Nanos survey shows public support for C-18 but also the limits of polling.

“What do you read my lord?”

“Polls, polls, polls.” (not Hamlet, Act II, Scene II)

Nanos Poll: Popular Support for Bill C-18

November 10, 2022

Nanos has released its public opinion polling on Bill C-18, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. Television companies are expected to benefit from the Online News Act currently before the House of Commons’ Heritage Committee.

The headline result is 77% popular support for the Bill, based on the poll’s following two questions and preamble:

As you know, large foreign internet platforms like Google and Facebook are taking a large percentage of Canadian advertising dollars by collecting users’ search and browsing activities and selling targeted advertising against that data. This includes searches and links to news content. Do you support, somewhat support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or oppose the following:

Q1.Having the Government of Canada encourage Google and Facebook negotiate with Canadian news organizations for the fair payment reflecting the value of their work.  (Results: 52% Support, 25% Somewhat Support, 7% Somewhat Oppose, 10% Oppose, 7% Don’t Know.)

Q2. Google and Facebook paying nothing to Canadian news organizations for the value of their news content (Results: 6% Support, 6% Somewhat Support, 20% Somewhat Oppose, 60% Oppose, 9% Don’t Know.)

The Nanos poll corroborates outcomes favourable to C-18 from the May 2020 Pollara poll sponsored by Newsmedia Canada as well as a previous Globe/Nanos poll that surveyed Canadians on the Liberal government’s three Internet bills: Bill C-18, the Online Streaming Act C-11, and the yet to be tabled Online Safety legislation. 

The results of the new Nanos poll also run contrary to conclusions in the Abacus C-18 survey sponsored by Google which MediaPolicy.ca opined was compromised by its loaded questions calibrated to Google’s objections to the legislation.

Aside from the Nanos poll’s verdict of public support for the legislation, it demonstrates the limits of broad public opinion polling on complex policy problems and solutions. 

The questions in the Nanos and Pollara surveys test public attitudes towards “in-principle” support of the Bill compelling Facebook and Google to recognize the value of news content on their platforms rather than mining the public mind for nuanced opinions on policy issues. The Abacus poll acknowledged that only 8% of respondents believed they had a full understanding of C-18.

But the polling results don’t necessarily rebut informed criticisms of the legislation, which will continue. Those objections share an opposition to government involvement in media and regulation of communications over the Internet.

A central tenet of opposition to C-18 is that even the perception of government coming to the rescue of media (since the Bill does not involve public funds) will discredit the independence of news media.

Its trite but true that this analysis mostly (not entirely) comes from the Right where antagonism towards the publicly funded CBC is historic and opposition to the federal government’s 2019 subsidies to mainstream news journalism is equally well known.

On the latter point, funding of Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations has been roiling in conservative political messaging ever since 2019 as a “bail out” and “buy out” of journalistic independence from the Liberal government.

Bill C-18 has drawn opposition on the same grounds (although less prominent federal programs for journalism interns and small news publications drew more limited fire).

This concern for the credibility of independent news journalism is a good opportunity to take another look at the polling data released June 2022 in the Reuters Digital News Report covering 46 global markets including a segmented report from Canada. (A similar Canadian poll from Maru/Kaiser was released November 8th).

The Reuters report shows with brutal clarity that public trust in news is down and avoidance of news consumption is up.

The data allows us to make two important observations relevant to the impact of the federal QCJO program on Canadian public opinion regarding the independence of the media. 

First, the twin threats of declining news trust and rising news avoidance were immediately apparent as Reuters tracking began in 2016 and do not appear to have reacted to the introduction of the QCJO program in 2019. Perhaps more significantly, those two threats have been tracked by Reuters since 2016 as nearly universal around the world, including the US, UK and France, where nothing like QCJO exists or is on the table.

If anything, those global trends from 2016 to 2022 correlate more closely to a rise in Internet disinformation and right-wing populist politics.

This leads MediaPolicy.ca to propose that the perception that QCJO or C-18 will undermine journalistic independence is limited to elites and/or a confirmation bias (“these programs prove that mainstream media is in already thrall to big government/federal Liberals/BigTech/Big Business”).

But take no solace in confirmation bias. The findings in the Reuters study ought not to be dismissed as political noise or the cynical gaming of the democratic process.

