Enabling Democracy through Media: Redefining Roles and Modifying Expectations — An Essay

Information is the life blood of democracy. The democratic process depends upon our active participation, and whenever real information is replaced with nonsense, democracy suffers due to an ignorant public. –Bob Cesca [1]

Often, there is a conception that media should objectively inform society’s members, especially in the case of politics, since the health of democracy depends on the voter base. Generally, media’s role in enabling democracy is to provide facts which the population can use to form opinions and make decisions. And yet, increasingly, this is not the reality. To explain the discrepancy, many have pointed to the conflict created by for-profit business models, including journalist Bob Cesca in the article quoted above, as well as last year’s Dalton Camp Award winner, Regan Burles. [2] In short, operating media agencies in a financially competitive environment results in the delivery of a lower quality current events product — bad news. Combined with censorship and sponsorship of content, it is clear that media agencies do not do what is expected of them. But they could, if expectations were altered to suit the present model.

Was this media scrum with Jack Layton during the 2006 electoral campaign enabling democracy?
In truth, what is the purpose of media scrums? Do journalists and politicians seek to inform or persuade? Do voters think it matters? (Image by Peregrine981 [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is unreasonable, given the current capitalist system, to expect the media to deliver consistently hard-hitting, objective news. Money talks; whether to the executive accepting a censorship payoff, the manager developing sponsored content, or the journalist who just wants to remain employed. In any case, a business must be profitable to continue operations, and besides, consumers want entertainment as well as current events.

It is also unreasonable to expect the general population to sift through the fluff and bluff to get at the good stuff. Various agendas are promoted in today’s media, including on individual blogs and social networking platforms, and each does its best to influence the audience into believing its own point of view is right. Sponsored content frequently replaces original and creative content, but oftentimes, it is not obvious that the content is purchased. Censorship deceives the population by withholding some information. At every turn, the public is faced with a choice: to agree or disagree; to believe or reject; to acknowledge or ignore. Yet, the population is not always aware of its choices, and blindly trusts a media source simply because it is a media source.

Somewhere along the line, the ability to critically evaluate information is missing. There is no tool available with which to analyse, interpret, and sort information. That is, the onus is put on people to think for themselves. Some people turn to technology to help facilitate this task by using aggregators, saved search results, feeds, and other tools to collect and sometimes sort information; however, most people, if they are aware of these tools, are faced with the challenge of how to use many of them, especially the more effective ones.

Even though it was initially hoped that social networks would provide increased access to a variety of information, they are not truly informing the public. Engaging users and informing them is not the same thing, and social networks make money in the same ways as do traditional media. Moreover, online engagement does not, it seems, translate to political engagement. Freedom of expression is integral to Canadians’ concept of democracy, and yet, many citizens feel voiceless despite the ability to announce opinions on Facebook. The use of social networks and the ability to post comments on website articles did nothing to boost voter turnout during the last federal election.

A key component of democracy is exercising one’s voice. One of the means of self-expression available in Canada is to present petitions before Parliament; however, with stringent procedures and a paper-only policy, many members of the public feel alienated from this option. But exercising democracy is more than just a vote. Ideally, it is a voice, one that cares about its contribution to the well-being of society.

Because media — through agendas, sponsorship, and censorship — influences the public’s decisions rather than enabling informed ones, its role in the democratic process is less valuable than it could be. Were the media to become the voice of the people, it could play a much more powerful role in the democratic process. As the people’s voice, the media has the potential to renew public interest in democratic choice by encouraging relevant public discourse.

Assuming the current capitalist system will not be changed anytime soon, and knowing that many traditional news organisations are financially pressed to remain viable, now may be time to redefine media’s role and modify expectations of what type of content media should be providing, all within the established business model. Instead of believing that media should be limited to informing the public, Canadians can insist that the public should likewise inform the media. Instead of demanding objective information, content consumers can expect agendas, sponsorship, and censorship. Instead of relying almost exclusively on the vote to participate in democracy, citizens can depend on on the voice.

The media can do much more effectively what parliamentary petitions have failed to do. It can reach the majority of the general public very quickly. Why not take advantage of that far-ranging reach in reverse? The media could spend more time investigating what the public wants from its government and feature those issues. This would allow for fresh, original content, instead of repeating tired news items or sensationalising irrelevant ones. Furthermore, it would create avenues for meaningful public discourse on current issues. In adding this dimension to its role, the media would no longer merely be reporting on events, but also allowing for dialogue.

The media could do much more effectively what online petitions have struggled to do: be taken seriously by politicians. Media as the voice of the people would not play the same role as petitions, but there is an important parallel to draw. Communication with all Canadians would be the goal, instigating debate and change a potential by-product.

