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Tara Henley: The media must start listening to the public it serves

Commentary

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

Trust in media is low these days. So low, in fact, that leadership has been forced to contemplate why. And the reasons that Canadian media executives come up with are manifold. The problem is an overall decline in trust in public institutions. Or it’s fractured attention online. Or news fatigue and avoidance. Or misinformation and disinformation. Or political polarization, populism, politicians antagonizing the press. Or else, it’s social media. It’s Big Tech’s fault. 

But it’s really not that complicated. The problem is us. 

As reporter Matt Taibbi said at the 2022 Munk Debate, “When you’re a journalist and people don’t trust you, it’s always your fault.” 

The media has been busy blaming everyone but the media itself. But in the meantime, the public has been sending us a clear message: they don’t trust us because they think we’re biased. When I left the CBC, citing a lack of viewpoint diversity, I received a deluge of comments from the public. Overwhelmingly, people told me that they’d lost faith in the media because we no longer seemed politically neutral. Their ask was simple: gather the facts, to the best of our ability, and report that information. And then trust people to make up their own minds about what, if any, action should be taken. 

In other words, stop trying to influence public opinion. 

This sentiment is a relatively recent one—and it helps explain why we’ve seen trust fall over the past few years in particular. According to the 2023 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, just 40 percent of Canadians trust most news most of the time, down from 58 percent in 2018.

So, what’s changed during that time period?

Here’s what happened: in 2016, American mainstream media experienced an existential crisis. It did not predict the election of Donald Trump, could not comprehend how it had happened, and viewed the presidency as a threat to democracy. Journalists began to re-evaluate our role in society, starting with a 2016 editorial in The New York Times, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” In it, Jim Rutenberg argues that if journalists believe Trump is a dangerous demagogue, they will have to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.” It was a call to arms, an explicit call to take up an activist role—and many newsrooms heeded it, including here in Canada. 

It’s common knowledge that media staffers tend to lean Left, and so it should come as little surprise that the activism taken up by our press corps aligned with leftist politics. And with the specific brand of identity-focused, progressive politics that’s popular on the Left right now. This influenced everything from story selection and angles, to the guests we interviewed and the jargon-heavy vocabulary we adopted.

But of course, the general public is not made up solely of progressive activists. And so, large swaths of our population—of all identity groups—were underrepresented by the media that’s supposed to serve them. We were not covering the stories that mattered to them. We did not reflect the plurality of perspectives they hold, and encounter, in their own communities. And we were often either ignorant of, or openly hostile to, their experiences, values, and opinions. 

And when that same public told us—in comments sections, on social media, during call-in radio shows, in complaints to the CBC’s Ombudsman, at public panels, on the street—that it wanted more politically neutral news, the response has often been that we journalists know better. That, in fact, what they’re asking for doesn’t exist. That the public’s desire for more balanced, factual, and objective news is antiquated. And that we will drag them into the 21st century, kicking and screaming if we must. 

As such, our editorial ethos has become one of condescension. And of distrust towards the public. 

Can it be any wonder, then, that they don’t trust us?

Operating from such a blinkered mind frame obviously makes it harder to follow the facts wherever they lead, to sit with complexity and contradictions and unresolved tensions, and to treat all views—even those we, as individual journalists, vehemently disagree with—with a baseline level of curiosity, fairness, and respect. 

It also makes it much harder to admit the mistakes that are an inevitable part of the job, especially in an accelerated news cycle. And especially in a once-in-a-century crisis like a pandemic. 

The path forward

Winning back the public’s trust will require a change in perspective. It will require surrendering the goal of social change and instead prioritizing public service. This priority should then drive reforms, in newsrooms, in media organizations, and in governmental policy. 

There’s no reason why we can’t do this while also embracing the diversity of our country, as well as innovation and technology. 

We can take the best from journalism’s past, as we keep our eyes firmly focused on the future. 

This would mean taking the public’s concerns about bias on board and working to represent multiple perspectives on any given issue (a practice now derided as “bothsidesism”). As well as recommitting to the aspiration of objectivity (now often dismissed in favour of “moral clarity”).

This would mean rigorously resisting editorialization in news coverage. And enforcing policies against newsgathering journalists commenting online about controversial issues, which decimates credibility. 

It would mean acknowledging that identity politics is in fact politics, and it would mean thinking carefully before adopting activists’ claims, jargon, and framing of issues.  

