A Niche for Mainstream Journalism

Are journalists helping to create bad public policy?

When journalists talk about what is at stake in the digital era, they talk of dwindling jobs, shrinking media outlets and the frantic struggle to capture people’s attention. But by following what they think are the dictates of the new technology, journalists are helping to undermine something more important than their jobs: the ability of governments to deliver good public policy.

When I sat down to write this essay the Fort McMurray wildfire was in the news. Correction, it was the news. Every media site was filled to the brim with stories, videos, podcasts and photos of the flight of 90,000 people from the Alberta oil town and the efforts of firefighters to tame a wildfire called The Beast. Media outlets competed with each other to provide the most dramatic or heart–rending tales, piling hyperbole on top of hyperbole. It was the worst, the biggest, the most damaging disaster in Alberta’s history, depending on which news item you read, listened to or viewed. And, based on those assertions, the prime minister was being pressed by some in the media to help besieged Alberta by speeding approval of a new pipeline.

It was not until I had to research my own story for The Economist, whose fact checkers and editors are sticklers for accuracy, that I realized this was not the biggest evacuation in Alberta’s history. The 2013 floods that submerged parts of southern Alberta, including downtown Calgary, displaced more people. Nor, as some headlines asserted, was it as big as the province’s largest fire, although it might eventually reach that level. As of June 10 it had consumed about 590,000 hectares, compared with about 700,000 hectares burned by the Richardson fire just north of Fort McMurray in 2011.

I mention this not to take away from the terrifying experiences of the evacuees, some of whom have lost all they owned to the flames. Nor is it my wish to downplay the heroic efforts of firefighters who advanced toward the flames when human instinct would be to run in the other direction. My point is that in delivering these hurried and inaccurate reports so lacking in context, journalists were failing to fulfill their most important role in our democracy: to inform the public so that they can hold their governments to account.

Screaming headlines are not new, nor is torqueing a story up to and beyond its limits. The phrase “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story” dates back to at least the late 1800s. But the digital era encourages these practices and makes them more pervasive, more immediate and more hysterical in tone. A public fed this alarmist mixture, supplemented by what it is getting from non–journalists on social media, expects politicians to react and do so quickly, even before the dimensions of the crisis are clear.

Were this happening only at times of crisis, the public policy implications would at least be constrained. Sadly, the combination of a 24-hour news cycle, new digital tools and the increasingly desperate struggle of traditional media outlets to survive is producing much more of this type of coverage. News stories have increasingly come to resemble the shrill, combative tone and vocabulary of social media where shouting the loudest attracts attention. It is not unusual to see a Twitter war imported verbatim. Even as they bemoan the lack of thoughtful, evidence-based policy making, journalists are helping to create an atmosphere where it is harder to do.

Journalists are far from the only outside influence on policy makers. These days they are among the thousands of voices fighting for attention online. But they retain enough of their former power, amassed when they were gatekeepers of information, to set the tone of some debates and to incite public reaction. That can be used for good effect or bad. Investigations by Radio-Canada’s Enquête, La Presse, Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette into alleged corruption is an example of the former. Their reports led to changes in the Quebec government’s procurement policy, even before the Charbonneau Commission investigating the allegations completed its work.

Yet time-consuming, expensive investigations are the exception rather than the rule in Canadian journalism today. Perhaps they always were. While important, they are less central to good policy making overall than a steady diet of media stories that give people the information they need to hold their governments to account on a broad range of issues, not just topics subjected to journalistic investigations. Hence my interest in how daily journalism is changing in the digital era.

I was skeptical the first time someone raised the idea that journalists were part of the problem. Blaming the media is too often the last refuge of public figures with no other way out of a tight corner. It happened when I was researching a report on the future of serious journalism for the Public Policy Forum. I had gone to talk to David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada and a veteran of the civil service, about how policy making had changed over the decades.

Canada used to pride itself on taking a deliberative approach, appointing a royal commission or issuing a green paper on policy and inviting public discussion, he said. In this way ideas could be aired and debated before legislation was introduced months if not years later. “The 24-hour news cycle has dramatically altered the willingness of politicians and their staff to engage in a slower process,” said Dodge. “They are forced to be more responsive. That has changed the policy process and hence the ability of a government to take a longer-term view.”

This chimed in with what I then heard from others. Someone who once worked in the prime minister’s office under Stephen Harper bemoaned the fact that staff had to react to breaking news at 11pm for fear it would “grow tentacles during the night.” Roland Paris, whom I talked to before he moved to the PMO from the University of Ottawa, said there were already signs during his first stint in government a decade ago that policy development had “largely morphed into hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute issues management.” People used to talk about the CNN effect, he said, referring to the theory that the public and hence politicians would react to images on the screen with changes in foreign policy. “The CNN effect was the shift to issues management Mach 1,” said Paris. “We’re now in Mach 2 or 3.”

He too attributed it to changes in the media, plus the Harper government. The pressure exerted by 24-hour television news had been amplified by online news and then the arrival of social media.

