Chapter 18 “The Media”

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Chapter 18 “The Media”

Catherine Murray

in Policy Analysis in Canada.

Edited by L. Dobuzinskis, M.. Howlett

and D. Laycock.


While it is often conjectured that modern politics are mediated politics, it is less often surmised that modern policy-making is largely mediated. It is almost impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without being aware of government policy. Despite the media’s ubiquity in everyday life1, early public policy texts treated them as a unitary actor, rarely including them in the policy analysis dance (Pal, 2001). Yet communication is implied at the root of the concepts of “policy network” or “policy community” which work through reciprocal information exchange. Others have conceded a limited or sporadic role to the media in the theory of policy analysis (Howlett and Ramesh, 1995; Johnson, 2002). But this has not yet trickled down to the practitioner level in policy case studies.2

Conversely, the media are often seen as a background policy determinant, mediating public opinion. Implicit in such views is a “limited effects thesis” that accords media little influence as an independent variable on policy formation. In this view, media attention and public reaction are not usually sufficient to create or veto a new policy, but may cause adjustments or tweaking (Fletcher and Sottile, 1997). Still others (Good, 2003; Spizer, 1993; Soroka, 2003) argue that the media have a very significant influence on the policy process, although views differ sharply on whether it is positive or negative.

This chapter contends that contemporary policy analysis must explore how the media report and interpret policy, facilitate or obstruct it since their direct and indirect roles in modern governance are growing. New public management theory inserts media-scanning earlier in the policy process, and elevates the role of political marketing and communication within policy systems. Agenda-setting theories involve the media more fully in models of deliberative politics: framing issues, prompting action and mobilizing consent. No other set of what Evert Lindquist and Les Pal have called “third sector” policy players is as often assumed to be adversarial, or as formidable, and yet no other is as interdependent (Pal, 1992). This suggests that a useful distinction can be made between mediatized and mediated public policy, the former being simply an extension of political marketing while the latter looks at the difference the media can make in the policy process and outcomes.

Can the media be conceived of as an independent policy actor involved across a number of policy subsystems? If the policy community or subsystem is defined to include all relevant actors with both direct and indirect interests in and influence over the policies produced, then the media do have a unique independent status deserving critical study, one that becomes more important with significant changes in the press reportage cycle. The advent of national news competition has precipitated more investigative policy analysis outside the halls of government. Yet outsider status may be more ambiguous than supposed. In new public management philosophy, direct media participation in the policy process may be sanctioned by policymakers at various stages of the policy formulation cycle—investing them as insiders—or it may be resisted (Hawthorne, 2003; Juillet and Paquet, 2003).

The Media and Policy Networks

It is important to review the relative stability of media membership, degree of insulation, autonomy and resources controlled (Howlett and Ramesh, 1995) compared to other civil society actors. In this chapter, policy-relevant media refer to the news media, that is, the genre of reporting on TV or in print about the everyday activities of government. No other independent institution in Canada’s policy networks reaches as many citizens daily. Few are as apparently competitive: there are several hundred dailies, several thousand community papers and radio stations, and rising numbers of national conventional TV services (3) with a growing number of mostly commercial specialty 24-hour national and international news channels. This ubiquity explains why the most direct interest in policy is financial: the media easily outspend think-tanks or interest groups on news and policy monitoring.3 Among third-sector policy players, then, the media are potentially the best resourced, should they devote even a small proportion of these expenditures to original policy analysis. They would also seem to have the most stable capacity: media return on investment outperforms that of many other sectors.

Neo-institutional definitions of policy actors start with a clear identification of rational self-interest and intent, neither of which easily applies to the media. As actors, the media function as a complex, plural constellation. Journalists have a certain licensed autonomy within their organizations. Most straight reports that originate in a newspaper are initiated and filed by individual journalists, although teams are emerging. Papers rely on a range of commentators covering the political spectrum. Certain papers tend to be associated with certain political parties or tendencies, but they do not pursue their self-interest in typical ways. Only the convention of the editorial in newspapers, a small fraction of total annual content, expresses a paper’s unitary position on a public issue. Unlike public interest groups, business associations or think-tanks, journalists and their media organizations do not directly intervene with formal legal or representative standing to advance a policy interest in deliberations on issues unrelated to their immediate existence/regulatory arena, nor do they tend to champion specific policy options, although they may be called to provide evidence in criminal or civil inquiries.