It would mean hiring more ideologically diverse staff, paying more attention to political and regional and religious diversity. And, crucially, class diversity. One way to immediately expand our pool of talent would be to stop hiring university graduates. (You don’t need higher education for journalism, which is not rocket science. You can, and should, learn it on the job.) 

Adopting such a strategy would also mean fostering newsroom environments that encourage dissent, and that welcome journalists from all of the aforementioned groups. It would mean, too, discouraging staffers from participating in online pile-ons that fuel fear and conformity, and stifle debate—and standing up to mobs when such firestorms do occur. 

Critically, it would mean publicly admitting past mistakes, especially during the past five years when trust declined, including coverage of the pandemic and the protests in Ottawa. 

And it would mean taking cues from independent media, which is already doing much of this work, instead of ignoring, disparaging, or lobbying against the start-ups.

At a governmental level, it would mean, as past CRTC vice-chair Peter Menzies has suggested, phasing out press subsidies. Which, Blacklock’s Reporter has noted, have coincided with plummeting confidence in our industry. 

It would also mean a full mandate review for the CBC, as The Line editor Jen Gerson has suggested, to refocus our national public broadcaster, and its budget, on the kind of journalism that the public actually wants and needs. (It goes without saying that the CBC, as it lays off hundreds, should rethink awarding millions in bonuses.)

But none of what I’ve just outlined can be accomplished without every single journalist across the country making a concerted effort to talk to the public we serve. To really listen to them. And to be open-minded about their concerns, views, and experiences. 

The Canadian media is currently making the argument that our existence is crucial for democracy. But democracy, at heart, rests on the public’s right to have a say. You can’t claim to defend democracy if you don’t believe in listening to your fellow citizens.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

Steve Lafleur: Does everything feel broken? Canada’s messy federalism is a big part of the problem

Commentary

You might think subsidiarity is too dry a topic to care about. You’re wrong. It affects everything. 

The concept is simple: responsibility for policy issues should rest with the lowest level of government practical. In other words, if municipal governments are well-placed to address an issue, they should. If they’re not, the provinces should do it. Failing that, the federal government. It’s an approach that I generally support, but it’s often challenging in practice. 

This might seem like a stale, academic concern. Far from it. Canada is an unusually decentralized country. Canada’s federal government has controlled roughly 30 to 40 percent of government expenditures (net of transfers) for the last three decades. By contrast, the U.S. federal government controls around two-thirds of government spending. With more than 60 percent of spending by sub-national governments, we have an unusually large stake in ensuring that they’re well placed to undertake those responsibilities. 

A lot of things aren’t working in Canada right now. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that Canada is broken, there are signs of stress everywhere. We’re dealing with a nationwide housing crisis, decaying infrastructure, and a health-care system that feels like it’s on the brink of collapse. It’s understandable that people are frustrated, or even angry.

Part of the problem is our messy style of federalism often allows governments to pass the buck. Another is that subnational governments are often burdened with issues they don’t have the capacity to manage effectively—or, more perniciously, that they have no incentive to fix. Either way, we often let things corrode until they reach a breaking point.

But before we get too deep into my critique, some history. From the onset of the First World War until the 1990s, the federal government nearly always dominated total spending, peaking at 90 percent during WWII. Between the end of WWII and the creation of the modern welfare state, spending shifted towards provincial governments. For twenty years starting in 1970, federal expenditures hovered between roughly 40 and 45 percent of spending. Then came the 1990s and ensuing budgetary crises. One way that governments dealt with newfound fiscal pressures was downloading. In addition to privatizing large swaths of the economy, the feds downloaded many spending responsibilities to the provinces, for instance by cutting federal transfers. Provincial governments followed a similar path, in many cases pushing responsibilities for functions like social housing down to the municipal level.In many respects, this decentralization was beneficial. For one thing, it was part of an unprecedented fiscal correction by the Chretien government—probably the most successful fiscal undertaking in the history of Canada. But it also rationalized Canadian governance by more closely aligning spending with the principle of subsidiarity.

But there are three barriers that often get in the way of effective subsidiarity. 

