Journalism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Journalism has always been conditioned by a series of institutional constraints: the state, the party system, the business imperatives of MEDIA OWNERSHIP, societal changes (such as urbanization, the diffusion of literacy and education), and the impact of technological innovation.
Kathleen Coleman, journalist


Journalism is the occupation of a diverse group of people who earn their living by writing or editing material of current interest for distribution via print or electronic media. The libertarian norms of "freedom of the press," the unofficial status of a "fourth estate," and the notion that modern society is greatly influenced by the content of the mass media all suggest an impressive and privileged role for the journalist in Canadian society. In an age of mass media administered by corporate executives and rapid advances in electronic communications, the character of journalism is by no means simple to define.

The Ideal of Professionalism

Journalism has always been conditioned by a series of institutional constraints: the state, the party system, the business imperatives of MEDIA OWNERSHIP, societal changes (such as urbanization, the diffusion of literacy and education), and the impact of technological innovation. These factors have interacted throughout the development of Canadian journalism to condition the standards, style, social status, and freedom of journalists. The professionalization of journalism is best understood as a historical process in which journalists responded to these various constraints with a variety of strategies to defend their group integrity. This process, however, has not amounted to a simple progression towards"freedom of the press." Instead, escape from one institutional constraint has often led to a new one, more subtle, and posing even greater obstacles to the ideal of professionalization.

Journalism and the British Connection

As a colony of the centralized Bourbon monarchy of France, NEW FRANCE was not allowed a printing press before 1760, in large part because French officialdom opposed establishing presses in the colony. Journalism came to Nova Scotia in 1751 in the wake of the British expedition to found Halifax, and to Québec in 1764 after the British Conquest. The character of publishing and the nature of society, however, provided little scope for journalists. Most of the population was still illiterate and newspaper circulations were small. The typical journalist was usually a publisher, editor and printer all in one. The weekly newspaper "gazettes" that developed were dependent on government printing for revenue. Journalists were subject to arbitrary arrest and they often had to post bond to ensure good behaviour. A publisher could be convicted of criminal or seditious libel merely for criticizing public officials.

Upholders of the Status Quo

In an age of revolution abroad and political reaction at home, the outspoken journalist was associated with rebellion, sedition and treason, an impression reinforced by the defection of Upper Canadian newspaper publisher Joseph WILLCOCKS to the Americans in 1813. Colonial elites looked upon the press as a convenience of the state, otherwise intolerable. The suppression of Le Canadien, which resulted in the imprisonment of Pierre BÉDARD and François BLANCHET in 1810 is just one example of this intolerance. Most journalists, however, accepted the state patronage, toed the official line, and served a faction of the ruling oligarchy.

Howe Strikes a Blow for Freedom of Expression

The libel case against Joseph HOWE in 1835 established the press as a vehicle of legitimate dissent in Canada. Impatient with the slow pace of reform, Howe used his paper, the NOVASCOTIAN (acquired in 1827), to criticize public policy and the magistrates who administered it. He was sent to jail and indicted for criminal libel. At his trial, he gave an impassioned defence of a free press and submitted evidence substantiating his allegations. Although he was clearly guilty, for the only issue of law before the court was whether or not he had published the defamatory remarks, the jury nonetheless acquitted Howe. The real and psychological threat of criminal libel that colonial regimes had held over the heads of publishers was now practically removed.

The Norms of Partisan Journalism to 1914

Further augmenting journalistic independence was the growth of commerce, literacy, and the mechanization of printing. Colonial society experienced serious tensions during the late 18th and early 19th centuries that gave rise to competitive political parties. Political conflict gave scope for the newspaper as a vehicle for dissent, a ready readership for such "opinionated" journalism, and the backers necessary to supply operating capital when necessary. In this changed environment, journalism began to take on a different character. The chief offering of the mid-Victorian press was opinion, usually partisan. Partisan or not, the Victorian journalist entered his "profession" because he had something to say. It might be William Lyon MACKENZIE attacking the FAMILY COMPACT or Egerton RYERSON defending the dissenting majority of Upper Canada in his Christian Guardian. "Personal" journalism flourished on a somewhat unstable commercial footing.

