Berry’d Alive

How the Canadian media have used new technologies to shut out the public

The BlackBerry, initially just a two-way messenger, appeared in national political reporting in 2000 in the midst of what we can now see was a huge transformation in the Canadian media. The Research In Motion device would go on to play its own dramatic part in that transformation.

In the 1990s, the Hamilton Spectator, Windsor Star, London Free Press, Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix, BCTV, CFTO and CJOH all closed their Ottawa bureaus. They started covering national politics and public policy from their home newsrooms, supplemented by news services such as Canadian Press or Ottawa bureaus of TV networks.

Over time this has changed the news about politics that Canadians receive.

National news services do not inject local examples or context into national political stories. Reporters for national news organizations look for issues with national appeal for readers and viewers all across the country. Local members of Parliament do not matter. Not only are readers, listeners and viewers denied a local perspective on national issues, but information stops flowing the other way too. Local newsrooms have no Ottawa-based reporters to cover important federal government stories linked to their communities. Decisions about what national news stories to cover are made without any perspective from those a long way from Parliament Hill.

One can understand the logic, though, in cutting political coverage starting in the 1990s. By the time Canadians defeated the Charlottetown accord in 1992, the country had been tearing itself apart for the preceding 25 years through almost non-stop crises and battles that pitted region against region. It started with the original FLQ crisis of the 1960s, followed by the rise of the Parti Québécois and its election as the governing party of Quebec in 1976, two oil price shocks and inflation in the 1970s, the 1980 Quebec referendum, the National Energy Program in October 1980, more inflation, unemployment, and deficit upon deficit in the 1980s, free trade negotiations with the United States starting in 1985, the Meech Lake accord in 1987, the free trade election in 1988, the contentious collapse of Meech in 1990, the rise of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party after Meech’s failure, and, finally, the 1992 Charlottetown accord campaign.

Canadians tired of the never-ending national disputes and turned away from politicians and politics. The news media responded by cutting political coverage and bodies devoted to it. That began in the mid-1990s recession and has been ongoing. Even today the staff numbers in Ottawa newsrooms of national news organizations continue to fall, and with fewer bodies there are fewer or no longer any specialist reporters. Almost everyone has become a general assignment reporter expected to file every day on whatever is happening. There is no longer the time to do detailed research, talk to contacts, go to a Commons committee meeting or read background documents. The result is a slow stripping away of the knowledge, history, experience and context required for political reporters to cover complex issues. They lose the ability to break stories when they cannot talk to the range of people involved in an issue who can each provide a piece of a puzzle. With fewer contacts of their own, reporters gradually become much more reliant on political parties, communications staff for ministers and the legions of lobbyists and private-sector communications people, each pushing their employer’s point of view.

Journalists have also confronted the growing demands of the internet, an ever larger element of their employers’ approach to news. Reporters now face not a single daily deadline but several daily, if not hourly, deadlines, filing for websites, print, audio and video sometimes in the same day.

All these changes, though, were just beginning when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called an election in the fall of 2000. For that campaign, CBC struck a deal with RIM to provide BlackBerrys for about 16 key reporters, field producers and editors in exchange for an assessment of how the technology performed under the pressures of a campaign. The first-generation BlackBerry was a small messenger device with a keyboard and a green and grey screen that could display a few lines of text at a time. Reception was just within major cities, yet it was still a huge advance in managing a team of reporters and producers scattered across the country. It could send a message wirelessly not just to one person but to as many as were included in the address line: all recipients would get the same message immediately and simultaneously. Contents could be instantly translated into scripts or adjustments to campaign coverage—inspiring a question to a leader, inserting a fact or a comment someone else had made into a script or live talk with an anchor, or allowing a reporter to put a background question to the campaign team travelling on one of the tours and then circulate the answer to everyone involved in the coverage.

