By JACKIE HONG
Canada should consider developing a national press council to hear complaints from the public and establish reporting standards that address the relatively new field of digital journalism, two Ryerson journalism professors are recommending.
Ryerson School of Journalism chair Ivor Shapiro and journalism instructor Lisa Taylor spent the past year studying the existing system of provincial press councils and found it wanting.
“We found that very few people even knew that press councils exist, and certainly the speed that press councils do their work… is slow,” Shapiro said in an interview.Shapiro and Taylor issued their call for change at an international seminar on press self-regulation hosted by the Centre d’etudes sur les medias in Montreal. The seminar, held in early November, drew representatives from eight jurisdictions who outlined the state of play in their respective countries. Taylor represented Canada, and Shapiro gave a wrap-up address.
As a part of their Canadian research, Taylor and Shapiro conducted an online survey of news readers that asked them how they felt about press councils and their effectiveness. The results, while not definitive, suggested that press councils were not well known and not considered as effective as they were in previous decades.
Canada currently has five provincial press councils – Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Alberta and British Colombia – but they all function independently of one another. Of the five, the Quebec Press Council (Conseil de presse du Québec) is the only one that receives funding from a provincial government.
“In English Canada… the industry does not want to take money from the province because they’re afraid that provincial funding is the first step before provincial intervention that will somehow minimize a free press,” Taylor said during an interview. She added that she found no evidence of this in the case of Quebec, and pointed to the CBC as an example of a government-funded media outlet that actively criticizes the government.The remaining press councils are financially dependent on funding from their members. Although the survey found that readers aren’t too concerned about this financial arrangement, Shapiro and Taylor noted that it can be problematic. They pointed to the case of the Manitoba Press Council as an example: It collapsed in January 2012 when the Winnipeg Free Press, which contributed 80 per cent of the council’s funding, cancelled its membership.
Other provincial press councils are also faltering due to declining membership. Sun Media pulled out of the Ontario Press Council in July 2011, saying that it had issues with the council’s “political correctness.” Taylor and Shapiro said the existing system of provincial councils is also in trouble because the councils are relatively unknown – publishers think council decisions garner little publicity, and news outlets’ tight budgets mean publishers are looking for savings in every quarter.
“It’s been said, ‘If I have the choice between funding a press council or hiring a new reporter, I want a new reporter in my newsroom,’” Taylor said in an interview.
Shapiro and Taylor also concluded there are major gaps in media accountability under the current system. For the most part, press councils only have power over physical print journalism, meaning websites produced by digital journalism outlets fall into a grey zone of accountability. What’s more, news readers who want to file complaints in provinces and territories without press councils are left in limbo.These problems can be solved in a variety of ways, but Shapiro and Taylor both pointed to a national council as the most effective alternative.
“The option that I think really deserves to be explored is… a national media council, so, not just for newspapers, but for newspaper-based organizations, digital organizations and broadcasting organizations who wish to join,” Shapiro said during the interview.
An inclusive national council would have more news organizations to draw upon for funding than provincial councils, and many different regions, demographics and interests would be represented, he argued. As well, it would cover the grey areas that exist in the current council system.
Shapiro and Taylor said they plan to submit their research to a peer-reviewed journal for publication and will continue to monitor how press accountability in Canada evolves.
“We’ve got a very moving landscape,” Shapiro said. “We’ll continue to watch and look and learn.”