Individuality in journalism was often achieved at the expense of profit for the paper. Even large dailies were short-lived before Confederation. In the face of commercial uncertainties and the heat of political battle over RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT, journalists readily allied themselves with political parties. George BROWN, for example, was encouraged by the Reform Party in 1844 to start the Toronto Globe (see GLOBE AND MAIL). He employed the Globe as a party organ to expand readership and thereby to attract advertising revenue. The influence Brown gained as publisher helped consolidate his position as leader of the reconstituted Grit Reform Party after 1854, which in turn gave him tremendous editorial freedom as a journalist. Other successful newspaper entrepreneurs such as Edward WHELAN of the Charlottetown Examiner or Étienne PARENT of Le Canadien exercised influence and enjoyed editorial latitude through their combined roles of publisher-politician.

The payoffs of the party connection were real enough: partisan publishers gained access to patronage, power, even office. The progressive revision of libel laws to limit the liability of journalists, the formative conventions of the PARLIAMENTARY PRESS GALLERY, and favourable postal rates for periodicals were all effected at the high tide of party journalism. Partisan journalism, however, meant biased reporting. The maverick publisher faced financial reprisals, boycotts, loss of patronage and the threat of a new party-sponsored rival.

Party papers gradually began to assert their editorial independence after Confederation in 1867, leaving the norms of partisan conformity at least outwardly intact until 1914. Yet, even in the pioneer communities of the West, dependent party publishers such as Nicholas Flood DAVIN of the Regina Leader or Frank OLIVER of the Edmonton Bulletin could offer quality in their news and editorial columns. Ultimately, party journalism did not prevent the achievement of better standards.

The Rise of Big City Journalism

By the 1880s a revolution in the pattern of daily competition had begun. A new type of paper, the "people's journal," was developing in industrial cities to win a mass readership. Styles varied greatly, but people's journals abandoned close affiliation with political parties and emphasized not opinion but news, especially sensational news. They were challenged by revamped quality papers, such as the Montréal Gazette and the Toronto Mail, which strove to win an elite readership by offering extensive coverage of political and business affairs. The big-city dailies, usually several in each large metropolitan centre, separated the functions of reporters, desk men, city and news editors, and columnists. They thereby created in embryonic form, the basis for career journalism, which was still very hierarchical and dependent on the whims of publisher proprietors.

The personnel of journalism was changing in other ways as well. By the turn of the century, the increased complexity of the newspaper enterprise had encouraged the appearance of professional editors, such as John W. DAFOE of the Manitoba Free Press. Poorly paid reporters became the workhorses of the 20th-century newspaper office, and job pressures weeded out all but careerists. At the TORONTO STAR, Joseph E. Atkinson experimented in recruiting a few university men. A few audacious pioneering women were also able to gain entry into journalism, as Kit COLEMAN at the Mail and Empire and Edouardina Lesage ("Collette") at LA PRESSE, for example, started their careers in the new "women's sections" (seeCANADIAN WOMEN'S PRESS CLUB). E. Cora HIND, agricultural specialist of the Manitoba Free Press, and Simma Holt, reporter for the Vancouver SUN, found other ways to establish reputations. Each succeeding decade seemed to produce a new crop of pioneers determined to break into the field or extend the range of female achievement as both writers and editors. They were women like reporters Gwen Cash and Lotta Dempsey and magazine editor Doris ANDERSON.

The initiative in creating the original people's dailies was taken by individual entrepreneurs. Publishers were still people with something to say, and many failed precisely because they considered what they had to say more important than profits and a good business plan. Those who found a balance became the characters of their age: Hugh GRAHAM of the Montréal Star, E.E. Sheppard of SATURDAY NIGHT, Wilson Southam and Harry Southam of the Ottawa Citizen, and Joe Atkinson of the Toronto Star. Among the weeklies of the western frontier, Robert (Bob) EDWARDS of the Calgary Eye Opener (1902-22) and Margaret"Ma"MURRAY of the Bridge River-Lillooet News gained national notoriety.

