In the information age, a strong public broadcaster is more important than ever

Many would argue that in the information age there is no longer a need for a national public broadcaster. Those that make that argument however, are already behind the times. The information age has rapidly turned into the age of information overload. In 2014 public broadcasting's mission may have changed, but the need for it is greater than ever before.‘

In the 1930s and early 1940s, as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was slowly created the goal was to protect Canadian identity and culture. The Canadian government at that time was afraid that the American media juggernaut would monopolize the airwaves and slowly wash away Canadian identity.

It is not at all clear that the CBC met these original goals. However, in 2014 there are few barriers to participation in the media. Just about anyone, anywhere, with little or no money can tell their stories, share their art, comment on events and take part in local, national and international conversations. The problem now is that a great many people have done just that.

Techcrunch reported that in 2010 that the amount of information created every two days is equal to the amount of information produced from the dawn of written language until 2003. By all accounts that pace is accelerating rapidly. According to the BBC, “ 2016 there may be the data equivalent of every movie ever made hurtling across the Internet every three minutes.”

While it is impossible for any human to consume this much information, the human need for social interaction and our natural curiosity lead many people to try. A 2012 study by Roger Bohn and James Short of the University of California, San Diego reported that the average American consumes more than 100 thousand words per day and the average Canadian can’t be far behind.

A poll conducted by Ipsos in the fall of 2013 reported that Canadians spent an average of 7.9 hours per day consuming media on various screens. This includes tablets, laptops, smart phones and televisions but not books, radio or newspapers. Additionally, 87 percent of the respondents said that they are monitoring more than one screen at a time at least once per week.

The Internet is in a constant state of being flooded with Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, video, audio and stories from news organizations around the world. With ‘one click translation’ even language is no longer a barrier to information consumption. This raises a number of potential problems. Perhaps the most immediate of these is the fact all information is not created equal.

The Internet certainly contains well researched and fact checked news reports, informed opinion pieces from experts, high quality scientific and research papers and other sources of valuable information.

Unfortunately, mixed in with that valuable information are opinion pieces with dubious facts, paranoid conspiracy theories and urban myths, advertising disguised as hard news, deliberate disinformation from political activists and operatives, news filtered by commercial and advertising interests and news filtered or self-censored with an eye toward political interests.

News was once considered a public service provided in exchange for the use of public airwaves. More recently however it has become subject to the same financial interests and ratings concerns that govern entertainment media.

Because of this, the corporations that are responsible for delivering the news feel compelled to alter the news to attract viewers. Sensationalism and fear mongering have become common on many outlets. Idle and pointless speculation has frequently replaced expert analysis because it is cheap and fills time. At the same time stories or viewpoints, however valid, that might upset viewers or advertisers are sometimes altered or buried altogether.

Viewers themselves have not improved the situation. With so many options available and a limited amount of time to consume it, most consumers live in something of a self-imposed information bubble. Eli Pariser has described this as a “filter bubble”; a tendency to choose information services that echo and support views we already hold. This prevents individuals from being exposed to new information or challenges to their existing beliefs.

The average person, who is not an expert in areas such as science, politics, health, economics or foreign affairs, has a limited ability to tell good information from bad information. To make matters worse, according to a study from Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia found that people tend to believe misinformation even if that information has been proven untrue, if the disinformation fits with their worldview.

Disinformation can appear and spread rapidly online through social media. A lie, or bad piece of information, can be posted to Twitter or Facebook and can be re-shared or retweeted thousands of times in a matter of seconds. This can lead to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people receiving the bad information before it can be checked for accuracy.

In the rush to be first in the perpetual news cycle, these widespread rumors are sometimes even reported or discussed by major media outlets before the accuracy of the rumors is established. Additionally, because information online is permanently archived people can continue to stumble across bad information long after it has been proven untrue.

In a 2012 YouGov poll, 31.8 percent of Americans surveyed still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) at the time of the 2003 invasion. An additional 25.6 percent weren’t sure if WMDs were found or not. So, with regard to the central issue that launched a war, less than half of the survey respondents know that no evidence was found
to justify the invasion.

