April 17, 2017
A few years ago, I started looking at how journalists wrote about the challenges they faced in obtaining information from or about Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. By that point in their mandate, it was clear that Harper and his cabinet had little time for reporters – they granted few interviews, floated the idea of creating their own press gallery, and tried to bar journalists from covering repatriation ceremonies for soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Journalists were rightly concerned, but it failed to become an issue for the public, and I wanted to understand why that might be. It wasn’t because journalists didn’t write about their lack of access to the government. So, what was going on?
I used discourse and frame analysis to examine five years of articles from the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star that directly addressed the Harper government’s institutional secrecy and attitude towards journalists. I discovered that almost 30 per cent of articles in each paper framed the issue in an us-versus-them manner, often using inflammatory and childish language (such as calling Harper a bully, a control freak, and “he who must be obeyed”), without making a clear case for why the public should care. The way they wrote about the issue made it sound more like a personal grudge against a prime minister who was making their jobs more difficult instead of the affront to democracy and the notion of a free press that it was.
My research was recently published in a chapter entitled “Media Whining or Democratic Crisis?” in The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada, edited by Lisa Taylor and Cara-Marie O’Hagan. I’ve been surprised at how relevant it feels given Donald Trump’s treatment of American reporters.
Interestingly, I think American news outlets and their reporters have done a better job in making a case to their audiences why journalistic access to government officials and documents is important. They’ve made it clear that they aren’t whining about their jobs becoming more difficult, but rather are highlighting a serious challenge to democracy when government leaders and their teams refuse to speak to reporters who are, of course, acting on behalf of the public. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between how Canadian reporters wrote about their access problems with the Harper government and how American reporters are now writing about and framing their access problems with the Trump government.
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