First, responsibility rests with the wrong level of government. Take land-use planning, for example. It has been a truism for a very long time that zoning ought to be the purview of municipal governments. But their incentives are all wrong. They only answer to voters currently residing within specific boundaries, and primarily to homeowners. This means that prospective and future residents are not considered. In theory, this problem could be self-correcting. NIMBY cities could simply lose population to more dynamic cities. In practice, there is a strong economic pull towards a small number of economic centres.

Even in the post-COVID world, location matters. A home in North Bay isn’t a substitute for a home within commuting range of Toronto. Given the strong pull towards a few large cities, there are provincial and national implications from zoning restrictions. City halls in the GTA in particular have acted as a brake on Canada’s economy for a very long time while the federal government, which has traditionally had the smallest role in housing of any order of government, takes the biggest share of the blame

Second, the boundaries of a jurisdiction can be too large or small. Context matters a lot. Take Toronto, for instance. When the Government of Ontario smashed together six municipalities to create the new Toronto megacity, it was meant to create efficiencies. Not only did those efficiencies not materialize, but it means that responsibility is now too diffuse. 

The idea of subsidiarity is to ensure that the people best positioned to make decisions are empowered to do so. Ironically, the megacity has meant that people in the old city of Toronto have very little control over their communities. Getting anything done in there requires consent from five other municipalities that have wildly different priorities.Anyone who has been to a family dinner knows it’s not easy to get everyone on the same page. Some people don’t like mashed potatoes, some have food allergies, and others are just allergic to joy. If the whole family tree got an equal vote on what to eat, it would be a catastrophe. In other words, it would be like a Toronto City Council meeting.

Third, responsibility might be an illusion. Take health care, for example. Health care is a provincial responsibility—in theory. In practice, provincial governments need to follow the letter of the Canada Health Act (CHA). That isn’t a legal requirement, but a practical one. Failure to do so would lead the federal government to withhold Canada Health Transfer funding. While there is much to like about the CHA—such as the requirement for portability (so people changing provinces don’t lose coverage) —there are other parts that might well be counterproductive, like the “public administration” requirement or the prohibition on user fees. Whether or not one supports the CHA in its entirety (and as currently interpreted), it’s clear that provincial governments don’t have full control over health-care policy in Canada. 

Fortunately, we’re seeing some rebalancing. The highest profile example is in housing policy. 

It started with former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. His platform included a provocative idea: the federal government should withhold infrastructure funding to municipalities that don’t build enough housing. This made sense not only because housing was becoming a national crisis, but because if the federal government is going to fund infrastructure projects that are justified based on population growth, the population proximate to those projects should grow. Otherwise, they don’t make sense. The term common sense gets tossed around a lot, but this was a pretty common sense idea. 

The next big move came from the Ford government. Under enormous pressure to get housing built, the province started to directly intervene in local land-use policy. While the moves look modest in light of recent developments, they eliminated the taboo against upper levels of government getting involved in land-use policy. 

Then came the big one: the Carrot Stick. The federal government started to really feel the pressure from rising housing prices this year, particularly as interest rates increased. The Trudeau government decided that they wanted to “work with” municipalities, in contrast to the Conservatives who wanted to impose conditions. In other words, carrots, not sticks. Then along came Sean Fraser. He was having none of this. 

Fraser realized, as I’d hoped when the program was announced, that the carrot could be used like a stick. There’s no reason why the minister needs to sit back and hope that municipalities volunteer to do more on housing. Instead, he’s used the bully pulpit to badger municipalities into strengthening their applications. For the most part, it’s worked. Cities across the country are moving to allow four units per lot, which seemed unthinkable eighteen months ago. The idea of provincial, let alone federal governments being involved in housing policy was contentious up until very recently. But it’s a necessary corrective, albeit late. 

Another high-priority example comes from Toronto. The city has been grappling with what to do with the Gardiner Expressway for years. It’s in the middle of a massive refurbishment project putting enormous pressure on the city budget. Toronto has tried to deal with this by imposing tolls, but the province said no. Given that it serves the whole region and isn’t especially popular with locals who were being forced to fund the rebuild themselves, uploading it to the provincial government to fund through provincial taxes only made sense. Another necessary rebalance.

Subsidiarity is a good principle in the abstract, but a hard one to implement in practice. As a decentralized federation, Canada is grappling with the challenges of dispersed responsibilities. Happily, we seem to be correcting some of our missteps. Decentralization done wrong can be worse than centralization. Principles are a good starting point, but we need to sweat the details.