“News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age”: Putting Canadians First

April 5, 2017

In January, the Public Policy Forum released its study of news in Canada "The Shattered Mirror", as part of the Government’s public consultation on strengthening Canadian content in a digital world.

As we said at the time, we believe that any study on the future of news needs to be focused on the needs of Canadians. How do we ensure people can get the news and information they trust? That they are kept informed about what is happening in their world and how it affects them? That their news reflects a diversity of voices and views? That they have the information necessary to make informed democratic choices?

The Public Policy Forum report recognizes the vital role that CBC/Radio-Canada plays in informing Canadians. It also made three recommendations for how that role could change. Having examined the recommendations, we would like to share our thoughts.

Recommendation 10: "Bolster the ‘inform’ imperative in the CBC mandate"

Given the report’s focus on news and information, it is perhaps not surprising it recommends that the public broadcaster "do more to emphasize the instruction ‘to inform’". We certainly agree that informing Canadians is a vital part of our mandate; one which is more important than ever.

That is why CBC/Radio-Canada provides so much news and information on every platform; local, national and international news coverage; investigative and public affairs programs; in depth coverage of aboriginal issues, science, and technology; and new public formats including town halls and Facebook live, to engage Canadians in discussion about the events that affect them.

This is one part of our public service mandate. CBC/Radio-Canada exists to provide programming that "informs, enlightens and entertains "Canadians. That combination helps promote a shared view of who we are as a country. It promotes understanding, tolerance, identity, and an engaged citizenry; all of the things we value as Canadians. We do that by showcasing a wide range of Canadian drama, comedy, music and sport, as well as journalism and documentaries.

There is no question the demands of this mandate mean that resources are always under pressure. But refocusing the mandate raises other questions: Are these things still important to Canadians? We believe they are. Who will step in if the public broadcaster is asked to withdraw? Who else will champion Canadian culture, promote Canadian writers, musicians and artists to a wider audience, and support Canadian identity?

Only CBC/Radio-Canada serves all of these objectives. Its entire mandate strengthens and enriches Canadian culture. It also sets a standard that helps encourage other broadcasters to do their part. That is why that broad mandate is so similar among public media worldwide. Stressing one piece of that mandate above the rest risks undermining Canada’s cultural goals and the very reason for public broadcasting.

Recommendation 11: "Free cbc.ca of the need to "attract eyeballs" for digital advertising, which can run contrary to its civic-function mission and draw it into a "clickbait" mentality."

It is simply incorrect to suggest that digital advertising leads to "clickbait", any more than television advertising weakens television journalism. Our public service journalism is always viewed within a public service framework. Relevance is important, but good journalism means informing people about what they need to know, not just giving them what they want to know. Our ground-breaking, persistent coverage of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women is just one example of important stories that are often not popular with audiences, but which need to be told. Our journalistic decisions are based, not on digital algorithms that stimulate "clicks" but on editorial assessments of what is in the public interest.

We do not believe that there is a conflict between serving this "civic-function" and engaging with audiences. A public broadcaster without a public cannot survive. Attracting audiences means content is relevant and engaging; that your service has value. The challenge for every journalistic organization has always been to find ways to present news and information in a way that engages citizens. For CBC/Radio-Canada, not everything has to draw a large audience but audiences – reflecting a broad cross section of society – are one indication that our work has value.

We believe that there are advantages to removing advertising, but going ad-free on only one platform is a half measure. It doesn’t provide any of the advantages of being completely ad-free, and it undermines those areas which still depend on commercial revenue. Today advertisers look to invest where they can reach audiences across multiple platforms. Cutting off advertising on digital platforms makes the remaining platform – television – less attractive, and less lucrative. In our proposal, A Creative Canada we recommend that the government develop a cohesive creative sector investment strategy and that CBC/Radio-Canada remove advertising from ALL of its platforms. That would allow it to focus on its public service mandate and become a better supporter of Canadian culture.

CBC/Radio-Canada examined partially removing advertising before it made its proposal. A partial solution means CBC/Radio-Canada would still be a competitor with other media for advertising revenue on television. In fact, television revenue would become both more important, and more unstable as a revenue source.

