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Have we passed ‘peak woke’? Aaron Wudrick on social justice language in Canadian news, culture, and politics

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This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation Aaron Wudrick, Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, about his co-authored paper, “Northern Awokening: How social justice and woke language have infiltrated Canadian news media, and its implications on Canadian culture and politics.”

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to the Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Aaron Wudrick, director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, where he leads the institute’s work on economic and fiscal policy, competition policy, social policy, and the intersection of culture, politics, and public policy. He’s recently co-authored a fascinating new paper entitled “Northern Awokening: How social justice and woke language have infiltrated Canadian news media,” which empirically captures the growing use of social justice ideas and language in Canadian journalism. I’m grateful to speak with him about the papers findings and its implications for Canadian culture and politics. Aaron, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the paper.

AARON WUDRICK: Thanks so much for having me, Sean. It’s an honour to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a basic question. Why did you pursue this research? What was the impetus to see if the ideas and language of social justice or wokeism, or whatever one calls it, was increasingly finding expression in Canadian journalism?

AARON WUDRICK: I think the short answer is, there’s a saying about how if something’s important, you should try and measure it. And I think there’s a widespread feeling, and not just in Canada but in other places, that something has been different about the news media in recent years. Yet it is hard to debate this without actually trying to quantify it.

So I reached out to my co-author, a fellow by the name of David Rosado, who’s based in New Zealand, and he’d already done some quantitative work in this area looking at U.S. media and the U.K. media, and I’m sure we can talk about that a bit later, about the differences between what he found there and what he found in Canada. But I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in doing something similar here in Canada, and he was. And so, really, what this was was an attempt to measure something, to quantify something that up until now really had just been a vague feeling for a lot of people.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, that’s a great segue, Aaron, to my next question about your methodology. You selected 14 news outlets over the period from 2000 to 2021 to carry out the analysis. You then essentially tested the prevalence of what you described as “prejudice-signifying terms” in these outlets over the period. Let me ask a two-part question. First, how did you select the outlets and the timeframe? And second, why don’t you help our listeners understand what you mean by prejudice-signifying terms, and what were some of the words and language that you were searching for?

AARON WUDRICK: Sure. So, I mean, on the first part, we picked a time period of about 20 years. The primary way that we gathered the data was by scraping the websites of these major news organizations, and we picked the most well-known major media outlets. So, Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, CBC, and French-language outlets like La Presse or Le Journal de Montréal. So literally, just the biggest outlets was our criteria.

We then gathered all the data for all the news stories going back about 20 years. It was an attempt to get a longitudinal view, the best way to test whether things have changed over time. With respect to the language, when we say a social justice-signifying language, words that involve racism, things like sexism, distinct forms of prejudice. These are all terms we’re pretty familiar with in the day-to-day.

And again, the reason for wanting to do this study was a lot of people feel that there has been a change in the emphasis of news or the use of these terms. And so we wanted to see, is it in fact true? Are news outlets using these types of words a lot more now than they were, say, 10 or 15 years ago? That’s what we wanted to embark on here.

SEAN SPEER: It leads to the obvious question: What did you find in overall terms?

AARON WUDRICK: We found that there is a definite trend and there’s been a definite spike over the last, I would say, just less than 10 years now in the use of this language across all different types of prejudice-signifying language. So it is a real thing. That’s the first point I would make, and this is similar to what we’ve seen in other countries as well. Depending on the type of prejudice, it has increased to a greater or lesser degree, but the focus on these issues, on things like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism—people are not imagining it. There has actually been an increase in the use of these terms in the news.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. Let me take up a specific example. The most significant increase in prevalence in the ideas and language that you studied is what you characterize as gender identity prejudice, which saw an increase of 2285 percent between 2010 and 2021 alone. Do you want to unpack that a bit? What did you find, and what do you think is behind it?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I think this is particularly interesting; obviously, as you said, it’s the one that was the most dramatic rise. I think that might be partly explained by the fact it was starting from such a low base level. I mean, the idea of gender identity, even as a sort of area for public discussion, is relatively new, right? If you go back 20 or 25 years, I don’t think a lot of people even realize that this was something that was out there. It’s now entered mainstream conversation. So I think that’s part of the explanation.

