Media Today: Medium or the Message

by Dale Smith
Sixth Estate

With the next Canadian federal election little more than a year away and the campaign for November’s midterms in the United States providing lessons for Canadian media on what to expect in a changing news landscape, Before the Belllaunched its new season with the panel Media Today: Medium or the Message. ModeratorCatherine Clarkwelcomed legendary Washington producer Betsy Fischer Martin, who as the late Tim Russert’s long-time producer on Meet the Presswas one of the most influential women in Washington, and Globe and Mailenergy reporter and Carleton University reporting instructor Shawn McCarthy.

The Emmy Award-winning Fischer Martin, now executive director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, spoke about asymmetrical polarization, whereby one political party moves significantly away from the mainstream, largely used to describe the move of the Republican Party further to the right while the Democratic Party has only moved slightly to the left. Fischer Martin likened it to a football game where the Democrats moved from the 40-yard line to the 30-yard line, while the Republicans went from their 40-yard line to beyond the goalposts.

“Looking today at the media landscape, I do think we have seen that same football game being played,” said Fischer Martin. “Conservative media has moved significantly away from what we think of as mainstream, centre-left, or even centre-right media. The result of that is a spectrum of media organizations where essentially you can have two totally different universes of information being consumed.”

Fischer Martin listed examples of how headlines are presented by different outlets, and which stories were given top billing between outlets that have more political leanings, and how that can create bubbles for media consumers.

Fischer Martin said that during the mid-90s, she would have the Senate majority and minority leaders on Meet the Presstogether to talk about legislation or issues, and that in the past ten to twelve years, she hasn’t seen the bearers of those two titles together in the same interview. She also noted that the series of hour-long interviews with presidential primary candidates that were the norm in 2000 have virtually disappeared as candidates chose friendly outlets for six- or seven-minute interviews.

Fischer Martin suggested there are things that both journalists and news consumers can do to combat polarization, such as producing more straight news and fewer opinion columns, and creating a sharper line between the two, along with ending the practice of newspaper editorial endorsements.

“We need to condition readers and news consumers to pay for good journalism,” said Fischer Martin, and pointed to the declining numbers of outlets. “They’re slashing staff left and right, and we end up with statehouses across the country that have no local reporters monitoring what’s going on in state legislatures – it’s one of the first things that newspapers cut.”

Shawn McCarthy, global energy reporter with the Globe and Mailand instructor of political reporting at Carleton University, said that metrics show newspaper publishers that people prefer to read columns, which is why resources get shifted there.

“You go where the numbers are, especially when the business models are under so much stress now,” said McCarthy. “Maybe in Canada, there’s a bit less of that hardcore opinion that you would associate with…a political point of view, but it’s going that way.”

McCarthy said that there are still people in Canada who feel that the mainstream media is either too far left or too far right for their particular point of view.

McCarthy noted that social media is not only allowing politicians to bypass the media to reach people directly, it’s also impacted marketing when businesses bypass media advertising for targeted social advertising. The downside of this, he noted, is that it tends to only reach a core audience.

“If you’re trying to reach those who are not partisans but are persuadable, you have to look beyond that strategy,” said McCarthy.

Fischer Martin said that media need to figure out how to give people both their “short clicks” along with more substantive content, that will still provide a viable business model. McCarthy also said that people need to beware of treating the media as a monolith when each organization has a target audience that is different from their competitors.

McCarthy said that he sees the same trends from the U.S. happening in Canada when it comes to the reach of populist leaders — perhaps not in as visceral a manner as with President Donald Trump, but that they are all tapping into fears among the electorate about how fast the world is changing.

“Politics is reflecting that and the media are reflecting that,” said McCarthy.


Watch this special edition of Before the Bell here

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