Shades of language: Looking into Canadian media coverage of Quebec
By Shannon O’Reilly, for Convergence
Pauline Marois hadn’t even been sworn in as Quebec’s new premier before debate began that a move to ensure French as the predominant language would mean a lesser voice for the English speaking population.
“Marois playing with matches,” the headline in the Toronto Sun read Oct. 15, 2012. The paper reported that Marois had shunned English reporters, while happily answering questions in French.
On the same day, French Quebec newspaper Le Devoir published a story with the headline “Clôture du sommet de la Francophonie - Afrique: Marois met de l’eau dans son vin.”
While the English story focused on Marois’ apparent lack of respect for a language other than French, Le Devoir’s story recaptured the highlights of her visit abroad to francophone countries.
Should there be real concern that English reporters will be ignored by the PQ government and granted only limited access?
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Tim Duboyce, CBC TV’s National Assembly correspondent doesn’t think so.
“It’s actually been a real breath of fresh air to have the Parti Quebecois government come into power . . . for the simple reason that it’s a fresh new government that wants to prove itself to everybody,” says Duboyce. “They’ve been bending over backwards to actually try to appeal to the anglophone community and show them that they’re not scary and that translates into access for us.”
Alexandre Robillard, a francophone Canadian journalist covering the National Assembly for La Presse Canadienne says he has not noticed any battles over language between English reporters and government representatives.
“I know that the election of the PQ always triggers the same fears [about anglophones being shunned] but I don’t notice any change,” says Robillard.
In terms of the Toronto Sun claiming Marois refused to speak with English reporters, Duboyce says that is certainly not the case and was most likely a misunderstanding.
“If they get scrummed by reporters in the hall, they’ll answer one or two very quick questions in French and then just carry on and not answer any more questions at all, whether they are in English or in French,” says Duboyce.
“But I think it would be disingenuous to interpret that as a snub towards English in whichever case it happened. That’s not what’s actually happening,” adds Duboyce.
Robillard attributes the tension in the coverage of the English and French debate to the Liberals.
“There was a cabinet minister who started to systematically make statements in French and English whereas usually, most ministers, they just do their statements in French,” says Robillard. “So that is the only time here, in the five years I’ve been here, that I’ve seen some discussions between reporters on the way English and French were used in the news.”
Duboyce says there was always the worry with the PQ government coming in that, as a representative of the Anglophone community (a community that doesn’t often give its vote to the PQ), he would lose access and find it harder to get interviews.
“The story is completely the opposite in reality, on the ground,” says Duboyce. “There’s an openness and I would say an effort that goes beyond the Liberals in the last few years, when they were in power, to accommodate me and give me an interview.”
If the National Assembly representatives give both French and English reporters fair treatment and full access, then why are news stories so vastly different between Quebec and the rest of Canada?
Duboyce believes the English media outside of Quebec often don’t understand the culture, which can result in mixed signals in their reporting.
“I think Hugh MacLellan got it right; there really are two solitudes in this country. And I think they don’t understand each other,” says Duboyce. “So it is absolutely true. I think there are lots of English reporters or English media outside Quebec who either think they get things … or they quite admittedly don’t get it.”
Paul Knox, a former foreign reporter for The Globe and Mail and professor at Ryerson University, says language is not the only barrier to understanding culture.
“One of the things you realize when you live in a country that is of a different culture and national language than what you grew up with and worked in, is that there are stylistic differences in how the basic journalistic report is written in a different country,” says Knox.
Knox says a lot of this has to do with rhetoric and the differences in the way writing has developed over time in different countries.
He notes that the Anglo-American way of reporting is often quite different in structure than the way news stories are written in the romance languages.
“There is not necessarily the kind of premium [on having] the most important facts first in the lead that we put on it, and different ways of quoting people, different tenses that are used,” says Knox.
When Marois announced her cabinet on Sept. 19, The Globe and Mail and La Presse both reported on it. Below are the first paragraphs of each article.
“Stressing several times that her government is aiming to achieve Quebec’s separation from Canada, new Premier Pauline Marois announced a slate of ministers on Wednesday that includes some Parti Québécois stalwarts as well as quite a few freshly minted legislators.” - The Globe and Mail.
“Le nouveau gouvernement Marois surprendra davantage par ses structures que par les personnes choisies pour former le Conseil des ministres. Pas de grande surprise, donc, dans la liste desdéputés qui ont défilé mardi après-midi dans un hôtel situé tout près du Parlement. Mais la configuration des ministères sera bien différente de celle qui prévalait depuis 2003.” - La Presse.