The other is that it’s probably of all the different types of “-isms” that we could talk about. It might be that one of the most contentious people have very strong feelings about it on either side. Some people take the view that even discussing the topic itself is prejudicial. So, I think that probably explains the fact that it is even more controversial in a basket of things that are all controversial. It is the most controversial. That probably explains why the language increased as much as it has.

SEAN SPEER: Another key finding, Aaron, is that the prevalence of prejudice-signifying terms was roughly equal among news outlets characterized as being left-leaning and right-leaning, which is different than in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the prevalence was far greater in left-leaning publications. What does that tell us? Is there no such thing as right-wing media in Canada?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, there are a couple of ways to look at this. One theory I have is that the reason for this is that the spectrum of the news media in Canada is just narrower overall than the U.S. So in the U.S., you just have—the span of Left to Right, if we look at it that way, is wider and longer than in Canada. In Canada, you have outlets that, and I think most people or regular consumers of news media would agree, there are some outlets that lean Left or lean Right. But whatever we might think about how far Left and how far Right they’re in Canada, the gap is just not as big as it is in the United States. So I think the media ecosystem here is just not as wide as it is in the U.S.

The other thing, and this is a limitation to the study, is when media use these terms, we don’t know if they’re using them to dismiss them, right? For all we know, if the National Post versus the Toronto Star uses the term transphobic, maybe the Toronto Star is using it to say in a story that they think transphobia is happening, whereas in the Post, which leans Right, they might be dismissing it. So only testing on the frequency of the appearance of the words doesn’t always give us the context around them. So that is one limitation here that we have to explore further.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good observation, Aaron. It’s just worth emphasizing for listeners that that’s partly a consequence of nearly 6 million different instances that you cover in the study. So that level of more qualitative analysis would’ve represented a pretty major undertaking given the scope and ambition of your quantitative work.

I mentioned this is an example where you found difference between the Canadian experience and similar research in the United States and the United Kingdom. If you want to take up that point further, how else do your findings compare to similar research elsewhere across the Anglo-American world?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I mean, it is broadly similar. I don’t want to overstate the difference. And a lot of time, it’s contemporaneous. So the idea that this was happening well before in America, we were simply following. You might be able to make that case, but it is moving in parallel. A couple of things that really stood out.

One was on the relative frequency of mentions of Islamophobia versus anti-Semitism. That was one that really stuck out for us. They polar opposites in Canada and the United States. In Canada, the focus on Islamophobia is quite high versus anti-Semitism, which is low, whereas in the United States, it’s the opposite. Anti-Semitism tends to appear a lot more than Islamophobia. Theorizing as to why that is, again, is very interesting. We don’t answer the question in the paper. Does it have to do with the readership? Does it have to do with the different views of the journalists in Canada and the United States? Is it a demographic weight of those constituencies of Muslims and Jews in Canada and the United States? I don’t know, but there is a very distinct difference in the trend between Canada and the United States on those two.

SEAN SPEER: Another interesting finding for me is that there’s some evidence that these ideas and language may have peaked in the past few years. It reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s recent observation that we may have reached “peak wokeism” as the general population begins to push back against some of its excesses. Does that argument resonate with you, Aaron? Is there a reason to think that your research may validate Cowen’s thesis, at least as far as Canada goes?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I mean, if you look at most of the measures for most of the language, the peak in terms of frequency of appearance happened a couple years ago. It has come down a little bit. I should say, though, that the levelling off that we’re seeing on most of these measures, we’re coming down, we’re resting at a much higher level than where we started. So we went way up and we’ve come down a little bit, but the resting rate, if you will, is still highly elevated from going back 10 or 15 years. So I don’t want to overstate the case.

