There were a few tense moments earlier this month and news organizations and journalists from across the country held their collective breath, after Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault floated the idea that organizations distributing content be required to register for a licence.
He said it on a television political news program in the wake of recent recommendations from the highly anticipated report by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, whose Herculean mandate was to update Canada’s decades-old communications legislative framework.
He couldn’t be suggesting that news organizations would be required to get a licence in some quasi-state-run media apparatus? Could he? Not in Canada, where such credentialing of media organizations would be a short-sighted affront to the notions of freedom of the press and expression, protected in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Thankfully, the heritage minister quickly walked back his comment, effectively preserving generations of norms about freedom of expression in Canada.
Lost in the heightened state of rhetoric, however, is an important question engineered for the digital age: how does an ordinary consumer of news determine what is a trusted source of news these days?
In a world where algorithms and aggregators play a remarkable role in determining which stories shape the discourse, public education about how to effectively vet a source’s credibility has certainly not evolved at a similar break-neck pace.
Getting news organizations to queue up at the door of the minister isn’t the answer. Researchers have shown that humans are hardwired to dismiss information that doesn’t accord with their worldview. At the National NewsMedia Council (NNC), the self-regulatory organization for print and digital news media organizations in English-speaking Canada, we couldn’t agree more.
Day-in, day-out, the council fields questions, complaints and queries from coast to coast to coast about press coverage of contentious issues. Debates about Israel/Palestine, climate change and vaccinations are just some of the files we are asked to examine for fairness, accuracy and balance.
Those who lodge complaints don’t always receive the decisions they want to hear, but they are offered a fair and transparent process to have their concerns heard and measured against a cascading system of journalistic standards.
The recent legislative review presented a comprehensive economic vision for the future of Canadian content, but it came up short on addressing the fundamental question of how broad news organizations can build trust with their audiences.
Plenty of academic and public policy research confirms that accuracy and accountability are key factors in the building of trust. In 2020, however, when content is ubiquitous, journalistic oversight and self-regulation have, in many ways, remained stuck in the early 1990s.
The recent legislative review presented a comprehensive economic vision for the future of Canadian content but came up short on addressing the question of how broad news organizations can build trust with their audiences.
In the pre-internet, pre-“platformed era,” when newspapers published only in print, and radio and television stations presented information solely over airwaves, the landscape of media’s public accountability was much more clearly defined. Press councils, including our predecessors in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Atlantic Canada, had exclusive oversight over materials published in newspapers. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, by contrast, had purview over content disseminated over the air.
The internet has added another ingredient to the equation. As the media world has become more platform-agnostic, the National NewsMedia Council’s responsibilities have expanded to handle complaints against member newspapers online, not just in print. Its reach also extends to digital-native sites, such as The Athletic or The Pointer. But, strangely, we don’t have platform-agnostic rules for handling editorial complaints against traditional broadcast outlets such as CTVNews.ca and GlobalNews.ca. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is mandated to handle editorial complaints against its members only for content consumed live over the air.
So, say you’re on your morning commute on public transit, streaming last night’s evening newscast on your mobile device. You hear something in a story you’re sure is wrong, and you decide to lodge a complaint with the broadcast standards council. Sorry, you’re plum out of luck. The best you can do is complain directly to the news organization and hope an overworked editor gets back to you with an explanation.
It’s this scenario that the National NewsMedia Council brought to the attention of the review panel in the autumn of 2018. We at the council see the effects of this gap in public policy: In 2018, the National NewsMedia Council received 29 formal complaints about editorial material on the websites of broadcast news outlets. In 2019, that number was 26. In only the first month of 2020, five complaints about such websites have been lodged with the NNC.
Press councils around the world are grappling with this same scenario. One country, New Zealand, has come up with an interesting alternative. The New Zealand Media Council has jurisdiction over the online content of several major broadcasters, in addition to managing public complaints against material published in print publications and on their websites.
Ensuring that there is a self-regulatory body dedicated to hearing audience complaints about editorial content regardless of platform is a simple fix that could help boost audience trust. It would, at the same time, preserve the independence of journalism and its importance in a free and democratic society, all without wading into the murky waters of government credentialing.
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