentially means you have less time for reporting. I think you make a similar point about that tension in your chapter.

CW: Yes. I think the likelihood that in the future much news content will be appearing primarily— or only— online creates wonderful opportunities to think about telling stories using different media forms aggregated together. But the problem is one person can’t do all that work. For example, most news organizations believe they have to have video on their websites, because they can tag ads on the front of each video. But though there’s opportunities to shoot really great video if you’ve got the right people doing it, now a lot of video is shot by reporters, and its not very good. 

LL: In the book, you argue that another thing the industry doesn’t do well — in Canada especially— is social media. You actually use the phrase “missed opportunity” at one point. 

CW: I think there’s great potential in social media to engage in discussion and debate, but the potential is untapped. In terms of political communication, the way social media is being used in this country is a combination of two things. First, social media is used by the political parties and politicians as just another means of broadcasting the same message that they broadcast before social media emerged. There’s no real attempt, and there doesn’t appear to be any interest, in really engaging the public in debate and discussion.  Second, from the media’s point of view, social media has become a new way — again, in terms of politics — that a small group of people talk to each other about things that don’t really interest everybody else and convince each other that what they are saying is actually important. One of the curious beliefs that the media seems to have adopted — since many media figures are on Twitter — is that everybody is on Twitter.   They start to think, in fact, that the viewpoints expressed by people on Twitter are in fact viewpoints shared by the general public.  Of course, they are not. Most recent research in the States shows that the number of people who are on Twitter is about thirteen to fifteen percent of the people who are using the Internet regularly. 

LL: In your chapter on BlackBerrys, you argue that the technology has actually pushed journalists to engage more directly with politicians at the expense of engaging more directly with the public. 

CW: They are not generally engaging with politicians directly, but instead with politicians’ communications managers. Because news organizations want stories updated all the time, reporters end up relying on these communications managers instead of going around to see what the public actually thinks about things. In an election campaign the problem is exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s still following leaders on their tours around the country.  

I think you saw that most dramatically in the 2011 election, where the media spent a lot of time on a lot of issues that the media thought were really important but clearly the public didn’t think were important at all. There were a couple of exceptions; a CBC piece where they interviewed residents of Squamish, for example. In stories like that, it became clear that the public were still mainly concerned about economic issues. The baby boom generation had seen a significant part of their retirement savings melt away in the space of about eight weeks in the fall of 2008, and they were scared. To them, the economy was much more of an issue to people than whether someone working in the Prime Minister’s office was doing illegal things.  But when the media is mostly talking to itself in a small circle in Ottawa, and it’s being fed information by the political parties through BlackBerry networks — and now Twitter — reporters convince themselves they know what the real issues are. 

A related issue is that while there was once a press gallery in Ottawa consisting of reporters from communities across the country, this no longer exists. They no longer exist. When I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail in the ‘80s and bureau chief for CBC TV in the ‘90s, CFTO Television in Toronto had its own reporter on Parliament Hill. BCTV had its own reporter on Parliament Hill. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the London Free Press, the Windsor Star, Hamilton Spectator, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, all had their own reporters on Parliament Hill. The jobs of those reporters was to watch national issues, but also to take these issues and see how they play out on their local communities. And that did two things. First, the Hamilton Spectator reporter tended to write a lot on the Hamilton MPs: what they were doing, what they weren’t doing, were they appearing at committee, did they ask dumb questions in the house, were they smart, all those sorts of things. That gave exposure to the Hamilton MPs back in Hamilton, so people understood who they were and what they did — substantially more than they do now.  

Second, those reporters in Ottawa were getting a daily earful from their editors at home as to what their editors thought were the important issues of the day. We now have an environment in which, with very few exceptions — I guess the Winnipeg Free Press and the Halifax Chronicle Herald in print but not really anything in broadcast— all the organizations on Parliament Hill are national news organizations writing national stories.  And no one is telling these reporters on a daily basis for example, that ‘people in Calgary don’t give a damn about this, we want to know about that.’ There’s no back and forth where the reporters are hearing what Canadians actually think. So on the one hand they’ve got themselves caught in this loop where they’re talking to politicians and they’re talking amongst themselves. And on the other hand they’ve lost all that contact with local communities. 

