The Collapse in Trust in the Media isn’t Limited to Online News Act Propaganda

The large media companies have pushed Online News Act propaganda for a couple of years. This may be a microcosm to a larger picture.

Do you trust what big media is publishing? Some Canadian’s do, but those Canadians are becoming less and less common. While the mainstream media loves to just point their fingers and social media and disinformation, it is also possible to say that the mainstream media could look in the mirror to find fault. Few major media outlets in Canada are willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, their actions in recent years may be contributing to the collapse in trust in the media.

Back in July, I ripped apart a piece in Maclean’s Magazine that proclaimed that video games are comparable to cocaine. The original piece was filled with moral panic, tenuous to non-existent facts to back up their claims, and layered on scaremongering thick. The piece was long, so it took some effort to dismantle the claims one by one. Probably one of the more frustrating aspects of debunking Maclean’s Magazine is the fact that large media outlets love to tout themselves as the “professional” and “authoritative” sources while smaller websites like mine are completely unreliable and of questionable quality. Yet, here I was, a small news outlet correcting the mess made by the “authoritative” Maclean’s Magazine because of the terrible quality of their article.

In the process, I pointed to an Ipsos poll which showed that trust in the media is continuing to be on steady decline. With that example alone, it is easy to see why that is the case. The thing is, that Maclean’s Magazine article is far from the only garbage being pumped out by major media outlets.

Over the last few years, I’ve personally bore witness to the media chucking objective credibility into the trash and focus almost entirely on messaging with the Online News Act. Articles publishes over the years was posted with the outlets knowing full well that the information being provided to readers was false. Probably the best example of this is Big Lie 1.0 where the media proclaimed that linking is “stealing” and that platforms, in response, needed to “pay their fair share”. If major media outlets are smart enough to take out advertising on Facebook and Google, then they know full well that linking isn’t stealing. Yet, that didn’t stop the “Wanted Man” campaign which we later highlighted.

Obviously, this is a lie because referencing content is not “stealing”. Fair Dealing is quite clear that citing sources is an exception to the Copyright Act. In fact, it is one of the most basic principles of allowing free expression, balancing that right with the rights of rights holders. To say that linking is an act of infringement is completely absurd and flips copyright law on its head at a pretty fundamental level. What’s more, major media outlets used this false argument as a basis for pushing the Online News Act in the first place. If the platforms were “stealing” content, then it would be much more trivial to file a class action copyright infringement lawsuit against the platforms and let the whole thing play out in the courts. Notice that this is not the action the media lobbyists took.

Of course, this was far from an isolated incident. There was also Big Lie 2.0. In that, when platforms announced that they were going to be blocking news links, large media outlets claimed that the platforms were outright blocking Canadian’s from accessing news completely – calling it censorship. For one, platforms do not have that capability in the first place (which is why people saw counterpoints of people being able to still access the sites through a web browser and apps) and, second, it’s not censorship because this is the platforms own private property that this is happening. It isn’t the government stopping the access of news for Canadians.

In 2021, the media also launched a coordinated propaganda campaign known as the “disappearing headline” which demanded that platforms “pay their fair share”. It was a nonsense argument simply because there was no solid argument as to why platforms suddenly owe publishers anything. If anything, it exposed the entitlement of the major media outlets where they feel that they should be getting money all the time no matter what because they are entitled to it regardless of whether or not they earned that money. This is not how the real world works today.

What is funny in all of this is that even though people like us are routinely labelled as anything from “Big Tech shills” to “peddlers of disinformation”, I personally have long pointed out that reality is going to catch up to the media sooner or later. Earlier this month, reality had caught up to the media lobbyists so much that major media lobbying organization, News Media Canada, surrendered their position, calling for the government to try and find solutions to Google’s concerns. Basic survival instinct finally took over as the organization realized just how completely f***ed they were should Google also pull news links like Meta (the damage of that development alone is already pretty significant, even leading to the closures of newspapers in three different communities already).

What has become clear in all of this is that large media outlets have devolved to pushing messaging, trying to convince audiences of certain narratives. This as opposed to what they should be doing which is publishing facts objectively and informing an audience. If you want further proof of that, just check out the incident where major media outlets banned Meta ads explaining why they are doing what they are doing with respect to blocking news links. In the last few years, small outlets like mine have had to resort to regular fact checking of the large media companies articles and regularly setting the record straight.

