By David Rozado and Aaron Wudrick
In recent years, traditional Canadian news media has undergone a great transition. A once-profitable business model, based on providing advertisers access to a large, essentially captive readership, was effectively destroyed by the internet. New digital competitors sprung up, while social media evolved into both a conduit and a competitor.
At the same time, criticism of Canadian news media increased, with most surveys showing that it is suffering from a steep decline in public trust. The reasons for this decline are hotly contested, but one common critique has been a claim that the focus of many news media outlets has changed in recent years.
We decided to test this critique by undertaking a quantitative analysis — already used successfully to examine changes in American and British media — to look at changes in how Canadian news media used language. The results are published in our new Macdonald-Laurier Institute paper, “Northern Awokening: tracing the rise of social-justice and prejudice-denoting language in Canadian news media.”
In crafting a coherent, credible assessment of how Canadian media approach certain topics, we needed to be mindful that media outlets that have differing political leanings tend to use their own preferred terminology when examining a theme such as gender identity.
Analyzing over six million news and opinion articles from 14 major Canadian news outlets between 2000 to 2021, we found a dramatic rise, since 2010, in the prevalence of terms that signify distinct forms of prejudice in both English and French media from outlets across the political spectrum.
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Terms displaying the starkest increase in prominence between 2010 and 2021 are those relating to gender-identity prejudice, which saw a staggering 2,285 per cent increase. In contrast, terms referring to sexual orientation prejudice have actually mildly decreased in prevalence since their 2011 peak. Terms referring to sexism or Islamophobia peaked near the middle of the decade, while others, like racism or transphobia, seem to have peaked later in the decade. Notably, references to antisemitism do not display a clear upwards post-2010 trend.
Several significant differences with U.S. news media are noteworthy. Contrary to our expectations, terms used in Canadian news media do not mirror America’s. Indeed, Canadian news media preceded American media in its increasing interest in topics like sexual orientation or gender identity — and a topic like Islamophobia is three times more prevalent in Canadian news media than in the US.
In contrast, terms referring to anti-Semitism are much more apparent in American news media. The topic of racial prejudice follows similar dynamics in both countries, despite their different historical legacies. The dynamics of gender prejudice are very similar until around 2016, at which point Canadian news media seem to have lost interest while American media interest became elevated.
Interestingly, in the prominence of terms denoting prejudice we found very little difference between Canadian news media with English and French content. Likewise, right- and left-leaning Canadian news media were relatively similar in the prominence of prejudice in their content. This contrasts sharply with both U.S. and British media, where left-leaning news outlets are more likely to mention prejudice than their right-leaning counterparts. Finally, American news media in recent years have begun emphasizing terminology often associated with social justice such as “slavery,” “whiteness,” “white privilege,” “gender pronouns,” “hate speech” or “bias,” and do so with an intensity not apparent in Canadian news media.
Right- and left-leaning Canadian news media were relatively similar
Naturally, the question becomes: What happened? Since our analysis is observational in nature, we can only speculate. But we propose six possible catalysts to explain the post-2010 shift in Canadian news media.
First, Canada’s news media may simply be mirroring news media trends in America, even if this hypothesis is not fully consistent with the underlying data.
Second, societal prejudice may have increased in recent years and media coverage simply reflects this reality (although the evidence for this is mixed, and in some cases contradictory).
Third, the trends documented here could be symptomatic of increasing public and institutional sensitivity to prejudice.
Fourth, there may be an increasing ideological skew among news media professionals, with some evidence showing that journalists are becoming increasingly and disproportionately left leaning.
Fifth, this pattern could also be partially explained as cultural shifts, such as the rise of identity politics, especially victimhood identity.
And finally, news media may have financial incentives to use highly emotional language in order to maximize digital “click-throughs.”
All of these catalysts deserve further exploration, and hopefully our study provides a useful quantitative contribution for those who endeavour to do so. But the data are clear: Canadian news media really has gone woke.
Special to National Post
David Rozado is an associate professor at Otago University in New Zealand. Aaron Wudrick is Director of the Domestic Policy program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.