The growing business imperatives of newspapers altered the conventions of the old party journalism. In Montréal, the sensationalist LA PRESSE (1884) of Trefflé Berthiaume almost wiped out the old-style dailies. Party organs imitated the people's journals to survive. However, beneath the gloss and diversity of the new popular style a second, more subtle revolution was occurring, which proved more fundamental in shaping journalism as a profession: the industrialization of newspapers into big business. In the face of rising costs and severe competition, the chief imperative of all newspapers was to find the formula to maximize readership and attract the most ADVERTISING. Papers that fell behind were doomed to extinction. Between 1914 and 1931, the trend was established for the single newspaper city and the newspaper chain. Successful publishers in larger centres became associates of the corporate elite. The model of journalism based on the "independent" editor-publisher was obsolete.

New Standards of Business Journalism

Ironically, the greatly expanded profession of salaried journalism had only escaped its partisan master to face a new order of big business. By the 1920s big-city dailies settled down in their rationalized markets to a superficial formula of day-to-day headline journalism. The rough edges of personal idiosyncrasy were smoothed away and newspapers in similarly sized markets came to be more and more alike. In response to radio, the scoop, the stunt or the human-interest story substituted for or complemented traditional editorial identities, often depending on the personalities of editors-in-chief or publishers determined to expand their readership and, hence, their advertising revenues. In this atmosphere a new ideal of objectivity or balanced coverage defined the professional ethos of career journalists, though the ideal was honoured no more consistently than the "principled" standards of the personal journalism that it had superseded.

The triumph of a business ethos at big-city dailies prompted a variety of strategies to achieve a new degree of professionalism. The Canadian Press Association and its successor, the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association (CDNA), were effective publisher lobbies that helped to rationalize the business side of newspapers. The CDNA contributed to the defence of publishers' prerogatives in such classic challenges to freedom of the press as the arbitrary Alberta Press Act of 1937 (seeALBERTA PRESS ACT REFERENCE 1938). The EDMONTON JOURNAL, published by John M. Imrie, received a Pulitzer Prize for leadership in the fight. Press councils and in-house complaints watchdogs or ombudsmen are more recent examples of industry-inspired efforts at accountability and professional standards of conduct.

News services developed at the initiative of publishers, eg, CANADIAN PRESS, emerging out of a rebellion of western newspapers against the Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. By 1923 CP had become a nationwide co-operative of member papers, controlling the rights to the Associated Press world report. CP and its rivals were influential in developing the contemporary ideal of objective reporting, as they sought to serve an editorially diverse constituency. Also conducive to professional standards after 1900 was the parliamentary Press Gallery which, by the 1920s had become a voluntary, self-governing body. Admission to the Press Gallery gave entry to a competitive "jungle" in which political reporters sharpened their investigative skills, though these remained conditioned by ingrained partisan traditions and connections.

The Advent of Multimedia

By the mid-20th century the tempo of change had accelerated. Journalism was transformed by the internal need of working journalists to develop new strategies to define their role and status, and by the external pressure from communications businesses to find a successful formula in the competition for advertising in an environment of rapid innovations in communications technology and seemingly endless growth in audiences. Newsreels and radio had started the process but, with the arrival of television in the 1950s, old newspaper formats no longer assured a market share of readers or of advertisers. In the resulting uncertainty, journalists found greater latitude for initiative.

The PIPELINE DEBATE of 1956 served as a symbolic turning point at which the Press Gallery began to act like a public watchdog, criticizing the government from a more detached perspective. Canadian political journals (Jack Scott, Bruce Phillips, Douglas FISHER and Charles LYNCH) suddenly became "opinionated" again - but this time in an adversarial role against the politicians. Public-affairs programs on television, whether a newsmagazine such as THIS HOUR HAS SEVEN DAYS or a special documentary such as "Air of Death" (1967), were particularly prone to editorializing about perceived public wrongs. Radically changing public agendas were undermining and disorienting older professional points of reference regarding balanced coverage. Advocacy, muckraking and investigative reporting proved to be winning formulas in attracting new audiences. Instead of seeking to cajole a cadre of reliable partisan journalists in traditional fashion, successful politicians increasingly earned the advantages of catering to and manipulating the media collectively using public-relations techniques.

