Media whining or democratic crisis?

In 2012, I began a small research project that examined how journalists at national newspapers wrote about the challenges they faced in getting information out of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. By that point, it was clear that Harper and his cabinet had little time for reporters — they granted few interviews (far fewer than most of their predecessors), floated the idea of creating their own press gallery and tried to bar journalists from covering repatriation ceremonies for soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Journalists were rightly concerned, but it failed to become an issue for the public, and I wanted to understand out why that might be. It wasn’t because journalists didn’t write about their lack of access to the government — they wrote about it a lot. But according to my analysis of how reporters wrote about the Harper government’s attitudes and actions toward them, they failed to do so in a way that garnered much support from the public.

As I explain in a chapter in the recently released The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada, edited by Lisa Taylor and Cara-Marie O’Hagan, from University of Toronto Press:

…journalists frame these issues in a way that ends up alienating readers instead of engendering their support for the key democratic role that journalists play. Drawing on an analysis of articles published during a five-year period, I suggest that reporters often framed their articles in an us-versus-them manner that personalized the issue and pitted journalists against the Harper government without clearly articulating why the public should be concerned about the federal government’s lack of openness and transparency.

It was an interesting project, but I figured it probably had a limited shelf life after the Conservatives made way for the Trudeau government in 2015, whose members are more media-friendly in many ways (although access-to-information reform remains a serious issue yet to be addressed). But with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, who spends an unusual amount of time vilifying the press and whose secretary of state suggests he sees no personal value in talking to most reporters and so doesn’t, it feels suddenly relevant again.

Interestingly, I think American news outlets and their reporters have done a better job so far in making a case to their audiences why journalistic access to government officials and documents is important. They’ve made it clear that they aren’t whining about their jobs becoming more difficult (although they have) but rather are highlighting a serious challenge to democracy when government leaders and their teams refuse to speak to reporters who are, of course, acting on behalf of the public. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between how Canadian reporters wrote about and framed their Harper government problems with how American reporters are now writing about and framing their Trump government problems.

A version of this post also appears on the Laurier Research Office’s website.