A majority of citizens are still looking to traditional news media to get their information on the political pulse of the nation. But there is a big problem: They are not getting what they’re searching for.
Or they find just a part of it, and in recent years many have been turning instead to social media and other non-traditional news outlets with the hope of finding the information they want.
This is one of the conclusions found in “Occupiers and Legislators: A Snapshot of Political Coverage”, a report on public and political affairs journalism produced by Samara, a charitable organisation working to improve political and civic engagement. In the study, published today, authors Heather Bastedo, Wayne Shu and Jane Hilderman take a close look at some of the criticism directed over the years at the news media and try to determine the validity of the complaints.
7,594 stories from 42 newspapers
The authors asked themselves three questions: “Is the tone of political news coverage overtly or routinely negative?”, “Does the news media fail to provide the public with enough information about issues that affect their daily lives?”, and “Do stories overly focus on political games or government processes at the expense of issues?”
Using data collected by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University, they examined 7,594 stories from 42 major daily newspapers and six national television programs both in French and English. And since most of these stories also appeared online, researchers were able to study political conversations on Twitter.
SAME STORIES, different approaches
What the authors found, regarding the first question, is that “contrary to popular belief, political news coverage is not overtly or routinely negative”.
But Samara did find something quite surprising and difficult to explain. There were “notable differences” of tone in how newspapers and television reported on the same story. For example, on the Occupy protest, television appeared to be somewhat more negative than newspapers. Overall, 51% of television stories and 45% of newspapers stories were negative. For the federal legislative agenda, Samara noted that television coverage again differed from that of newspapers, “but this time for its distinctively positive tone”.
“The systematic differences between how television and newspapers report on political issues raise important questions, including: Why was the television news so negative when describing the grassroots politics of Occupy and so positive when describing government legislation?”
PERSONALITIES vs Issues
This Samara report also brings down another criticism against journalists and newspapers: that they focus more on political personalities and political games than on stories that help readers understand the real issues. The authors note that many Canadians say they are frustrated by news stories that seem to focus only on where politicians went on trips, where they stayed in hotels, and how much money they spent. Even former Members of Parliament, interviewed by Samara for its exit series, had raised similar complaints and said that the media’s focus on political games “obscured the real work they were doing in Parliament”.
“But, says the report, despite common beliefs about the preoccupations of the news media, the news stories we collected suggest that political games stories are not as prevalent as many believe.” Overall, almost half of the newspaper coverage of government legislation and a third of television coverage was, in fact, focused on the issues (as we might expect, newspapers are generally more issue-focused than television news coverage).
"I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND what I'm looking for", or where news media really fail
Unfortunately for the Canadian public, this Samara report concludes with a resounding yes to the second question: “Does the news media fail to provide the public with enough information about issues that affect their daily lives?”
“The news coverage we tracked was not very informative”, say the authors, with only 23% of the government legislation stories classified as “very informative”, and a mere 31% of those on the Occupy protest ending up in the same category. The failure of newspapers in that regard is particularly embarrassing, since newspapers are considered by many as generally more informative than television.
“Our evidence suggests that citizens must sift through many news stories to find the information they seek”, write the authors.
This failure might explain why over a quarter of the links found on Twitter were to non-traditional sources (Huffington Post Canada, Rabble.ca, to which we must add the Digital Journal). For Samara, this is notable and points to the possibility of a more diverse social media conversation in the future.
“Occupiers and Legislators” follows in the footsteps of many reports Samara has published about Canadian governance. It is also the first step in a new endeavour that will see the launch, in 2013, of the Samara Democracy Index.