Rising Standards and Status

Technology gave greater latitude to photo, film and broadcast journalists. Technology also permitted some working journalists to attain unprecedented status. René LÉVESQUE, for example, capitalized on the novelty of television to launch himself as a media star and leading personality in Québec politics. Gordon SINCLAIR settled for media stardom and personal wealth by simultaneously pursuing careers in 3 media. The rewards in the form of enhanced professional latitude could become self-generating for elite journalists, who won a mass audience in more than one news medium through a combination of strong views, professional integrity, and impeccable writing or broadcasting skills. Jack WEBSTER, Allan FOTHERINGHAM, Barbara FRUM, Jeffrey Simpson, Bernard Derome and Judith Jasmin were representative of a whole class of modern journalists who became assets too valuable for a publisher or producer to dare censor and who often were more famous than the public figures they analysed or interviewed.

The expanded opportunities for most workaday reporters did not translate into an improvement of working conditions, and even successful journalists turned to union organizations to deal with problems of poor pay and job security, irregular hours, and arbitrary management. The most successful union was the American Newspaper Guild (ANG), which signed its first collective agreement with the Toronto Star in 1949. By 1960 union rates, if not unionization, set the standards for the industry.

French-Canadian journalists, following the bitter strike of French-speaking CBC personnel in 1958-59, became the militant vanguard. The radical idea of using collective bargaining to achieve editorial independence for staff members, however, was defeated in the bitter strike at La Presse in 1964 (seeLA PRESSE STRIKE). Though the 1969 contracts at La Presse and LE SOLEIL contained "professional clauses," the legal language deprived them of much substance.

Declarations of editorial policy made as management initiative, eg, at the Toronto Star, described the most ambitious standards in the industry, but could not resolve the tension between working journalists and the managers of mass media organizations. A survey of Canadian journalists at major dailies in 1973 showed that 50% of those surveyed had had their copy altered significantly without prior consultation. The departure of Linda McQuaig from the Globe and Mail in a conflict over editorial interference almost a generation after that survey was symptomatic of the continuing constraints that can arise in the production of news. On the whole, however, unionized journalists took compensation in better working conditions, hours and pay, and the engagement engendered by a rapidly changing social and political agenda; it is no surprise that news reporting attracted a new generation of university graduates, including unprecedented numbers of women, into its ranks.

After WWII some universities in Canada introduced courses in journalism. CARLETON UNIVERSITY and RYERSON INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (now Ryerson University) established the first full undergraduate programs, while the UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO became an innovator in specialty seminars and graduate programs oriented to working journalists. In 1968 UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL introduced the first journalism program at a Québec university. By the 1970s dozens of universities, community colleges and CEGEPs offered an array of diplomas, certificates and degrees in communications studies or journalism. The changes in educational standards were evident by 1973: over 40% of working journalists at city dailies had a university degree of some kind.

By the 1960s journalists had become more self-critical of their craft. Organizations of working journalists, eg, la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec or the Institute for Investigative Journalism, provided forums for journalists to develop a common sense of professionalism, as did radical "alternative" magazines such as Content. Other quasi-professional organizations like the PERIODICAL WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF CANADA (est. 1976; now Professional Writers Association of Canada) worked more quietly to set standards and improve the leverage of freelancers in relation to publishers. A few newspapers and the CBC (after 1967) provided training programs, though these initiatives were weakened rather than strengthened by community college programs. Some newspapers initiated summer training schools for select university undergraduates and by the 1980s journalists were often granted a leave of absence to further their university studies.