Journalists are engaged in informal information exchange, policy learning and bargaining over access to confidential information through policy networks, their continuing affiliation with informed sources and their control over access to the public. The insinuation of journalists into the policy process, then, is more often at the individual and policy subsystem level and ad hoc, varying according to the journalist’s social network capital. Reporters, politicians and staff are part of a network of carefully cultivated relationships on three levels: between competitors in the press gallery or hub of political news coverage on Parliament Hill, between a party and a news organization and between government members and reporters (Fletcher and Sottile, 1997). Cabinet ministers, political leaders and senior public servants meet informally with editorial boards and participate in annual press gallery social functions, but these are low-stakes involvements. On an ad hoc basis, policy makers may be asked to sit on juries that adjudicate special journalism awards.

It is often speculated that the political journalistic culture in Canada, like the lobby culture, is not as tight as it is in the US, with less frequent off-the-record social contacts and mutual information exchanges. Journalistic culture in Canada is sharply localized, looser and less socially stratified, mainly because journalism schools are not attached to Canadian ivy league institutions where leading law or business students are recruited to political careers. Furthermore, to prevent perceptions of conflict of interest by accepting undue benefit, codes of journalistic ethics police the boundaries of this licensed autonomy or arm’s-length relationship. Formal insulation from government networks is common. In the recent “Releve” exercises for the federal civil service, for example, journalists were rarely invited or published in Horizon. This pattern is more relaxed at the local level, when informal policy roundtables may well include invited journalists. Since straight news reportage makes frequent recourse to outside experts in order to balance points of view, participation in such roundtables is important to journalists, diversifying access to a pool of researchers in independent think-tanks, universities and civil society organizations.

If the central nervous system of the political media is the parliamentary press gallery, fewer and fewer journalists register, and only 40% last more than one election. Gallery turnover increased during the 1990s, while turnover of MPs stabilized ( Malloy, 2003). Turnover is significantly higher in provincial press galleries. This suggests an intermittent quality to membership in policy networks. The journalist-politician link or journalist-public servant link in Canadian policy networks is a weak, contingent one.

Factors Affecting the Media’s Entry into Policy Networks

Three main variables affect the degree of media insinuation in policy systems. The first is the professional ideology of the news culture and the journalist. The second is the degrees of freedom afforded in Canada’s policy system. The final variable is the news culture or organizational constraints that affect the journalist’s mandate.

Professional ideologies are contested, but consistent with classical libertarian views, a watchdog model conceives of the media’s role in the policy process as adversarial only, not one destined to open or continue policy debate. This theory, which has a contemporary strain associated with the Fraser Institute or Alliance fragment of the Conservative Party in Canada, continues to be influential but not dominant in Canadian political culture. Less romanticized but no less influential is the social responsibility view, where the Charter right of free speech/media is balanced with responsibility to provide citizens with sufficient quality and scope of information to exercise their democratic rights. The goal of the social responsibility model is for the press to educate citizens and get them involved in public policy-making, implying a fairly uncritical adoption of the model of contemporary participatory democracy as a theoretical underlay for media obligations (Pateman, 1970; Held, 1996). In this normative theory, a range of types of media-policy entrepreneurialism may be possible, suggesting the entrepreneur, the muckraker, the broker, the educator, the mirror of social change or the policy advocate (Fletcher and Stahlbrand, 1992). Levels of social or political capital also vary sharply for political journalists in Canada.

Many reporters are loath to surrender a traditional positivist or objective professional ideology which underpins both normative theories, believing they should not be directly partisan and should present all legitimate sides of a controversy to allow citizens to make up their own minds. Journalists today operate under contradictory rules and market imperatives—to be neutral yet investigate, to be fair-minded yet have edge, to be disengaged from politics yet have impact (Hall Jamieson & Waldman, 2003). There is little critical self-awareness of the journalist’s reproduction of ideology. For example, social theorists have often criticized the narrow definition of politics in much news coverage that excludes social movements, or trivializes, polarizes, disparages or emphasizes internal dissension in reporting alternative politics. The media regime polices the boundaries of public discourse, making some policies appear legitimate and others illegitimate and thus beyond consideration (Hackett and Zhao, 1998). News organizations share a world view, essentially pluralist, that they disseminate effectively (but mostly unconsciously) to the general public and to policy-makers. This world view—capitalist, consumption-oriented, cynical about government, etc.—shapes the context in which problems are identified and framed at the regime level. How much media resistance was there to deficit reduction in Canada? (Fletcher, 1999). Why do editorials on the orthodoxy of the new economy outweigh editorial attention to poverty in Canada (Rice, 2002) or support the status-quo on equalization payments? (Prince, 2002).