LL: So, you argue that problems in political journalism stem from technological changes and economic changes that facilitate poor conditions for engaged reporting. Another author in your book, Elly Alboin, takes a somewhat different approach, saying that part of the problem is that the media has no intent to become a more effective link in governments nor do they have the ability to do so.  It seems like he’s arguing for a lack of will in the industry

CW: Elly was my predecessor as Bureau Chief for CBC on Parliament Hill in the 1970s to early ‘90s, and then he went off  to work for Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He’s seen things from both the journalist’s side and also from the government communications side. So I think his chapter is written more from the government communications side, looking at how governments can use communications to, on the one hand, give a sense of what the public is thinking but on the other hand, try to condition the public to support things the government wants to do. His concern I think is about the nature of where that whole communications process is going. 

I think one of his frustrations is that news organizations that used to be large enough to be able to allocate reporters to specific beat and beat areas, have now made everyone a general assignment reporter. You can cover prisoners in Afghanistan one day and a debate on abortion in the House of Commons the next day, and the Northern Gateway pipeline the day after that. If you don’t have any experience covering those issues, there are two things you can do: you can write about personality or you can write about conflict. And so much the news coverage now focuses on personality or conflict. He believes there’s a lot of substance to a lot of these issues that is being ignored.

LL: Along those lines, Jonathan Rose’s chapter suggests that things have gotten so bad that negative ads are actually useful because they at least bring up the issues that no one else is going to talk about. 

CW: Yeah, that’s right. I think Jonathan’s right about that, negative ads do have a role to play and as everyone says, the problem with them is that they work. I think they work most effectively when there is a grain of truth in the negative ad. I think, for instance, the ads about Mr. Ignatieff of just visiting and those sorts of things. There was just enough truth in some of that that I think that it was actually quite effective. 

LL:  There is one more chapter I wanted to touch on: Robert Bergen’s chapter on Canadian military reporting. What really struck me was his claim that after the Gulf War, the thinking was that Canada should align their media policy with the more open and permissive policies of their allies— and then they ignored their own recommendations. 

CW: I think that the U.S. after the first Gulf War figured out that they could do things differently. And in fact for the second time they went back to Iraq, they were very different in terms of how they handled the media, in terms of their encouragement of local media to go be embedded with troops and do things like that. On some levels, Canada has been pretty good on allowing media to be with Canadian troops when they were in Afghanistan, but they’re not very good on their willingness to provide much information to them. I think Bob points out in the chapter that the problem is that they allow commanders on the ground to determine what’s operational security so what you can tell people and can’t tell people. There’s also as the nature of this government, a huge degree of control exercised from Ottawa about the ability of people on the ground anywhere to say anything, which means everyone is terrorized about it so they won’t do anything about it or say anything. That emerges certainly in dealings with the military too and the frustration of some of the reporters who have been in Afghanistan––or were in Afghanistan––is that often there were very good stories to tell, that in fact reflect very well on the performance and the role of the troops on the ground, but reporters can’t get clearance to tell them because they won’t get the ability to interview people 

LL: The whole idea of an information shutdown keeps occurring in chapter after chapter.

CW: The general attitude of the government in Canada is not to provide information to the public unless they’re forced. The attitude in the United States is to only withhold information if you really have to and there’s nothing else you can do. If you’re a journalist in Canada and you’re covering an issue that has an American and a Canadian dimension, you’re much better to go to the United States and talk to the Americans and have them tell you what they know about Canada rather than… And that’s been proven time and time again because the Americans will tell you stuff that the Canadians just won’t.  I’m sure you will find out much more about the nature of the food problems in XL Foods from talking to the Americans than you will from the Canadians.

LL: You mention a frustration in the open data movement as it tries to port itself over to Canada.

CW: Yeah. The open data movement has gained some ground at the municipal level and also in some cases at the provincial level but very little at the federal level. I think there’s a general belief in government that if you share information, you allow people to come to alternate conclusions about what government should be doing and there’s no interest inside government in allowing people to come to alternate conclusions about what it should be doing.

LL: That’s fairly grim.

CW: It’s a simple explanation. And for this Conservative government, there is also general belief that it’s best to make decisions on the basis of prejudices, than it is to make decisions based on facts. So when you don’t have facts, your preconceived notions or your prejudices guide your decisions and then you just proceed from there. 

How Canadians Communicate Four: Media and Politics, edited by David Taras and Christopher Waddell, was published by AU Press in May 2012.  More information is here.

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