Canada’s media: you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Fake news was around long before Donald Trump made it a thing – and it hit Canada's energy sector hard

mediaCALGARY, Alta. Jan. 30, 2017 /Troy Media/ – In this age of thought-leadership reports that flutter around like confetti, one document deserves immediate attention – particularly in Canada’s resource sectors.

The Shattered Mirror is the result of research and consultation by the Public Policy Forum. It critically examines the state of Canadian media. The prognosis isn’t good.

The report paints a troubling picture of the diminished role Canadian media plays in mediating and shaping the discourses that define socio-economic and political conversations.

Commissioned by Heritage Canada, The Shattered Mirror is more than a casual query into how digital forces are battering a largely analogue sector. It probes deeply into the costs our democracy and civil society face when institutions like newspapers are abandoned in droves.

Why does this matter to the leadership of Canada’s resource sectors?

Resource sectors – energy, mining, forestry and agriculture – are the backbone of Canada’s economy. Yet increasingly, they take the brunt of public criticism.

As a result, most resource executives are predisposed to crap on media. These leaders believe the media is part of, if not entirely responsible for, the poor public images their sectors labour with.

But this report should be required reading for every resource company senior management team and board of directors. It will give them profound insights into what happens when a business model collapses, especially in terms of public perception.

Each resource sector languishes under the burden of its own special version of social licence to operate … to drill, log, mine, plant or excavate.

The mainstream media is partially to blame for its own problems, of course. But it’s challenging to do the job when your business can barely keep its head above water.

Given the current state of their own industries, you’d think resource companies would be more empathetic, because resource companies and media organizations have a common burden: they’re increasingly considered irrelevant by a society that generally has no clue how truly crucial their products are to our daily lives.

At a time when resource players should have been embracing media, they largely chose to adopt adversarial relations, thinking they could bypass reporters and editorial boards. They thought they could become content creators themselves – but they lack the ability to set trusted context.

Context separates mere content from quality journalism. Media context-setting helps a progressive society process major issues. The debates are not always pretty, of course, and sometimes cause hurt feelings. But in most cases, they advance issues to some resolution.

For example, Facebook doesn’t care one bit about Canada’s oilsands industry. In fact, Facebook provides a curation-free platform for the voices that shout in opposition to energy development (or farming, or logging or mining), without having to prove the merits (or facts) of their perspectives.

No judgment. No context. No facts.

Fake news was around long before Donald Trump made it a thing – and it hit Canada’s resource bases hard.

It’s a good bet that the editorial teams at Alberta’s newspapers care about oilsands development, though, because they care about the way society works.

That doesn’t mean the sector is guaranteed fawning features. Constructive and consistent coverage and analysis makes companies and sectors better.

And if the newspaper staffing today was what it was five years ago, the coverage would be more balanced, more deeply contextualized and more subtly nuanced. And we would have a better oilsands sector for it.

But every cancelled subscription and un-bought advertisement hobbles the ability of those newspapers to do what they ought to: curating, co-ordinating and mediating.

Strong traditional media makes for a more literate, knowledgeable public. But just when the average citizen needs to learn more about Canada’s resource challenges, the teacher is phoning in sick and there’s no legitimate substitute available.

It’s also worth noting that too many resource companies fell over themselves establishing social media strategies after millennial communicators promised that tweets and Facebook postings would bring Canadians around.

In many cases, just the opposite happened. Corporate social media efforts were met with the noisy criticism of a vocal few. When it comes to discussing something rationally, social media is largely just a bullhorn for the uninformed, and people tend to believe that nonsense because they distrust the way resource companies communicate.

Canada’s resource sectors are now firmly behind the eight ball in terms of public opinion. And the very media institutions that might have helped them turn the corner in public opinion are on life support.

The good old days when a reporter with a notepad showed up were a lot simpler than dealing with the flow of Twitter dreck that hypnotizes so many Canadians.

As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

The media never was the enemy. It’s time we reached out to them, before it’s too late.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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