All this puts a slightly different complexion on the top-down approach to policy taken by Stephen Harper when he was prime minister, where anything of importance emanated from the PMO. At the time it was seen as evidence of the autocratic nature of a man who thought he had all the best ideas and distrusted the civil service for its suspected Liberal leanings. That may well have been his motivation. But might he too have been a victim of media forces beyond his control? I make this suggestion gingerly, knowing my inbox will soon fill with outraged complaints from those unwilling to even consider the idea.

So let’s ask a slightly safer question: What does this mean for Trudeau’s frequently avowed desire that his government will present evidence-based policy? The Liberal platform in the 2015 election campaign stated: “Without evidence, government makes arbitrary decisions that have the potential to negatively affect the daily lives of Canadians.” Now in office, the Liberal government has promised to consult broadly on a range of policies before making up its collective mind. But evidence gathering and consultation take time. What the government sees as a virtue is being portrayed by some journalists as a vice.

It was not a good sign that on the day of the cabinet swearing in, there were dismissive comments about ministers not saying what they intended to do about the major files for which they now had responsibility. These people had not even found their desks yet but were expected to deliver fully fleshed out policies to the waiting cameras.

Media reports display growing exasperation about the government not moving fast enough on policies ranging from the legalization of marijuana to electoral reform. A Montreal Gazette columnist accused the Liberals of falling behind and spinning their wheels on marijuana reform in February, four months after the new government had taken power. Waiting until May to set up a special committee on electoral reform was seen by more than a few columnists as an unacceptable delay. (They were not too happy about its membership either, but that is another story.) The Liberals, opined a National Post columnist in February, were “delay-prone” and the prime minister risked being called “Mr. Dithers,” the epithet bestowed on former prime minister Paul Martin by my predecessor as Canada correspondent for The Economist. Maclean’s talked of Liberal “meeting madness” and Canada becoming a consultation nation, with lots of talk but no action, yet.

You get the picture. The media and the government are operating on timetables that are difficult to reconcile. And on top of this, media accuracy, at least in the first instance, is increasingly a casualty of the need for speed. This does not look like a story with a happy ending for the public. And yet it could be, if a number of elements fall in place.

First, the government will have to stick to its guns on taking the time needed to produce thoughtful, evidence-based policy. This is harder than it sounds because media pressure to react rather than reflect will not let up. There is always the danger that some of the criticisms being made of the government will stick. The government can help its case by using all the digital tools at its disposal to shorten the time required for gathering evidence and conducting broad consultations. There can be no return to the royal commissions of the past, where commissioners made their stately progress across the country and mulled their conclusions for months, sometimes years. The ultimate proof that the current approach works would be the early presentation of good, solid policy in at least one of the government’s priority areas that can be shown to be based on evidence and consultation.

Changes are also needed on the media side of this equation. These are both more difficult to make and yet more necessary to the survival of serious journalism in Canada. Most traditional media outlets have responded to pressure from social media by speeding up their coverage of events—tweeting, blogging and writing numerous versions of the same story as it unfolds. At the same time, they have cut staff, often the most senior reporters, editors or producers with specialist knowledge. The ranks of foreign correspondents have been thinned, taking with them their expertise and interest in other parts of the world. A 2013 count by the Canadian Media Guild, a trade union, indicated 10,000 journalism jobs disappeared in the previous five years. More have been axed since. Those who remain are expected to do more. Instead of facing one or two deadlines a day, they are always on. Is it any wonder that inaccuracies go out at the speed of light and then are endlessly repeated in the online echo chamber?

Media firms appear reluctant to step off this treadmill for fear of losing ground to competitors. I can think of several good reasons why they should.

The public does not need yet another wire service to deliver breaking news. One exists already in the form of The Canadian Press, which has almost 100 years of experience in being both fast and accurate. (I should disclose here that my first job in journalism was at Canadian Press.) CP has gone through several near-death experiences and moved from being a co-operative owned by its members to a private firm owned by the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Gesca Ltée., which owns La Presse. Yet it still exists and is good at what it does.

There are also all those other voices: governments, businesses, lobbyists, academics and individuals, to name but a few, who can and do talk over the heads of journalists to their intended publics. They too are breaking news and often introducing their own competing facts, sometimes muddying the conversation. The debate over climate change is a good example. Yet in this chaotic mix there is still a role for journalists who can take the time to put events in perspective, explain why they are important and outline possible policy implications. But that means setting aside the desire for speed.

Aside from spreading themselves too thin, media outlets stuck on the treadmill risk getting lost in the crowd. Using scarce resources in order to be first with the news, however inaccurate, is a poor second best to establishing a reputation for explaining what it all means. The best media outlets still do this, knowing that having a respected brand is essential to their survival in the digital world.

I wish I could say I was confident that this is the path that the government and the news media will take, that the first will stand its ground and not be pushed into policies that lack the supporting foundation of evidence and consultation and that the second will lose its digitally imposed addiction to speed and adopt an craving for accuracy and context. It is a hope rather than a prediction.

I take comfort in the fact that during his visit to the burned-out areas of Fort McMurray, when media reports were still laced with superlatives about the impact of the fire on the Albertan and Canadian economies and the premier of Alberta was pressing for a yes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not suddenly abandon his preference that any new pipeline be subjected to a thorough environmental review. He insisted that any approval, if it came, would be based on evidence. Long may that attitude last.