It is clear to everyone who thinks about these issues that there is a serious problem. There are, however, few solutions. In the current climate newspapers are dying, newsroom staffs are shrinking in most media, freelancers and interns are driving most of the job growth and budgets for investigative or even in-depth reporting are shrinking. In this environment, just about anything that a media outlet can do to increase revenue seems justified.

All of this has a potentially harmful impact on democracy. In order to create and perpetuate a functioning democracy, it is essential that voters have a clear understanding of current events and the issues being discussed by political leaders. If voters do not understand or misunderstand the issues being discussed then there is little point in asking them to vote.

In other words, having uninformed or misinformed people vote runs the risk of the election results being effectively random. Even if it is not completely random, the leader or party who does the best job of spreading information, whether that information is valid or not, will have a definite advantage. Under current election laws, the side that has the most money to spend on advertising could be nearly impossible to defeat. That may still be technically democratic, but it is not democracy based on ‘enlightened self interest’ or even based on voters true feelings about issues and events.

This is where public broadcasting, or more specifically public service broadcasting can and should play a vital role in Canadian democracy.

A May, 2000 document titled “Public Broadcasting: Why? How?” from UNESCO and the World Radio and Television Council defines public broadcasting in part as “Neither commercial nor State-controlled, public broadcasting’s only raison d’être is public service. It is the public’s broadcasting organization; it speaks to everyone as a citizen. Public broadcasters encourage access to and participation in public life. They develop knowledge, broaden horizons and enable people to better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others.”

The CBC is not currently set up to meet that definition, it is dependent on advertising for its survival and even with the ad revenue is horribly underfunded. The CBC newsroom, like most others, is dealing with layoffs, cutbacks and diminishing budgets. The CBC, like commercial networks, is relying more and more on inexpensive infotainment to fill airtime.
Despite this, all of the infrastructure is in place for CBC News to play a vital role in Canadian democracy in the age of information overload and “filter bubbles”. 

Citizens should feel no need to monitor the Internet around the clock in order to feel informed. Viewers, listeners and readers should be able to tune in to a program like the National or Power & Politics on their national public broadcaster and feel confident, based on that alone, they have the information they need to have to participate in democracy.

The CBC can and should be a filter, sorting good information from bad, countering disinformation and finding key needles in the haystacks of information being pumped out all day, every day. The CBC can and should be our national fact checker, distilling stacks of data down into what is true and what is vital to know and all of this should be available in a variety of formats across a variety of media.

In order to get there though, the CBC would need considerably more support than it now receives. It would need greater support from the public and from political leaders. It would need the Government of Canada to invest enough money in the CBC to enable the organization to give up advertising and still increase staff and budgets. It would also require that government to invest resources in the CBC while, at the same time, reducing government control over the broadcaster.

All of this would be politically difficult. Leaders would have to decide to go ahead, without any guarantee it will make them more politically popular and without any guarantee that they will get favorable coverage for it. They will have to expend resources in the face of opposition by many commercial broadcasters and interest groups.

Strengthening the CBC makes political sense if and only if the party and leaders behind the move value an informed electorate and strengthened democracy more than their own immediate self-interest.

It will also require a renewed commitment on the part of the public broadcaster to high quality news and information, without any appearance of conflict of interest. It will require absolute diligence in confirming and documenting the accuracy of information. There will be little room left for speculation, for infotainment, for sensationalism or for “human interest” stories.

Politically popular or not, a strong public broadcaster is more vital than ever before. It is no longer a question of protecting Canadian culture from American media giants. The information age recognizes few borders. Individuals may not even be aware of where their information or entertainment comes from.

The alternative to a strong public broadcaster is an electoral world of information bubbles. We could see Canada become as polarized as the United States with different groups feeling entitled to their own sets of facts as well as their own opinions. Vital information about key issues could easily get lost in the flood of voices, while compromise and consensus will become less and less possible. This will inevitably lead to an increase in disenfranchisement, disillusionment and ever diminishing levels of involvement in the political process.

Politicians looking to trim budgets may feel comfortable saying that 'government has no business in the broadcasting industry'. Government, however, must be involved in the business of democracy and a strong public broadcaster, independent of political or commercial interests is more essential to democracy than it has ever been. 

This was originally submitted as an entry to the 2015 Dalton Camp Awards.

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