The other is that this term about “peak woke” has been thrown around in a lot of different contexts lately. If that’s true in media, our theory as to why this started in the first place is if, for example, one of the catalysts for this was the rise of wokeness in university campuses and that media follows after, unless it is also levelling off on campuses, then this catalyst for future spikes in wokeness would still be there. So if you view woke—I know that the term is overused and some people are annoyed with the use of woke at all, but I use it just as shorthand—wokeness has more than one fountain-head and media is only one of them. It does appear from the data that it is not increasing further right now in media. So I do think, if you’re looking strictly at media, you can argue we have past peak woke, and we are now down a little bit at a resting rate much higher than when we started.

SEAN SPEER: That leads to the question about what’s behind these trends. The paper contemplates six explanations for the rise of these ideas and language in the news media. Do you want to talk a bit about that, Aaron? Which ones do you think are the most persuasive? 

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I mean, so just so people know the theories that we have, one is that we’re just mirroring trends in the United States. A second one is that these are just reflecting changes in society. Society’s become more prejudiced, and so the news is just reflecting and they’re holding up a mirror to the public. The third is that even if prejudice hasn’t increased, our institutions and public awareness are more sensitive to these things. So we’re giving them more airtime, even though they haven’t really changed much in terms of frequency in society. Another theory is that the journalists themselves have changed. Journalists are more ideological themselves and care more about these issues. And similar to that, is this a question of broader political changes— so journalists being influenced by just a broader political culture change.

And then the last being financial incentives, right? Everyone knows that the media’s money-making model is broken when advertising migrated to the internet, threw everything into flux. So now it’s about chasing eyeballs. And we all know that old chestnut about how if it bleeds, it leads controversial news; angry news tends to generate more eyeballs. Finding issues where people are going to get angrier, worked up, or upset, it’s now good for business. And so there’s a very strong financial incentive to do that.

In terms of what I think, I mean, I think I’m skeptical of the idea that society’s become more prejudiced. I’m certainly not saying we live in a prejudice-free society, but I think, if anything, things have been improving. And most surveys of people’s attitudes tend to suggest people are getting less prejudiced overall rather than more. So I’m wary of that.

I do think there’s something to the change in who are journalists. I’m not sure it’s entirely ideological as it is a matter of class. I know that you had other guests that have talked about this issue. Journalism used to be a much more diverse profession, and now it’s in terms of educational background. Now it’s a highly professionalized oppression, and I think that reflects the priorities of the people. Their lived experience is simply not one of where they’ve had to worry about, for example, a lot of blue-collar issues. So I think that’s reflecting this coverage, and it allows these people to be more tuned to concerns like racism. Whereas before, the focus might have been more heavily towards things like getting a job or building family.

So I tend to think the financial incentives though are probably one of the strongest factors here. It is a dogfight out there in the media landscape. Legacy media are slowly shrivelling up, and people are trying to hang on for dear life. And anything you can do to get eyeballs will help you there. Stoking concerns, stoking anger, telling people that there’s this huge, outrageous problem that they need to pay attention to or do something about is probably good for attracting eyeballs. So, my view without having explored it in depth yet, that’s my instinct as to the answer.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, that’s a comprehensive answer, Aaron. Your final point resonates with me, particularly if we go back to your earlier comments about the extent to which these trends seem to manifest themselves, both in left-leaning and right-leaning publications. The one commonality they both have is they’re trying to make a go of it as a for-profit business in a pretty tough environment. Leaning into so-called “culture war” issues may not necessarily be good for social cohesion or public discourse, but it may be a crucial ingredient to generating revenues in a challenging marketplace.

Let me take up a couple of your observations, though. As you mentioned, we’ve previously spoken to Batya Ungar-Sargon, the American journalist, whose book Woke Media makes a couple of big arguments along the lines you described. First, that modern journalists are, as you say, more professionalized, more homogeneously left-wing, and in turn less committed to viewpoint neutrality than in the past. Second, that the end of traditional advertising has pushed the media into a subscriber-driven model, which preferences content that is less about information and more about being responsive to the preferences of one’s subscribers, and that the combination of these two forces seems to be pushing outlets increasingly in the direction of this type of thinking and ideas, and language. What do you think about that argument, and what do you think its relevance is for the Canadian market?