Second, the parliamentary system limits the ambit for third-party lobbying for media access to policy information or analysis, just as the presidential system does. Traditions of cabinet solidarity, centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and only recent empowerment of backbench MPs in parliamentary committees have restricted media access to the parliamentary process. Central use of the media is usually made only in Question Period, when Opposition MPs frequently refer to media reports to challenge Government. Few journalists cover the activities of parliamentary committees unless there is high news value, and even fewer cover discussions of parliamentary or public service reform. While it is possible to hypothesize that the media-policy interaction will increase in a minority government, there has been little historical inquiry to substantiate it. But it may be said that if there are extended periods of one-party dominance (particularly at the provincial level), the media may move into a self-conscious adversarial role—in lieu of strong opposition parties.

The final variable affecting the depth of media-policy links is organizational or newsroom culture. The biggest organizational restraint limiting pluralism of journalistic practice is the ownership structure, which provides loose co-ordination of news services, available on-line research resources, professional training and access to legal services. The past decade has seen a remarkable concentration of cross-media ownership in Canada( Interim Senate Report, 2004). There is an hypothesis that such concentration affects the operational culture for journalists and the diversity of media content produced. As well, there are allegations of reduced editorial staff, reduced outsourcing to freelance journalists and sharp reduction of editorial expenses to alleviate the debt accrued from acquisition. The principal media players to watch in the policy process, then, tend to be journalists from the larger companies that can invest resources and strategic planning in policy inquiries, as Andrew Stritch’s survey of business organizations has also found. But more than just scale of enterprise is at work. The biggest predictor of editorial news culture (and thus licensed autonomy for policy activism) is if ownership is widely (Bell Canada Enterprises, BCE) or narrowly held (CanWest Global or Hollinger). Charismatic entrepreneurial publishers (with sharply preferential share systems) like Conrad Black or Israel Asper have made an indelible mark on Canadian politics. Managerial media styles have long vacillated between the autocratic or authoritarian and decentralized and autonomous in Canadian news history ( Hebert et al, 1981).

As with any sector, a number of industry, trade and labour groups struggle to shape professional standards, terms of employment and news culture. The main industry groups are the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). A few professional associations for journalists exist, such as the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) (, but they do not yet have the same social cachet as the Law Society. A cursory audit of the history of conferences, public dissemination and policy focus on the CAJ website indicates a growing activism. For many professional journalists, their association’s ethical codes are important protections of journalistic integrity. Unions such as the Canadian Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) and the National Guild of Canadian Media, Manufacturing, Professional and Service Workers (TNG), an independent affiliate of the Communication Workers of America, are only now responding to the challenges of convergence, diversifying their membership across print and electronic media and providing important links to international federations of journalists ( Journalists do not have the same protections of tenure as other professions. Unlike some regimes, Canada has no movement to introduce status of the journalist legislation (like status of the artist legislation or the convention of academic tenure) protecting journalistic autonomy within the corporation of a swashbuckling entrepreneur. Such questions are not abstract.4 The freelance sector of journalism is growing with the emergence of non-traditional news outlets, so employment patterns are more precarious.

The chief asset of the media’s power in the policy cycle is its access to the public and its public reputation, consonant with its social responsibility ethos. Public reputation is defined by Canadian citizens to revolve principally around norms of accuracy, impartiality and general credibility in basic political reportage. Studies in the US and Canada have shown that trust in the media as a source for political information is drawn from perceptions of accuracy, defined as avoidance of objective errors of fact or subjective errors such as over-emphasis or under-emphasis, or omissions (Canadian Media Research Consortium CMRC). Overall, 37% of Canadians consider the news they see and read to be often fair and balanced, with 42% saying it is sometimes balanced. A great deal of press reputation also resides in the media’s perceived independence from other powerful interests in society (but that reputation is failing).5

Levels of policy expertise vary sharply in Canadian journalism. While the education level of journalists is increasing (they are twice as likely as the general public to have a post-secondary degree: Miljan and Cooper, 2003) it is not often specialized in a particular policy field. Discussions of professional training have identified alternative models of specialization and the need for regional centres of excellence in journalism training. Little is known about the resources individual journalists bring to their craft, or their capacity to conduct policy analysis. The contemporary newsroom has a loose beat system, usually defined by jurisdiction, not substantive policy area. Few journalists are trained in public administration, although many do undergraduate studies in social sciences before a post-graduate journalism degree. In most cases, journalists would not work as practitioners of advanced policy analysis. Indeed, the career path between journalists and the public sector does not seem to have broken out of the narrow public relations paradigm for communications specialists. Few journalists would go on to work in a specialist position in a policy field.

