Me­dia To­day: Medium or the Mes­sage

Policy - - Before The Bell | From The Editor - BY DALE SMITH

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 Bell launched its new sea­son with the panel Me­dia To­day: Medium or the Mes­sage. Moder­a­tor Cather­ine Clark wel­comed leg­endary Wash­ing­ton pro­ducer Betsy Fis­cher Martin, who as the late Tim Russert’s long-time pro­ducer on Meet the Press was one of the most in­flu­en­tial women in Wash­ing­ton, and Globe and Mail en-

ergy 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 Press to­gether 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.

Look­ing to­day at the me­dia land­scape … you can have two to­tally dif­fer­ent uni­verses of in­for­ma­tion be­ing con­sumed.” — Betsy Fis­cher Martin Re­porter

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. — Shawn McCarthy Re­porter, Globe & Mail

“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 Mail and 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.

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