Opinion
June 3, 2012

Dysfunctional Parliament and the role of the media

Over the past few years there has been much dissatisfaction directed at the business of Parliament. The prevailing view is that our federal legislature is no longer effective or serving the needs of Canadians.

To further bolster this view, this past November, Keith Martin, the Liberal MP from Victoria, announced he was leaving Parliament after 18 years because “there’s a deep and profound level of dissatisfaction across party lines that Parliament has become a colossal waste of money.” In essence, he concluded that parliamentarians are too partisan and unproductive and, as a consequence, are not addressing the issues of importance to Canadians.  

In trying to search for remedies, it might be useful to step back and take a good look at the context and surrounding conditions that shape our views of Parliament and of government.  

One of the most important mediating factors in shaping our views of Parliament is the role played by the media. Since most of us will not have direct contact with any elected officials, we rely almost exclusively on the media to provide us with the information needed to form our beliefs.

However, while we depend so heavily on the media to provide us with insights into government, it is important to appreciate how much the media has changed in response to the twin drivers of technological change and globalization.

Traditionally, the role of the media has been to inform the public, scrutinize government, encourage public debate, and express views on issues. While these principles have not changed over the years, there has been a profound reordering of the newsgathering and dissemination industry since the moment in 1980 when CNN launched the 24/7 news cycle. Since then, we have seen the creation of all-news stations, the advent of new media, an increasing competition for eyeballs among all media sources, changing business models where cross subsidies no longer work, time-challenged journalists with unreasonable deadlines, and the personalization of news.   

The impact on the news business has been devastating in Canada and in the United States. For example, in the U.S. during 2009, newspapers including online news sources saw advertising revenue fall 26 percent during the year, bringing the total loss over the past three years to 43 percent. It is also estimated that annual reporting and editing capacity has declined by more than 30 percent over the past decade.

As a result of this turmoil and rapid change a number of trends are now discernable. First, the number of journalists that report the news is getting smaller but the commentary and discussion aspect of media is growing in cable, radio, social media, blogs and elsewhere. Second, more than 70 percent of Americans express the view that most news sources are biased in their coverage and 70 percent feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information that they see.

Third, as newsrooms get smaller, the number of non-journalists who are entering the information and news field is growing rapidly. These new players are increasingly competing for the public’s attention and their resources are growing fast in contrast to those of traditional journalism.  

Fourth, as media outlets multiply it becomes easier to disseminate information on the web and on cable while the news cycle gets shorter. This has increased the pressure on media outlets to entertain or perish, which, in turn, has fed their need to fill a particular need: not to be pro-liberal or pro-conservative but to be pro-conflict. As a result, much of the media focus on the most extreme elements on both sides of an issue. As one veteran observer has stated, “they can’t get enough conflict.” As a consequence, the coverage is not centred on issues, but on a clash of personalities.

For those seeking a more functional Parliament, the media, by necessity, will be a major player in this transformation. Unfortunately, it is easier to analyze the current situation than it is to provide workable solutions. However, as a starting point, the day-to-day objective for all media should be to provide the public with better information about Parliament that is accurate, truthful and fair. Additionally, balanced analysis and insight would also be welcome.  

In practical terms, there are a few small and inexpensive changes that the media could do to address the declining trust in their profession: use only attributable quotes, clearly separate factual reporting from commentary, and commit to using verifiable evidence as the basis for reporting on political events.

The bottom line for those of us who are so dependent on the media for our information is that the owners and the practitioners need to reflect on their importance in defining our governance system despite their own precarious state.

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