What kind of tools of policy analysis would journalists use? The type of analysis the media may conduct is less often full formal policy analysis—using statistical social or econometric techniques on original data—than discursive, historical, comparative and political. This finding is consistent with a self-acknowledged knowledge broker role, where the press serve as intermediaries between knowledge generators and informed policy actors like interest groups, business associations, think-tanks and policy decision-makers. In this role, the media seek policy analysis outside government and, especially, comparative information from other governments. But their key role is in telling the story of the sources of the problem, the issues, interests and alternatives available, using typical reporting conventions. Limitations to discursive techniques are well-known. In a history of reporting trends in environmental policy, Fletcher and Stahlbrand (1992) found that editors rarely understood issues well enough to identify and support the journalist’s call for editorial assistance, and that lack of expertise left journalists at the mercy of experts, unable to assess claims.

There are two final indicators of professional and institutional maturation in decentralized media networks, which speak to their political capital in policy circles. The first is the existence of transparent, well-reasoned professional news standards, which are administered by press or broadcast standards councils, are consistent with the Charter on freedom of expression, and develop informal organic law or jurisprudence on complaints. In this regard, the Canadian press is advanced over many of its counterparts. Press councils, however, have often been criticized for their relative obscurity and inability to promulgate precedent-built or organic rulings, and calls to improve the ombudsman process have escalated. Nor have editors accepted that the model of the press ombudsman may influence the way reporters and editors work, or assist in providing critical assessments of their news product.

The second main test is whether there are independent think-tanks or institutes which regularly monitor and comment on the quality of journalism and its interventions in public policy arenas. In this, Canada is far behind the United States, which has institutes on both the left and the right (FAIR or Fairness and Integrity in Reporting, and Accuracy in the Media or AIM) and prestigious independent foundations (Pew Research Centre for People and the Press) and university monitoring centres (Annenberg School and Columbia Journalism School).6 However, there are two important recent additions to the Canadian media-politics monitoring scene. The first is the McGill Observatory on the Media and Public Policy, which together with the Institute of Research on Public Policy mounted an election coverage monitoring project ( The second is an industry-financed Canadian Media Research Consortium, which has produced the first report card on the Canadian media.

A final indicator of media insinuation in the policy process is whether the advocacy programs of interest groups or think-tanks increasingly rely on professional media relations experts or media monitoring to improve their access to the media. The only proxy to the conservative AIM in the US is the Fraser Institute, which regularly releases ideological commentary on press media coverage. Most interest groups do not have sufficient resources for regular media monitoring, much less media relations experts to get their message out. The Fraser Institute has launched CANSTATS, a project to help the media communicate complex data to the public. It focuses on public health data, crime trends and legal issues ( The left-leaning Centre for Policy Alternatives has no such resources available to journalists, but the CAJ is working to develop some after a study discovered the former outnumbers the latter three to one in press reports.

When it comes to generating their own policy intelligence (as we will see below), the political press owners do not support their own policy research institutes or foundations which act in policy research, unlike the United States (the Knight-Ridder Foundation), or regular partnerships with independent institutes. The single exception is the Atkinson Foundation, which, while not commissioning policy research, does fund an annual policy research fellowship. The commercial setting for most news research in Canada sets significant constraints on capacity—and cuts in public spending on the CBC have had similar effects.

Mediated Policy Making

The policy cycle is well-known to analysts and need not be reiterated here. Less well-known is how the policy cycle interacts with the press cycle. Factual reportage, interrogation, investigation and interpretation make up the press cycle (McNair, 2000). Each stage requires greater resources, more analysis and more refinement of policy positions, moving from relatively passive to more active policy orientation, and from the outer boundaries of the policy community to the inner policy network. Stories move in and out of these stages; a single story may not move linearly through all four. Very few stories are sustained in all four phases of the media attention cycle.

Of particular interest here is how independently generated policy news may appear in various forms:

  • Traditional investigative reporting

  • Commissioning research on topics not covered

Providing forums for policy-makers to come together to discuss issues (Hawthorne, 2003).

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