The thing is, the Online News Act is a microcosm to the rotting credibility of major media outlets. Earlier this month, the Canadian Press published a so-called “fact check” article explaining what the Online Streaming Act was about. The article ended up being filled with errors while accusing social media of being a major source of “confusion”. Ironic given that it was the Canadian Press that was confused by the facts after getting some of the most basic facts wrong.

If you follow these types of debates, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the large media has devolved into a firehose of disinformation. Articles published are only there to serve the business interests of the organization, not provide objective truth about events around the world. As you can imagine, this makes my job much harder as I have to personally parse through what is true and what is not. The thing is, the tech sector isn’t the only area where this blatant corruption of the media has occurred. Marc Edge recently wrote a piece talking about how the forestry industry is also shaping the narrative of certain articles. From the Canadian Dimension:

Trust Tim Bousquet to blow the whistle on native advertising. The publisher of the online-only Halifax Examiner loathes the faux news that has infected our media since publishers discovered it was such a lucrative revenue stream. Bousquet quit the Coast alt-weekly in 2014 after seven years as its news editor when it asked him to write native advertising articles, or what were once called “advertorials.” He put his life’s savings into founding the Examiner, which has since grown into one of Canada’s most successful online news outlets. “Advertorial goes against everything I stand for as a reporter,” Bousquet explained on his blog. “The editorial side of the news business—that is, the news reporting—should be separate from the advertising side of the paper because readers need to trust that reporters are not influenced by commercial concerns.”

Bousquet’s ire rose recently when he noticed in Maclean’s another example of the journalism perversion also known as content marketing or branded content under the heading Forestry for the Future. “Once-respected Maclean’s magazine is now unapologetically shilling for the extractive forest industry, uncritically publishing industry propaganda,” he protested. “The pieces are not journalism. There is no fact-checking, no contrary view from industry critics.” Forestry for the Future, he pointed out, is a creation of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest forestry firms. “All media outlets are struggling financially,” he added. “I know the Halifax Examiner is. But publishing propaganda is not the route to success. It only serves to undermine trust and credibility.”

The Examiner takes the opposite approach to covering forestry, as exemplified by its series “Deforestation Inc.” authored earlier this year by its reporter Joan Baxter in association with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It revealed, among other things, how Canada is a “world laggard” in sustainable forest practices and how the Northern Pulp Mill in Pictou County is owned by Asia-based Paper Excellence, which has “a checkered (to put it mildly) relationship” with Indigenous people in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. Bousquet notes that St. Joseph Communications, which bought Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Canadian Business and other magazines from Rogers in 2019, does not disclose who or what Forestry for the Future is in the four-part series published across several of its magazines. “Perhaps most troublesome is the propaganda piece published in Maclean’s, ‘How Indigenous participation in forest management is changing resource development in Canada.’”

Those actions of publishing advertising as news should be a scandal. There’s no excuse for that kind of activity in the journalism world. If an article is published that is strictly advertising, it should be clearly marked as that. What’s more, publishing advertising that can be misconstrued as an objective news article should be a big no no in my view. Yet, here we are, all these years later, and this mixing of business interest with journalism has become much more commonplace. When consuming media, you have to consider what political party the source backs, whether the article is actually a neutral fact based one or if it is pushing a narrative (and no, that’s not just a lazy effort of quoting two viewpoints and calling it a day), and whether the article contains factual errors or not (reporters are human too).

While it was always important to be skeptical of what you read, the state of the media today makes it more important than ever because, let’s face it, it has gotten worse in recent years. The knock on effect is that there are those who actually try to objectively do a good job only to get painted with the same brush as the bad actors in this sector as well. I personally see comments in the comment queue asking to write an advertorial almost every week these days. I can tell you those get shoved into the trash pretty much immediately. Depressingly, there are outlets who don’t think credibility means much to them and say “yes” to such inquiries.

This all circles back to trust in the media. With trust plummeting and putting that next to things like this, it’s pretty easy to see a cause here. To say that trust in the media falling is exclusively the fault of nonsense peddlers on social media is putting way too much weight on those nonsense peddlers. There’s definitely more to the picture than that.

(Via @MarcEdge1)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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