The media can take advantage of the climate of political distrust that has steadily encroached upon Canada (reflected by continuously low voter turnout). The voice of the people could be much more effective than any petition, print or electronic, because it could provide a more elaborate means of communication between the members of the public and the politicians who represent them. As the voice of the people, media could help bridge gaps and build relationships between citizens and politicians. Canadians might be more interested in democratic participation if a national platform existed for public debate, exchange of ideas, and questions to politicians and government agencies. Canadians might be more interested in democratic participation if political discourse included them.

As Regan Burles says in his winning essay, “meaningful debate is about more than just self-expression; it’s more than simply yelling an opinion into the void.” [3] Burles is referring to new media — the ability to post comments, tweet opinions, update statuses — but his point is validly applied to petitions as well. Whether on paper or online, petitions are rarely a satisfying means of expression or action for most people. The online petition network Avaaz has been called “the globe’s largest and most powerful online activist network.” [4] Yet, Avaaz claims slightly fewer than one hundred thousand members in Canada, compared with over a million in European countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany. [5] Canada’s participation in Avaaz’s online petitions is lagging, reflecting its poor public democratic participation.

While online petitions are not parliamentary petitions, official paper petitions fare no better. In fact, Motion 428 to accept online petitions was launched in February 2013 by Kennedy Stewart, Member of Parliament for British Columbia’s Burnaby – Douglas riding and Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology. Stewart states that “part of the issue [of democratic decline] is the disconnect people feel between issues that impact their day to day lives and those being put on the Parliamentary agenda.” Being able to sign official petitions online might encourage more democratic participation, especially since M-428 includes a clause suggesting “the possibility to trigger a debate in the House of Commons outside of current sitting hours when a certain threshold of signatures is reached.” [6] Stewart’s motion allows for self-expression that leads to a call to action and the potential for political discourse. Making petitions available online would not have been enough — following through with political debate, given sufficient interest, is a positive approach to resolving public democratic disengagement.

Media as the voice of the people could greatly complement a new petition system such as the one proposed by Stewart. Collectively, media can achieve a broad national public discourse, daily and on a national stage. Were Canadians to feel they always have a voice, not only at the polls, they might engage more readily in political life. Together, Stewart’s new petition system and media as the voice of the people provide tools for both discussion and action. Ultimately, the two could play mutually supporting roles, even while remaining entirely separate. And each tool has the power to exert influence over politicians.

While Canadians would still have to think for themselves when faced with biased, sponsored, censored, or otherwise questionable content, they would now have the means to respond to this content, to ask questions and obtain clarifications. Media as the voice of the people could be the very tool that sorts through the fluff and bluff it outputs. It could be as simple as a more interactive way of organising programming (but not as simple as resorting to reality television as we know it). It would not be necessary to abandon entertaining profit-earning content, either, as the success of television’s The Rick Mercer Report demonstrates. Political commentary can be entertaining, too.

Mark Bourrie wrote in The Hill Times that The Rick Mercer Report “sometimes draws more than a million viewers. That’s far more than all of the news networks combined and makes Mr. Mercer a bigger draw than any national nightly newscast.” [7] According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the show reached an average of three out of ten Canadians during its 2011-2012 season. It also reaches nearly two million Canadians per week and nearly ten million Canadians per season. [8] With such popularity, Canadians evidently are interested in political topics and enjoy political satire.

Not only is The Rick Mercer Report entertaining, it is useful to Canadians. Mercer recently won the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, which honours people “who have served with distinction in public life and have shown a special commitment to seeking out informed opinions and thoughtful views. Recipients […] believe in public discourse, scholarship, and the extension of the benefits of knowledge…” [9] While Mercer’s award recognises his many humanitarian accomplishments, his greatest public service may very well be his decades-long commitment to engaging Canadians with national politics and the democratic process.

Media as the voice of the people could complement this type of content while simultaneously delivering a similar but broader public service. Without strictures on operations — that is, without ideals getting in the way of reality — media companies could continue to operate as necessary for profitability. Adding another dimension to programming would be easy enough. Media can provide a platform for national public political discourse and commentary, thereby reinvigorating political and democratic participation in Canada. Media’s voice is already powerful enough to magnify the public’s voice; the tools required are already in place. Only a step forward is needed.

Endnotes


[1] Bob Cesca, “The Biggest Crime in the Anthony Weiner Scandal,” The Huffington Post, June 8, 2011.

[2] Regan Burles, “‘Filter Bubbles’: Public discourse in an age of citizen Journalism,” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting Dalton Camp Award 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ed Pilkington, “Avaaz Faces Questions over Role at Centre of Syrian Protest Movement,” The Guardian, March 2, 2012.

[5] Avaaz, “About Us: Our Community.”

[6] Kennedy Stewart, “E-Petitions.”

[7] Mark Bourrie, “Rick Mercer Report Sometimes Draws More Than a Million Views,” The Hill Times, March 5, 2012.

[8] CBC Revenue Group, “The Rick Mercer Report: About the Show.”

[9] Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “The Woodrow Wilson Awards.”

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