AARON WUDRICK: I think it’s a powerful argument, and it makes perfect sense when people think about it. I mean, it’s easy to argue—a lot of people point out that it’s not healthy to consume only things you agree with, right? But the reality is, when given the choice, the revealed preference is people only want to read things they agree with. They don’t want to read, they don’t want be confronted with pushback on their pre-existing views. And in an environment where the media’s revenue model is not premised on worrying about where you’re going to get your eyeballs—in the newspaper era before the internet, you got all your revenue from the classified section. So you could publish whatever you want, whether it’s your straight news, which still often has at least a slight editorial slant, or your opinion pieces. You don’t have to worry about losing your readership because they have nowhere else to go. But now they don’t derive their—

SEAN SPEER: Sorry if I could just interrupt for a second, Aaron, only to reinforce the point. It’s not just that you had a captive audience, but actually the incentive was to build as broad an audience as possible, of course, because of the advertisers. And so in the absence of that incentive to have as broad an audience as possible, it seems like media outlets are doing precisely the opposite. They’re going deep into smaller, more galvanized audiences than in the past.

AARON WUDRICK: Yes, that’s a very key point. And it’s logical for them. And I think a lot of folks inside these shrivelling empires would acknowledge that they’re in a dogfight for eyeballs. And they don’t really have much choice; they probably recognize the problem as well. There’s not much they can do about it. And even when you look at a subscriber model same is still true. I mean, people are not going to voluntarily pay money for content that they don’t like or that they find offensive, or that runs counter to their views. So it is a real challenge because, I think, a lot of outlets have come out of the gates hoping to—they recognize the importance of the principle of being balanced but they find that it’s just harder to attract people. So I think that is a real struggle for a lot of media, and only anyone has landed on a real solution to it.

I would say that maybe the reality in the media landscape of the future, there’s just less media. People point out the decline of the media’s capacity to do certain things, but we should also remember that some things we don’t need media to do anymore. So if you look at reporting on certain things, governments put a lot of information on the internet if you want to go find it. If you want to read every word spoken in the House of Commons through Hansard, you can go on a website and read all of that if you want. So you can still have access to that information that you used to only be able to get through a newspaper. And so I think newspapers and journalism’s value add is going to be finding things and maybe distilling information, sifting through information from people. Because in terms of mass quantities of information, there’s never been more of it at our fingertips than there is now. And so I don’t think journalism’s job needs to be to just share all information, which people can get, frankly, without a media outlet, but to find a value add to distill things down for people who are busy, don’t have the time to go hunting for this stuff.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve been talking about the interaction and relationship between news media outlets and their core readers or core subscribers, but I want to talk about the relationship between the news media and the broader population. Talk, Aaron, about the two-way conversation between the news media and the public on these issues. Do you think the media is leading the public or responding to it?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I mean, I guess the best way to measure that is whether the public—and you could ask the public, “Do you think that the media is reflecting your concerns and views?” And the news isn’t good for media there, right? I think a media that is representative and responsive to the public and the things that the public cares about is going to have a high level of trust. It’s when there’s a disconnect that you’re going to see a deterioration in the level of trust. And we’ve seen that here as we’ve seen elsewhere.

You take an entity like the CBC, for example—which I know Elon Musk has decided that they need the government-funded tag. And CBC can be very divisive to people. Some people love the CBC, some people hate the CBC. But I think the reason that some people—it’s not that they hate the CBC, it’s that they feel the CBC doesn’t talk about the things that matter to them anymore.

I’m in that camp. I’ve dealt with a lot of CBC journalists over my career, Sean, and they’ve almost, to a man and woman, been decent people. I haven’t found them overly ideological or problematic, but I stopped watching CBC news on TV a long time ago because I found that a lot of the stories that were on there were just not things that mattered to anybody that I knew.