The BlackBerry improved the network’s reporting. It kept the coverage team aware of what was happening all across the country on all the leaders’ campaigns and in the newsroom, where overall campaign coverage was managed and directed. CBC did not circulate the email addresses of those with BlackBerrys since senior editors had no interest in external distractions for their reporters. It was a perfect device for internal communication and editorial management and reporters and producers were reluctant to surrender their BlackBerrys at the end of the campaign.

They did not have to wait long for an even better replacement. In 2002, a second-generation BlackBerry featured upgraded instant messaging capability as well as email and other business tools—a major advance on the original and an instant hit with all in the media.

By the 2004 election, BlackBerrys were a standard reporting tool, but used differently from how the CBC used them in the 2000 campaign. Reporters now gave their BlackBerry addresses to all the political parties. Opening up their BlackBerry systems to the parties’ media message managers was a fatal error. Collectively, the media handed over its communications tool to the political parties, who had both the people and the incentive to figure out how to use instant communications to their partisan advantage. A device originally used for internal communication within news organizations had become a way for the parties to shape their messages and attacks on their competitors by bombarding reporters with emails at any time of the day or night.

There was a positive side to it for reporters though, particularly in the era of all-news television and websites. The pressure to file regularly meant finding something “new” several times a day to update stories by at least creating the illusion that something new had happened. That was the genesis for the “reaction” story—building a new top to a story based on someone’s reaction to almost anything: a campaign development, a leader’s announcement, a candidate’s misstep, a damaging revelation about a candidate’s past or an external news event. The BlackBerry was the perfect tool to distribute the initial news story and then gather the reaction, and reporters were not the only ones who figured that out. The parties quickly realized the ease with which reporters who lacked context and background in many campaign issues could be manipulated and hooked on BlackBerry journalism. Their campaign offices were thrilled to flood journalists with BlackBerry messages containing background, comments and news releases, particularly focused on persuading reporters of the hypocrisy of their opponents by highlighting any previous comments that contradicted current statements and policy positions.

This all came together in the 2004 campaign. The media focused relatively little time and attention on policies. Campaign coverage was overwhelmingly about leaders, strategy and tactics, and increasingly about public opinion polling results, as nightly tracking polls now dominated election reporting. An emphasis on personality and conflict constituted much of the daily coverage of politics and public policy in the last decade. Partisan blogs also assumed a greater importance, not among the general public but within the media, which followed them closely and reported on their content when they deemed it significant. All of this was ideal material to be distributed, debated and chewed over endlessly through BlackBerry messages, instantly spreading news and rumours across a broad cross-section of reporters and back and forth between party media managers and journalists. The media’s fascination with the inner workings of campaigns and party “war rooms” (despite no evidence that the interest is shared by the public) fit perfectly into a BlackBerry world.

From the political operatives’ perspective, it is always better to give the media the message and help them run with it rather than to have to respond to unexpected and disruptive stories that might emerge if the media are not kept occupied. The parties discovered that the BlackBerry was the perfect tool for this purpose. It nicely supplemented the degree to which parties already managed the media agenda by having reporters on leaders’ tours, moving them around the country in a bubble, and feeding them daily announcements and stories isolated from both voters and what was happening in communities in individual ridings. Cutbacks by news organizations meant that they devoted fewer reporters and less coverage to the campaign with each election, but they still staffed the leaders’ planes, giving the parties the upper hand in shaping media coverage, which they skillfully exploited, supplemented by BlackBerrys.

The 2004 election produced a minority government, the first in Ottawa since 1979, and the uncertainty surrounding its lifespan meant no let-up on the media’s focus on strategy, tactics and opinion polling. Who was up, who was down, and who would force the next election and when dominated reporting from Ottawa. Through two subsequent elections, each of which produced a Conservative minority, that emphasis did not change. Nor did it change in 2011 as the story was still whether the Conservatives would get the majority that, this time, leader Stephen Harper explicitly requested from voters almost daily.

