What’s the number one issue facing Canadian media? According to Peter Steven, it’s diversity. Steven, a professor of media studies at Sheridan College in Ontario, has written a guide to Canadian media for Fernwood Publishing’s pocketbook series About CanadaMarc Edge reviews it for J-Source.

What’s the number one issue facing Canadian media? According to Peter Steven, it’s diversity. Steven, a professor of media studies at Sheridan College in Ontario, has written a guide to Canadian media for Fernwood Publishing’s pocketbook series About Canada. Marc Edge reviews it for J-Source.

 

Review: "About Canada: Media"

What’s the number one issue facing Canadian media? According to Peter Steven, it’s diversity. Steven, a professor of media studies at Sheridan College in Ontario, has written a dandy little guide to Canadian media for Fernwood Publishing’s pocketbook series About Canada. (South Park would have a field day with that one!) Utilizing the political economy approach, Steven rails against the failings of Canada’s concentrated and corporate-dominated media. As a vast, multi-ethnic land driven by regional differences, he notes, Canada needs diverse media that speak to and across all sectors of society. Instead, diversity seems a low priority even at leading newspapers such as The Globe and Mail, which speaks mostly to elites. The ranks of journalists also fail to reflect the diversity of Canadian society, according to Steven, as does much of the country’s news and public affairs programming. But he finds the greatest gap in media diversity centres on English-language journalism’s portrayal of Quebec’s role in Canada. Steven does his part to bridge the two solitudes with an informative chapter on Quebec media, but typically of this book it is heavy on film.

Steven also sees Canada’s media as suffering from a crisis of quality. “What we have now is inferior to what existed ten or twenty years ago,” he asserts in the book’s opening chapter, which Fernwood has posted online. This has resulted from federal funding cuts to the CBC and job cuts in the commercial media. Canada’s news system is one of the least competitive in the Western world as a result, according to Steven. Commercial radio, he says, has “sunk to the worst it has ever been in reporting or showcasing Canadian content.” And don’t get him started on investigative reporting. “Our media lack a critical backbone,” he complains. “They seem incapable of playing a real watchdog role, independent of the state and the larger corporations.”

Yet for all its negativity, About Canada: Media fails to achieve full polemic status because it nicely sets out the other side. Steven even includes a full-page summary of What Canada Does Right in media. It’s a short list that includes nurturing world-class artists and effectively mixing public and private ownership. He also spends several pages dividing the conservative critique of Canadian media into three strains – populist and libertarian, traditionalist, and corporate. He finds the latter most powerful of all, pushing a free-market message not only through its media but also through right-wing think tanks. The book’s appendix that profiles the country’s leading media players is especially useful.

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As expected from his background as a Ph.D. in radio/TV/film from Northwestern University in Illinois, Steven provides solid information on broadcasting and cinema. About Canada: Media includes useful information on Aboriginal film, French- and English-language TV, Canuxplotation flicks, and eight full pages (of 176 total) classifying Canadian documentary types. Steven seems less sure on the print side, however, committing several glaring errors. He misstates the historic progression of newspaper ownership concentration in Canada. (It was 58 percent by two chains after 1980’s “Black Wednesday” closures of the Ottawa Citizen and Winnipeg Tribune, not in 1970.) He connects the canoe.ca website to the Postmedia newspaper chain instead of to Quebecor’s Sun Media. He wrongly states that the CRTC restricts media ownership to one newspaper or TV station in a market. (TV stations yes, newspapers no.) He also asserts that “TV stations make far more money than newspapers.” A glance at the financial reports of multimedia companies like Quebecor or the CRTC’s annual Monitoring Reports would show this to be a fallacy. Despite the economic downturn, newspapers are still making a healthy profit. It’s the television networks that are hurting, due mostly to their wild spending on U.S. programming.

Steven also seems unclear on federal initiatives to discourage foreign ownership of newspaper and book publishers. “Canadian newspapers and book publishers must be, by law, primarily Canadian owned,” he writes. Notions of press freedom instead prevented majority foreign ownership of either from being prohibited outright. Canadian control is instead assured by tax measures and subsidies, respectively. His treatment of media effects deals mostly with on-screen violence, ignoring well-documented political effects such as agenda setting, framing, priming, etc. He conflates investigative journalism with advocacy journalism, seeing it as “not impartial.” He writes that media giant Quebecor made its money in paper production when it was actually in printing. The book also includes some thigh-slapping typos – undo emphasis, well-healed productions, and Liberal Part of Canada – that conjure up deliciously mixed metaphors. Chanteuse Diana Krall somehow becomes Diana Kroll. A good editor, of course, would have caught most of these errors. And while featuring nine pages of endnotes, the book could have also used a bibliography and index.

All in all, however, About Canada: Media is a useful, if opinionated, introduction to the lamentable state of our country’s media. It would be suitable reading for an introductory college or university course, or for any interested citizen.

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Marc Edge is a Vancouver-based author and journalism educator. His most recent book is Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (New Star Books, 2007).He recently took his act to Fiji, where he is head of the journalism program at the University of the South Pacific. Visit him online at www.marcedge.com