It is also important to note that digital advertising is the one area of revenue which is growing. As the report points out, digital advertising revenue to CBC/Radio-Canada was $25M last year. It is expected to be about $30M this year, and to continue to rise. Closing off only digital advertising not only fails to deliver benefits, it eliminates the one area which has the potential to sustain programs and services.

Recommendation 12: "Broaden the dissemination of CBC news to act as a counterweight to the presence of fake news and in support of digital innovation by young media innovators"

The report recommends that CBC/Radio-Canada make its news content freely available for use by others under a digital Creative Commons license. It proposes that this would make CBC/Radio-Canada a "universal public provider of quality journalism". In fact, this is what CBC/Radio-Canada already is.

Our digital news content is freely available to anyone with access to the internet, and other online providers can already link directly to our content. Our television and radio content reaches virtually every Canadian in every corner of the country. CBC/Radio-Canada also forms strategic partnerships with companies like Facebook, YouTube and Google to reach more Canadians but crucially, we manage those partnerships in a way that protects our journalism and our reputation. Canadians know that they can trust CBC/Radio-Canada content. This is crucial.

When Canadians go to a CBC/Radio-Canada website they know that the material there meets our standards for journalism, balance and accuracy; that the material has not been modified in a way that changes its focus or tone; that questionable content is not given an air of legitimacy by its placement alongside CBC content. As the report recognizes, not everything on the internet is credible; "The best defence to fake news is a strong offence". We agree. That is why we invest in quality news that is available to Canadians through a brand that they trust.

The importance of trust cannot be overstated. CBC is the 10th most influential brand in Canada and the number one media brand. Radio-Canada is the most influential Canadian brand1 and the 6th most influential brand in Quebec, according to Ipsos-Infopresse2. That result reflects the high marks both networks receive for public trust and corporate citizenship. It is the culmination of years of commitment and consistent quality. We want to build on that reputation for the benefit of all Canadians, not just "new media innovators".

CBC news is not a sample remix. In an era of "fake news", deliberate distortion, and business models that profit from outrage and manipulation, Canadians need to know that the information identified as coming from their public broadcaster meets their expectation of trust. CBC/Radio-Canada needs to be able to update or correct published stories if necessary. The public broadcaster must be able to protect the integrity of its journalism, and the reputation of its brand. The value of that brand is evident in the syndication agreements CBC/Radio-Canada currently has with other media. Agreements that, together with subscriptions for news content like Curio.ca earn additional revenue for the public broadcaster.

It is for all of these reasons that allowing anyone to reuse CBC/Radio-Canada news through a Creative Commons license does not serve Canadians.

There is no question that the media industry is transforming. So is the way Canadians get their news. We believe that is where the focus needs to be; on the needs of Canadians. CBC/Radio-Canada is proud of its world-class journalism and the role of that journalism in serving Canadian society. We would like to do more.

There are fundamental issues which are threatening the ability of Canadians to be informed about their world; issues of media concentration, lack of commitment to local journalism, and the challenges of profitability in a digital world. On these issues, CBC/Radio-Canada is not the problem, and limiting or weakening public broadcasting will only mean fewer services for Canadians. It won’t help private media companies make more money. It won’t increase news coverage or diversity of views, especially in smaller communities.

As we noted in our submission, we believe public broadcasting has a vital role to play in supporting a strong, focused, creative culture strategy. Removing all advertising from CBC/Radio-Canada would also bring economic benefits to the entire country. It would create a new total GDP gain of $488M, a total labour income impact of $355M, and create 7200 additional jobs in Canada. Approximately $158M or 2/3rds of CBC/Radio-Canada’s current advertising revenue would flow to other Canadian media to help in their transition to the digital environment. And most important, Canadians would be better served by a cultural strategy that strengthens Canadian culture here, and promotes Canadian stories around the world.

1. http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=7562

2. http://www.infopresse.com/article/2017/3/16/google-et-facebook-les-marques-influentes-indetronables-au-quebec

Search highlight tool