So I think that the problem is that the media is trying to lead on these things. The media in a lot of cases now, rather than saying “What matters to people? And we’ll do a story on that.” It’s people who are well-intentioned and well-meaning saying, “You know what? These issues are important. So we’re going to platform these issues to try and convince the public that these are important things that they should care about and that they should follow.” And the public’s not buying it. They’re reading or watching the news content and saying, “I read these media outlets or watch this TV news or open up this newspaper, and I see stories about things that I don’t care about or seem niche, and I don’t see stories about things that matter a lot to me.” I think that’s behind a lot of the loss of trust.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, it seems to me there’s an analogy, Aaron, between a political party’s relationship to its core base voters and its relationship to the wider public that it’s trying to ultimately persuade. I think it’s generally accepted that a political party that is too responsive to its base voters risks building something of a disconnect to the broader population. And seems to me the same principle applies to the news media. And that partly manifests itself in what you’re talking about: a sense that the media is having a conversation with its subscribers and increasingly the general public is not part of that conversation.

An entity that is increasingly part of the conversation, though, when it comes to the Canadian media is the government. The news media is increasingly dependent on government for financial support. How do you think that interacts with the developments we’ve been talking about?

AARON WUDRICK: Well, if we come back to incentives again, in the same way that a media that’s chasing certain eyeballs is going to want to be attuned to what the people who have those eyeballs care about or what I read or consume, any media outlet that’s dependent on government is obviously going to take into consideration what the government wants. And, I mean, that’s not always as blatant as pulling punches on the government or not criticizing the government. I think that happens sometimes. But that’s not the only risk. It’s also on a general orientation.

If you have to take the current government we have in Ottawa, this is a government that, for example, champions climate change as the issue of all issues, I think that a news outlet that wants to be seen in a good light by the government is going to ensure that it devotes a disproportionate amount of resources to that issue whether or not that’s something that the public at large is equally as interested in.

So again, I don’t want to accuse journalists of always deliberately going out of their way to suck up to government. I don’t think it’s like that. And I frankly think a lot of journalists are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they are not personally influenced, but their employers, the people making decisions higher up the food chain, know that they depend on government for survival. And so they’re going to be very reluctant to talk about things.

I mean, I’ll just give you one loose example, without naming too many outlets. At MLI, we’ve certainly published a lot of stuff critical of bills like the Online News Act, which would basically shake down big techs to subsidize newspapers and other media outlets. We have a hard time getting those op-eds and pieces published in certain major outlets, and you don’t have to guess why that is.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, it’s a good point. As you say, too often I think the conversation trends towards blatant examples of media bias vis-a-vis the government when the truth is the risks are in some ways more subtle and insidious. It’s a context in which the business model starts to bleed into the newsroom and, in so doing, as you say, puts a lot of journalists and their commitment to journalistic principles at some risk.

Before we wrap up, Aaron, you’ve mentioned, in a couple of cases, work that you’d like to explore further based on this initial foundational paper. Do you want to talk a bit about some of the possible lines of inquiry that would flow naturally from this work?

AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, I mean, one would be to do a more detailed survey of the political proclivities of journalists. I mean, are journalists more left-leaning than they were 20 years ago? A lot of people would instinctively say, “Probably, overall, yes.” But that hasn’t been measured. And that’s the big one.

I also think maybe you could do an analysis depending on different outlets that represent different business models. So you could try and look to see if is there a correlation between the temptation to use this language across outlets that rely on eyeballs versus the subscriber model versus other different models. Is there a trend? Is there a tendency for outlets to lean on this language or stoke anger or upsetness because of the type of model they have?

For now, though, we really just wanted to put this out there as the beginning of a conversation to quantify something, and then certainly ourselves, and we invite others to build on that and look at what the explanation is to the numbers that we found.

SEAN SPEER: Well, you and the team deserve tremendous credit for, as you say, starting that conversation. I would just say for listeners interested in the subject of measuring the political preferences of individuals within large institutions, that MLI has done that kind of work before concerning faculty members on university campuses. So this is a kind of line of analysis that you’ve pursued before, and maybe in the future we’ll be in a position to pursue when it comes to the news media. In the meantime, there’s more than enough for readers to mull over in this first study entitled “Northern Awokening: How social justice and woke language have infiltrated Canadian news media.”

Aaron Wudrick, director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

AARON WUDRICK: Thanks for having me, Sean.