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LANA PAYNE: We all need the media to do its job

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“The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” – Finley Peter Dunne, American journalist, author, humourist.

Dear politicians, you are among the comfortable.

The media and journalism is in crisis and has now become the latest favourite whipping boy for Conservative politicians, particularly.

There is nothing new about media bashing, but it has taken on a new and more dangerous tone.

Consider the attacks on the media by Doug Ford, Andrew Scheer and of course U.S. President Donald Trump. Make no mistake, they are calculated and designed to cater to their political base as they reinforce the paranoia, fear and anger they wish to exploit among their supporters.

Trump has referred to the media “as the enemy of the people.” Ford and Scheer have repeatedly tried to discredit and disparage the media, lashing out at them for asking questions. In other words, doing their jobs.

In October Scheer announced in a letter to the Toronto Sun: “Never have taxpayers and everyday Canadians more needed someone who will stand up to this government, the media and the privileged elite on their behalf.”

At the same time, the media and journalism are facing a serious and worrisome crisis.

There are local news deserts across Canada as newspaper after newspaper closes. Television, radio and newspaper newsrooms have been gutted.

Revenues for the media sector are plummeting. For example, revenue for conventional television in Canada declined by 25 per cent since 2011. As for newspapers, the story is far worse.

Between 2006 and 2015, overall revenue in the newspaper industry dropped by a whopping 48 per cent, resulting in significant layoffs, newsroom consolidations, downsizing and closures.

These lost revenues are being soaked up by companies like Facebook and Google who provide no news content and employ virtually no one in Canada. Google and Facebook, together now account for nearly 75 per cent of total Canadian internet advertising market share — which is up from about 67 per cent in 2016; and 64 per cent in 2015.

A report last year by the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, entitled “The Shattered Mirror,” noted that “Canada’s news media is in the midst of an existential crisis. So therefore is our democracy.” It reported that a full one-third of journalism jobs have been lost in just six years. The numbers have continued to plunge.

In addition, public opinion research conducted by the Forum noted that Canadians “feel a deep reverence for the role journalism plays in democracy. In fact, they consider this so important that they are fearful fixing the problem could make journalists reliant on government.”

This is why the recommendations from the report looked to maintain independent journalism.

Having said that, there is, as the report notes, nothing new or novel about Canada looking to public policy to ensure “there is journalism by Canadians for Canadians.”

The report made 12 recommendations “to address a mirror so shattered as to diminish the news media’s capacity to reflect Canadians back to themselves. The recommendations aim to ensure our democracy is well served by a strong, diverse, independent and trustworthy news media firmly planted in the digital age.”

Some of those recommendations and ideas have been implemented by the federal government, including in its recent fall economic update which included about $600 million to support journalism.

There is still work to do including taxing entities like Facebook and Google which was not included in the measures, but needs to happen. A simple change to the income tax act extending tax rules to digital advertising would help.

The funding was not without controversy, including within the media sector.

But if we want real and independent journalism we have to be willing to fight for it and support it and ensure its independence.

Leaving it up to market forces and poor business models simply is not an option, not if we value journalism and what it brings to the democratic fabric of the country, keeping the powerful accountable, telling the stories of Canadians, exposing abuse and corruption. In some cases their work results in changed laws and fixed wrongs. We all need the media to do its job.

What’s simply unacceptable is the decision by mostly Conservative politicians to attack journalists as biased and easily bought-off. Let’s have a media watchdog, let’s have a conversation about media bias, but do it in a way that is constructive rather than undermining the role of the media in a democratic society.

Attacking the media is another way of deflecting from their own flawed policies and troubling actions. Let’s be clear if you are going to engage in dog-whistle politics and cronyism you should expect that this gets called out.

Media bashing is not a new thing.  But the hyper-attacks and this new and dangerous tone are simply not good for the democratic fabric of the country.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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