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Blogs, chatrooms adding to diversity of voices, Canadian media giants claim

Politics Watch ® News Services
October 9, 2007, updated 12:00 p.m.

Canada's largest media companies argue that the Internet is increasing the diversity of voices, but some experts disagree.

OTTAWA  (PoliticsWatch.com) —  When you open up a Facebook account or post a comment on an online news story or a blog you are doing more than just voicing your opinion. 

It turns out you are also giving Canada's corporate media giants an excuse to continue with industry consolidation. 

Last month the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) held a week of public hearings to examine the impact of the concentration of Canadian media ownership on the "diversity of voices" in Canada. 

The CRTC launched the hearings after concerns were raised about consolidation because of CTVglobemedia's $1.7 billion take over of CHUM Television, which resulted in the layoff 281 news staff and the cancellation of several local newscasts across the country. 

The big media companies are trying to convince regulators that reductions in local news coverage is being offset by bloggers or videos on YouTube. 

But can having fewer reporters on your evening news be offset by YouTube where the most popular items are lonelygirl15 and videos of kids putting Mentos in Diet Coke bottles? 

Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, scoffed at the idea that the Internet was diversifying voices at a local level during her appearance before the CRTC. 

"The internet can't be relied on yet to fill any voids in local coverage created by horizontal integration or cross-media ownership," she said. 

"There are few local internet sources that provide the same kind of original, accurate, fair and balanced independent news content offered in more traditional mediums. Blogs or internet news sites haven't, to any great extent, provided a critical mass of original local news gathering, at least not yet."

In their presentations to the CRTC, the major broadcasters and their associations all argued that the diversity of editorial voices in Canada has never been better given the advent of digital cable and the proliferation of Web sites on the Internet. 

"There is no body of research to demonstrate that editorial diversity is in trouble in Canadian media, because, quite simply, it is not," said Glenn O'Farrell President and CEO of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). "It is alive and well."

O'Farrell cited comments on news stories from readers as a way big media is "adding the audience's voice to the editorial orchestra."

The CAB's written submission to the CRTC goes into greater detail on its views and calls for a "redefining" of "diversity" to take into account the new media, primarily the Internet. 

"Diversity of Voices is invariably misunderstood when seen under a microscope applied to the regulated component of the media landscape alone, to the exclusion of everything else," the CAB states. 

"The proliferation of new content sources has once and forever broken the dominance of the larger players."

The CAB's submission puts a lot of stock into the role of bloggers, even though bloggers are known primarily for their critical analysis of mainstream media content rather than for independent news gathering. 

It even incorrectly states that Canadian bloggers "have now been accepted as members of the National Press Gallery and are accredited as working journalists."

An official with the Parliamentary Press Gallery confirmed to PoliticsWatch there has been "absolutely" no accreditation granted to bloggers. In fact, PoliticsWatch.com is the first and only online-based news agency with Gallery accreditation. 

CanWest's written submission suggested Canadians posting content to U.S.-based Internet platforms such as YouTube and Facebook are also contributing to Canada's diversity of editorial voices. 

"A citizen/media consumer does not need to own a printing press, or build a television station, or set-up home delivery distribution system," CanWest argued. "Access to worldwide audiences on YouTube, Facebook, Google, blogtv.ca, and hordes of other new media video sites is cheap or free, and participation is easy, encouraged, and widespread."

CanWest, which was criticized throughout the hearings for reducing diversity by repackaging news content for different news platforms, argued that there is no way to “own” or “corner” a given market or customer in the current Internet environment.

"We simply do not see how or why the Commission should limit cross-ownership between these related but divergent media platforms," CanWest concluded. 

While the corporate media companies want to give the impression that blogs and Facebook groups are contributing to a diversity of news coverage, other witnesses told the CRTC that the reality is that blogs and other non-mainstream media remain small players on the net. 

"I think it is pretty obvious that Canadian media markets are dominated by a handful of large corporations, which control not only newspaper and broadcast markets, but also internet portals and the most visited internet news websites," said David Skinner, who teaches media communications studies at York University

"While the internet is often trumpeted as seemingly offering a myriad of new sources of information, really, with a few notable exceptions, independent and alternative news sites are hugely under-resourced and act largely as information aggregators, producing very little original content."

"Blogs, another alternative that is often trumpeted, generally suffer the same problems, and largely offer only opinion pieces, not news."

In his written submission, Skinner said the CRTC should find ways to encourage the development of web-based Canadian media content, "particularly content produced by independent mandate driven producers." 

Paul Temple, senior vice-president regulatory and strategic affairs for Pelmorex Communications, pointed to research by Comscore that shows that Canada's major media companies are the biggest Canadian players on the Web. 

Of the top 100 ranked web sites for Canadians only one-third are Canadian-owned. Eleven of those are owned by companies that are regulated by the CRTC. The remainder of Canadian sites are major retailers or financial institutions. 

When all page views are considered, the top 100 ranked web sites represents 51 per cent of the total pages. The next 10,000 sites represented just 22 per cent pages viewed while the remaining tens of thousands of web sites accessible over the internet counted for just 28 per cent of page views made by Canadians. 

"The dominance of the top 100 web sites is striking," Temple noted. 

"While on theory, there has been an explosion of content, the proliferation of web sites on the internet has, by necessity, led to the dominance of a few over the thousands. The regulated broadcasting system has been and continues to be a powerful and successful springboard for Canadian programming services on the internet.". 

The CRTC will continue a separate examination of the role of the Internet as it is in the midst of a New Media Project Initiative that is expected to include public hearings.

The CRTC plans to issue a report on the new media in March of 2008.

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