In English, it translates to:
“The new Marois government will surprise more by its structure than by the people chosen to form the Council of Ministers. No big surprises, then, in the list of members of Parliament that was released on Tuesday afternoon in a hotel near the parliament. But the configuration of the ministers will be quite different from that which has been in place since 2003.”
The English lead is to the point; it lays the foundation for the story in one sentence. In the French lead, readers are offered more information in the first paragraph about the point of view the article will take.
Robillard says understanding culture while reporting is a two-way street.
“I think it’s a point of view and also a matter of sensitivity,” says Robillard. “You know what your readers are interested in so then you tend to focus on some aspect of an event that you know will interest your readers or viewers or listeners.”
When the PQ government was sworn in last September, the Canadian flag was removed from the hall where the event took place. Robillard says that while it was written about in Quebec, it made much bigger headlines in the rest of Canada.
Below are headlines in French and English, written on the same day.
“Marois’ swearing-in ceremony becomes a sovereigntist farce” – National Post.
“Les 54 députés péquistes sont assermentés” – Le Devoir
The French headline from La Presse did make reference to the flag being taken down but it was understated. The article merely reported the facts. The English headlines however used more emotive language.
Robillard says that while the coverage of an event may diverge, he doesn’t think it is distorted primarily or even necessarily between English and French media outlets.
“I think it’s just different,” says Robillard. “From our perspective here at The Canadian Press we have an English service and a French service and stories are not told the same because audiences are not the same. You have to present the story differently.”
On Jan. 29, La Presse Canadienne and its English equivalent, The Canadian Press, published articles about Marois meeting with Scotland’s independence leader Alex Salmond. While much of the story content is similar, the arrangement is different.
Knox says that as a foreign editor he was often asked, for instance: “‘well why don’t you get an Egyptian to write about Egypt?’
“It’s a great idea but the problem is it’s not simply a question about reporting,” said Knox. “You have to know your audience and you have to be able to talk to them through your writing.”
“You need to evoke a reality that would communicate well with [your audience],” says Knox.
To work in Quebec, Duboyce says it is essential to understand French.
“If you’re working with the English media, you absolutely have to be bilingual [in Quebec],” says Duboyce. “You functionally couldn’t do the job if you couldn’t speak French fluently.”
Duboyce points to the need to form relationships within the National Assembly and the need for a common tongue to do so.
“You build relationships with lawmakers and members of the government just by shooting the shit with them when you have a couple of free minutes,” says Duboyce. “And if you can’t do that in French, then you’re not going to get true access. You’ll be pigeon-holed as that kind of outsider.”
Gloria Galloway, a national correspondent for The Globe and Mail disagrees. She says that French and English reporters understand there is a language difference and try to accommodate that.
“There’s lots of help out there,” says Galloway. “Everything that happens in a committee or everything that happens in the House or everything that happens at a press conference at the National Press Theatre, there’s translation for all of that. So that makes it a lot easier as well.
“I don’t think it is essential to be bilingual if you’re a reporter,” adds Galloway.
Knox on the other hand doesn’t think people should always rely on translators because of fear the translator will put the translation into their own words.
“It’s hard to differentiate between what is verbatim and what is their distilled version,” said Knox. “It can often lead to misunderstanding or the interviewee not getting the full picture.”
The Quebec election last fall brought out “experts” en masse to voice their opinions on the state of the province and who would be the best person.
Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald titled one of her pieces “Are one-third of Quebec voters bigots?” and then went on to paint Quebecers as racist and intolerant.
Justin Ling, a freelance reporter in Montreal, wrote a piece for The Canadian Journalism Project, a resource and education site for journalists, in which he lamented:
“The rest of Canada, having anointed itself qualified to cover Quebec politics after a mere glancing over of the battlefield, is opening fire with a six-shooter of offensive political stereotypes.”
Ling says an article he read in the National Post by Rex Murphy exemplifies the problem many in Quebec have with the onslaught of criticism from people outside of the province.
“I cannot speak for the dynamics within Quebec,” Murphy wrote. “But outside, the feeling is more and more clear.”
Ling says that a sport reporter following Murphy’s line of thought might write something along the lines of: “‘while I’m not actually in the stadium, the feeling in the parking lot is that the home team is winning.’”
This seems to be a common theme,” Ling says. “‘I’m not there, I don’t know much about it, and I can’t offer any relevant insight – but boy, I sure do have a strong opinion about it.'"
Shannon O'Reilly is a Montreal native who grew up playing hockey with her two brothers. She moved to Toronto to pursue journalism because she wanted to hear people's stories and thought it would be great reason to travel and learn new things.
She recently graduated from Humber College's journalism program. Before Humber College, Shannon studied social sciences with psychology at John Abbott College.
Shannon is now heading to McGill University for new challenges.
This article was originally published in Covergence, a Humber College publication.