Things are changing in Canadian media circles, and it is not all good news. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression [CJFE], have issued their 8th Annual Review of Free Expression in Canada, and, while definite progress is being reported in areas like ending police surveillance of journalists, and moves by the Canadian Government to revise the Harper Government’s anti-terrorism legislation, the Report views with real concern the influence of fake news, and what is often tagged as fake news, in Canadian reporting.
“Clickbait headlines with little basis in reality truly do spread in a viral manner, and they erode the public’s trust in professional journalism outlets. The label ‘fake news’ is now being applied to anything someone disagrees with, regardless of its veracity”. CJFE claims that the increased use of fake news is partly due to a decrease in revenues for traditional media outlets and a drop in coverage by reporters of controversial issues, because of “fears over government surveillance”.
The impact this is having on Canadians was indicated in a survey conducted by CJFE, which showed that 83% of respondents “agree or somewhat agree that the rise of fake news is making it harder to tell which outlets are legitimate”. More worrying is the statistic that 76% of Canadians agree or somewhat agree that the labelling of legitimate news outlets as “fake news” is damaging to our democratic process. This, in turn, is being blamed on the rise of “Trump-style politics” in Canada, as “Mass layoffs of journalists mean Canadians are losing sources for reliable information at a time when fake news is spreading like a virus across social media”.
This brings us to another area where CJFE has expressed deep concern in the Canadian context. These layoffs of journalists are taking place in a situation where there is a growing concentration of media ownership in Canada. The CJFE Report states that, “according to the International Media Concentration Project at Columbia University, Canada has the worst media concentration out of 28 developed nations”. The vast majority of media outlets in Canada are owned by either Postmedia Network Inc., Rogers, Bell Media or Torstar. Postmedia is owned by an American hedgefund and is suffering from serious financial problems, which has led to layoffs, closure of outlets, and restricted reporting of stories.
Torstar controls three main media groups: Star Media Group, Metroland Media Group, and Digital Ventures. Star Media Group owns the Toronto Star and the daily Metro paper in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Halifax, among other outlets. Metroland operates in southern and eastern Ontario, and owns two major newspapers, as well as more than 100 community papers, though that number is changing with the closure of some of the local outlets. Metroland owns the Kemptville Advance and Inside the Ottawa Valley, and, in 2011, bought the Smith Falls-based Performance Printing.
This concentration of ownership has meant that there is much less coverage of local news and municipal politics in areas covered by these corporations than had been the case in the past. The exceptions are where corporations face competition from locally-owned, independent papers, such as the North Grenville Times. In a time of falling revenues from advertising, this competition can be fierce, as the deep pockets of the corporations go up against the independents.
However, it should be noted that, despite predictions of doom for print media, community newspapers are still thriving, compared to national ones, and it is clear that Canadians still value local news coverage, and knowing what is happening in their community and on municipal councils. The future may yet lie with the independents.