Pretensions of a Fourth Estate

The trends in unionization, university education, and professional development contributed to a rising debate about the role of the press and its freedom. Critics developed a variety of catchphrases to rationalize a new degree of professional independence and to indict the status quo. Under the influence of communications theory, newly affluent journalists became self-conscious about bias created by "snarlwords," social class, or "pack journalism"; their ideological role as gatekeepers; and the behavioural effects of the mass media. Proposed reforms included advocacy journalism, investigative reporting, the more radical notions of an alternative press, "staff democracy," and reporter control.

The New Journalism, however, was far less radical than the rhetoric would imply. Before long, more conservative critiques raised the spectre of attack journalism, where the ends of investigative journalism might justify undue licence in the means. A new generation of reporters and publishers also learned the practical chilling effects of potential libel suits. Compromise on the issue of standards between journalists and their news establishments was made possible by the technological nature of the new media environment. A journalist might in a day research the background for a feature story that in the past might have taken weeks. Efficient use of news-gathering technologies required a high degree of delegation of authority and editorial independence, at least to the more experienced reporters. The media stardom of the few set expectations for professional integrity among news staff and public alike, which proprietors and business executives ignored at the peril of their enterprises. Moreover, the market and business impact of changes in technology made it imperative to find journalistic formats that attracted the attention of a more affluent and sophisticated, but highly fickle and segmented audience.

Journalism in Cyberspace

At the end of the 20th century, the profession had to contend with a multitude of influences and challenges. Publishers, large and small, flocked to the Internet, eager to establish a presence to complement their print offering. The 24-hour news cycle began with no sign of ever stopping, and the profession had to adapt by becoming more flexible and time-sensitive. While deadlines still existed for the print editions, there was a constant demand for new and updated material to be made available online. In an environment of rapid technological innovation, reinforced by a liberated free-market ideology, the merger of traditional media and interactive communication technologies was literally transforming the meaning and nature of news, blurring the distinctions between advertising, news, entertainment, editorial content, and special pleading (not to mention creative writing, manipulated graphic images, and even plagiarism). In addition, journalists faced a new generation of corporate media proprietors bent on making generic information services pay and, in certain cases, making them vehicles for their own ideological priorities.

Changes in the work environment and advances in technology affected the practices of the trade as well. Journalists were now called upon to blog and share the news behind the news in an effort to attract and retain an audience. The audience, however, not only wanted to access the news in new and instant ways, it also wanted to participate in reporting and share its opinion. This led to the emergence of the citizen journalists, individuals with an interest in current affairs, access to a computer and a point of view.

Journalism 2.0

Journalists in Canada and the world over have seen their environment change constantly, and more changes are afoot. As the 21st century enters its teen years, newspaper and broadcasting proprietors continue to struggle with selecting the right business model for their operations. They continue to review and question whether the costly infrastructure they have built and that worked so well in the past is feasible in the face of lower-cost alternatives. Such reviews often result in downscaled newsrooms, the closing of bureaus, and even cooperation with erstwhile competitors.

The lowering of the barrier into journalism in the form of blogging and social networking has also led to a greater focus on the substance and accuracy of news stories by an audience eager to take a hands-on approach to reporting news, checking facts, and finding fault. Thus, journalists face more scrutiny in their reporting than ever before and "new" journalists typically focus on allegations of left or right leanings and plagiarism. Concerning the latter, a number of journalists, some well-known, have been forced to resign or, at a minimum, apologize and retract statements after having been found out by other members of the media or a zealous public. A case in point is the so-called Wafergate scandal of July 2009, in which a New Brunswick newspaper reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had pocketed a communion host at the funeral of former Governor General Romeo Leblanc. The media jumped on the story, but it was quickly discovered that the news had been falsely reported, with information changed after the journalists had filed their story. The newspaper was forced to apologize to the public, the prime minister, and its own reporters, and the publisher and editor were fired.

While the next milestone in the ongoing transformation of the fourth estate is hard to predict, recent changes seem to bolster the chances of survival of the free-press ideal, which is by no means a foregone conclusion. Joseph Howe would have understood that the economic marketplace is not the only institution requiring risk-takers to flourish and grow.


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