What continued to change was the technology. As BlackBerrys became more sophisticated, joined by other smart phones that included web browsers, social media tools emerged such as Facebook and Twitter. They have been incorporated into the parties’ efforts to control the media and shape the media’s coverage of politics and Parliament to their advantage, even as blogs have faded in significance. Some regard the 2011 election as the first social media campaign, but despite that label, there is little evidence that social media have either captured the attention of or engaged the general public. As social media analyst Mark Blevis wrote in the Ottawa Citizen on March 29, 2011, “anecdotally, the political discussion on Twitter is still taking place within an echo chamber. That is, most of the political discussions involve journalists, pundits, interest groups, the politically engaged, and—yes—even politicians. The average Canadian? Not so much.” His analysis of Twitter activity during the campaign found a daily average of about 16,000 tweets related to the 2011 campaign, yet generally little more than one third each day was new content. Almost half involved someone resending (retweeting) what someone else had sent without modification, while only between 10 percent and 15 percent of the tweets were commenting on someone else’s message.

Toronto digital communications consultant Meghan Warby made a similar point in assessing the impact of social media. Writing during the campaign on The Globe and Mail website, she noted: “Political parties are using digital channels primarily as new funnels, within which they pour talking points from speeches, sound bites from media appearances, cut-and-pasted bullets from press releases and after-the-fact event updates. This isn’t unacceptable—more dangerously for our democracy, it’s uninteresting.”

For all the enthusiastic talk about the revolution in communications that social media would bring, media coverage of the 2011 federal election was not noticeably different from that of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections. There remained virtually no contact or communication between the journalists writing about the election and the public. The media’s emphasis remained firmly on strategy and tactics, personality and conflict. The parties created an alternate reality with the media as willing accomplices through joint participation on BlackBerrys and other smart phones exchanging information, rumours and gossip that meant little to those outside Ottawa. Frequently, these efforts resulted in stories about party strategy, insider political personalities, conflicts within parties and other largely trivial issues within an environment in which how quickly or cleverly someone reacted, regardless of what was said, became, in the media’s eyes, a key measure of competence.

Interestingly, in the 2011 election, some media outlets actually told their audiences the source of these stories. For example, when Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was caught off guard when reporters in Quebec on April 6 asked him about apparently racist comments by one of his Quebec candidates, CBC, CTV and Global all stated that the candidate’s comments had been given to the media by the NDP. The next day, when another Liberal candidate in Alberta, a former judge, got into hot water over past comments suggesting that not all sexual assaults should be treated equally by the courts, Global told its viewers that the comments had been given to the network by the Conservatives. The party gave the reporters the tip timed to a “tough on crime” appearance by Stephen Harper in the Toronto-area riding of Cabinet minister Julian Fantino. Details about the comments, and then the chase for reaction, dominated BlackBerry and Twitter activity for reporters that day.

Instead of the reality check that used to be produced by newsrooms across the country telling their Ottawa reporters what did and did not play at home, the key determinant now is how the issue plays among the insiders in Ottawa and what they consider important. The parliamentary press gallery now relies on news aggregators such as nationalnewswatch.com—a site that collects headlines and story links from across the country—for a sense of how Canadians think. Aggregators, though, simply provide lists, not a sense of what is important or why in communities from coast to coast.

Decisions to cut back on reporting staff, close bureaus, and replace reporters from local newspapers and TV stations with national news bureaus and national network reporters have broken the link between the public and the media that has been at the core of political communication. As a result, the media now plays a shrinking role in informing Canadians about politics and public policy. It has replaced its traditional role with an inward-looking, narrowly focused coverage that concentrates on the issues defined by the parties through their joint sharing with the media of technological tools and their ability to engage reporters in concentrating on the artificial world they have collectively created. Instead of using technology to bridge the communications gap between the media and voters in their communities, news organizations have used it to turn their back on the public, with journalists forging closer links with the people reporters cover rather than with the citizens who used to read, watch, listen to and think about their reporting.