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Opinion, Dave Dale: Media literacy can help navigate conflicting narratives

Senior elementary is probably the best place to start teaching students about the global information buffet and how a healthy diet of news depends on your choices.
media literacy column (2)
Media literacy has always been topical but it has become a vital issue lately. Dave Dale's first column about it was while a first-year Canadore College student in 1986-87.

An acquaintance asked me the other day if the government controls what the mainstream media reports and it actually made me feel hopeful instead of dismayed. Their query capped off several weeks of “discussing” conflicting narratives as the pandemic turns two years old, Russia wages war in Ukraine and economies deflate.

“Is it true that the media in Ontario or Canada for that matter is paid for by the gov’t and only report what the gov’t wants printed or shown on TV? I hear this all the time, it kind of feels like there is truth behind it, but can it really be that way?”

It’s a good question that deserves a better answer than: “No, that’s something spread by nefarious agents to destabilize democratic society or by ‘media villians’ seeking to attract disenchanted sheep for their own fleecing.”

Of course, sometimes a news outlet will fall prey to human flaws, whether it’s trusting an untrustworthy source or the editorial managers genuinely agreeing with a government policy, thinking it’s in the public’s best interest. The most recent U.S. war on Iraq is one of the most blatant examples of mass media complicity. And there are many scenarios and instances where one or more mainstream outlets veer into obviously ideological lanes, sometimes permanently as a business decision. It’s definitely not cut and dry where you can die on the hill of mainstream media objectivity.

My enthusiasm for fielding such a ponder is partly fuelled by the exhaustion that follows ‘whack-a-mole’ conversations about vaccines, variants, data gaps, immunity via infection and the like. And if one more person equates the muddy motives of the mislabelled ‘Freedom Convoy’ and ‘peaceful protests’ to thousands of actual patriots and non-combatants being killed in Ukraine, I might explode into a million potato-stuffed pierogies.

Media literacy, in comparison, is a welcome topic that underpins much of the confusion and angst regarding those same subjects and much more as we enter another economic rollercoaster.

Asking someone with a background in journalism if mainstream media is fake news and/or government propaganda, is a positive sign that a person is doing their own thinking.

There are many layers and complex nuances involved when discussing so-called “media objectivity” and how that jives with financial and political bias of news operations. There is also the topic of the professionalism of individual reporters and media literacy of information consumers. And because the media landscape and the business model that supported it has been turned upside down by the internet, the definition of the industry has evolved.

Right off the hop, Canada and Ontario actually do fund certain aspects of “media” activity and we’re in the middle of a five-year Local Journalism Initiative program to help private media outlets hire extra reporters to cover under-serviced communities. And, of course, our country has the CBC and Radio Canada, a federal Crown corporation acting as a public broadcaster, and TVOntario, funded primarily through the Ministry of Education envelope.

In addition, there are “media” grants designed to stimulate digital innovation and some of it is for cultural diversity in programming.

It would be easy to assume that there are strings attached to the public purse, if you’re looking from the outside in, but several factors are in play. First and foremost, it doesn’t make up a large portion of a major news outlet's overall budget. More importantly, government propaganda repels viewer and reader support, which is essential for advertising revenue. The most important currency for a news outlet is its capacity to provide a package of information that is independent of government approval.

In fact, there was a time when mainstream journalistic publications refused any kind of government funding (except for advertising, they’ve always loved federal and provincial program promotion budgets.) That’s one of the things I learned when I first knocked on the Nugget’s front door in 1986 looking for a summer job. There was a provincial job creation program willing to cover my wages but Southam Newspapers at the time didn’t operate that way.

Things have changed considerably since then, mostly by the advent of free news being made available through the Internet. Massive drops in advertising revenue, increasing technology and publication costs, and evaporating subscription models (as publishers cut back on staff and product quality) have taken a toll. The Local Journalism Initiative, with about $150 million split up between dozens of publishers to hire reporters to cover small-town civic issues, was to replace some positions cut due to revenue sucked up by Google, Facebook, and other social media giants.

My six-month stint with Village Media a year ago was one such LJI position, the same one Stu Campaigne started out with and now occupied by David Briggs. The only governmental string attached was that it was for reporting on communities outside BayToday’s primary market and no opinion-based pieces by the funded reporter.

It didn’t change the reporting.

From what I’ve seen over 35 years in the media business, government funding doesn’t dictate what and how “news” is covered by non-public entities. Truth is, taking long hard looks at government policies and programs remains the best and easiest strategy for gaining readership (and therefore advertising revenue).

There is an easier argument to be made that the fear of losing advertisers – or hope of gaining some – stews in the mind of some publishers more than government handouts. The Nugget, for most of the time I was there, had a figurative brick wall between the news and ad departments for that exact reason. After four decades working at a variety of news outlets, I’ve never been told to take the government line on anything … although I’ve been subtly informed (and self-censored myself) because it was clear one or two of my story ideas were “not worth the trouble.”

I’ve always accepted that as part of the community news game, although I’ve never met a real, big-market investigative reporter or editor who would accept that contingency.

As for political bias, I’ve never been told to support one party over the other although it’s obvious there are news publishers and corporations who lean one way or another. It’s especially clear during the peak of election cycles, but that’s not because a publisher is trying to sway readers in an effort to swing elections or gain political points and government grants. Often it’s because the publisher believes in the ideology and the majority of the readers and advertisers supporting the outlet do as well.

Pick any news outlet and you can likely smell its general position on a political spectrum, even if the reporters and editors do a superb job of objectively covering issues. That’s why it is always recommended to have more than one source of breaking and in-depth news – you’ll never get the whole story in one place.

That’s the crux of the issue: putting all your trust in any media outlet is doing yourself a disservice. You need to read at least three or four reports on the same topic published by either established outlets or independent experts to be confident of having a decent idea what is happening.

All these issues are more glaring now that we are dealing with a 24/7 news cycle that requires instant coverage of unfolding events, which forces reporters to cut corners. That’s why you see so many one-source stories with only part of the issue covered – there just isn’t enough time and resources for the first installment to be more than the first draft with limited scope. It often takes three or four stories just to give a balanced and thoughtful account of one thing, with each piece held up as a substandard effort.

When people tell me that it is the media’s fault they can’t trust them, I often explain how they are an equally big part of the problem. Truth is a moving target and you should never depend solely on others to nail it down – they can deliver pieces of the puzzle but it’s your job to put them together.

Clearly this is a massive topic and I’m barely scratching the surface. No doubt I’ve raised more questions than answered, partly because mainstream media is not a homogenous group that acts in unison. The journalistic landscape is made up of businesses competing for market share and each acts individually and on different levels.

Perhaps we should teach media literacy alongside the efforts to improve financial literacy, with economic theory and geopolitics as complimentary courses?

It wasn’t long ago that I thought it should be a credit course in high school, but I’ve noticed many parents are instilling anti-media myths in their children. Senior elementary is probably the best place to start arming students about the global information buffet and how a healthy diet of news depends on your choices.

News is much like nutrition, you are what you eat. And remember, if you’re not paying for it … you are the product.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca