Montreal Gazette columnist Henry Aubin makes some interesting claims in his latest tirade against the student strike. The movement is composed predominantly of an “Internet generation” who read “only that which comforts – rather than challenges – their opinions.”
Immersion in social media fosters radicalism as protestors feed off their shared, narrow perspectives. He concludes that “we need to guard ourselves against the ideological extremism and polarization that the Internet has the potential to excite.”
Given its vastly superior access to power and financial resources, it is worth asking whether corporate media is also capable of exciting “ideological extremism and polarization.”
Corporate Ownership and Propaganda
A cursory look at the ownership, structure and motivations of the corporate media is revealing in this respect. Compared with social media, Aubin writes that corporate newspapers “traditionally present relatively objective news coverage and a wide range of commentary.”
A rigorous analysis of Gazette coverage of the student strike and protest movement would be worthwhile, and I am confident that coverage of the strike tests the outer limits of “relatively objective news coverage.” The conservative bias of the Gazette runs deeper than ideology of its editorial board or ownership, however.
The primary function of corporate media is to generate profit. The best means of increasing revenue is carefully defining a target audience and catering to that audience.
Rather than presenting “relatively objective” news coverage, corporate media are in the business of selling products to consumers. John Paton, a strategic advisor to the PostMedia, made this very clear when PostMedia purchased CanWest and its holdings in 2010.
Paton stressed that “if Postmedia Network is going to fulfil its core mission of journalism, it’s going to have to give people the information they want on the platforms they want and when they want it.”
A promotional article about the purchase is interesting to read in this light. The article states that “the new ownership group plans to transform a collection of newspaper and online assets that have weathered the recession but, like others, still face an uphill battle to improve profitability in a challenging environment where the fight for reader and advertiser attention is more fierce than ever.”
The article also notes that “executive team plans to pursue an ambitious ‘digital first’ business model that harnesses strong brands in dominant market positions.”
The newspaper itself is an “asset” and its management have a primary responsibility of improving profits. A large corporation like PostMedia is basically a hierarchical and authoritarian institution, and executives must “fight for reader and advertiser attention” by fostering “strong brands in dominant market positions.” These are hardly conditions that foster “relatively objective” news coverage.
Looking more carefully at the Gazette, its daily “market penetration” is centered around an audience of 283,800 adults (less than the number of students on strike at the height of the movement).
Readers are 53 years old, on average, with a household income of $76,600. Roughly 75 per cent of readers own a home, while 62 per cent are married. Readers are geographically based in the increasingly sprawling suburban periphery of the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area.
The subsequent bias of content and issue framing is self-evident. There is a notable shift in content toward aging and senior-care issues along with family-oriented content for the young families in the off-island periphery. Coverage of the strike is more likely to focus on the delays that automobilists suffered than any principled notion of equality or education.
Suppose that the Gazette maintained this audience but “branded” itself for a slightly different target market—say, single 18 to 24 year olds with an income of no more than $30,000, renting apartments in the downtown core.
The news coverage would stir such visceral reaction from the settled 53-year-old subscribers as to draw immediate reprisal and sanction from the PostMedia head office. Heads would roll on the Gazette floor as subscription numbers dwindled.
In other words, the selection of what is “newsworthy,” the subsequent framing of these stories and the avenues by which these stories are distributed are anything but objective, as Aubin suggests.
The Gazette, like all corporate media, is providing a product for a target audience as a means of generating profit. This is a tailored message geared toward pleasing and maintaining the consumption habits of an affluent market. This is not objective news. It is propaganda.
And it is just as likely to foster “ideological extremism and polarization” as any form of social media. The dangers are more real, in fact, given the significant access to power and financial resources that PostMedia retain.
Corporate media bare a strong degree of responsibility for any physical or verbal violence inflicted upon participants in the movement, precisely because the media have helped foster a climate of “ideological extremism and polarization.”