Look at the Canadian results on trust in news organizations:

  • At 42%, trust in most news most of the time is at its lowest level in the seven years of Canada’s participation in the Digital News Report survey. This amounts to a decrease of three percentage points from 2021 and 13 in relation to 2016.
  • Only 27% of Canadians think the news media in their country are independent of undue political influence, a decrease of 10 points since 2017. 
  • 29% think the same about business influence, a decrease of nine points since 2017. 
  • Half of respondents think the country’s news organizations are very or quite close together politically, with those respondents skewing Right and older. The same demographic correlates with low trust in news.

As mentioned, the trust trends are consistent with those in other nations around the world. Canadian results are in middle between some European nations (e.g. Finland, Germany) with higher trust in news and much lower trust in the UK, France and US. This suggests that different polities, and perhaps differential editorial traditions, influence trust levels, but the downward direction is everywhere.

The trending provokes the question “what is increasing the lack of trust”? Is it the static interference of Internet disinformation? The networking of contrarians finding each other on the Internet? A general alienation from mainstream institutions that haven’t solved the problems of our Age? Opportunistic politicians pandering to it all?

If those questions about trust in news aren’t sufficiently vexing, Reuters also reminds us of rising news avoidance.

In response to the question “do you find yourself trying to avoid news these days?” Canadians polled in 2017, 2019 and 2022 are increasingly fed up with the news:

A whopping 71% of Canadian respondents said they had at least occasionally (i.e. including “sometimes” and “often”) tried actively to avoid the news in the recent past, up 13 percentage points from 2019.

The “occasionally” avoiding news figure hasn’t changed much, but the “often” has doubled and the “sometimes” has grown about 40%. On the other end, “never” avoiding the news has shrunk twenty points from 44% to 24%.

These are hair-on-fire figures.

What’s driving the despair?

Reuters data suggests the common theme is negativity about the world journalists report on. This might be the problems we face (war, political polarization, climate change, pandemic) or their magnification by news reporting that dramatizes conflict and suffering:

The leading causes of the news avoidance (above) were potential negative effect on mood (47%) and excessive coverage of topics such as politics and Covid-19 (46%).

Other news avoidance stemmed from feeling worn out by the amount of news (32%) and considering news untrustworthy or biased (29%). (Unfortunately Reuters did not benchmark this data against 2017 or 2019 results).

As a corollary to news avoidance, respondents were asked why they seek out news. The answers were encouraging from the point of view of democratic participation:

In a word, respondents want to know what’s going on in civil society.

It’s gratifying that local news was the leading topic of interest (65%), followed by international news (53%), pandemic information (47%) political news (45%) and environment/climate change (39%) although those results are heavily generational (the under-35 crowd consumes less news in general).

The Reuters study provoked some soul searching advice from its lead author, Oxford University’s Nic Newman. Interviewed by Poynter, he said:

“Subjects that journalists consider most important, such as political crises, international conflicts and global pandemics, seem to be precisely the ones that are turning some people away…

“Some of this is a function of the move to digital — people feel they are being bombarded/overloaded often when they haven’t asked for it. Also that the abundance of other (more entertaining) choices means it is easier to avoid/select something less depressing.”

Newman also offered some solutions:

  • Addressing trust issues is part of the answer. Be sure that stories are evidence-based, avoid sensationalist hype and label opinion as such. Still, current “levels of partisanship” will block progress even with best practices.
  • “Making news more accessible/easier to understand. This is one of the other reasons why young people and less educated groups avoid. The news is often written for avid news consumers with a lot of knowledge. So more explanation, answering questions, easy to consume digital formats (e.g. video) that are fact-based and accessible. Avoiding jargon and insider speak will help.”
  • “Some publishers are working on personalization that automatically formats stories to fit consumption styles (bullet points or more videos, pictures). That may also help over time to make news more accessible and relevant … Television has an outsized influence on perceptions of ‘too much COVID, too much politics.’ So a wider and more diverse agenda there might help, but I suspect they think they will then lose their core avid news follower audience which is what matters commercially.”

Others might add to Newman’s recommendations the avoidance of “storytelling” as a substitute for observation and explanation; a fearless appetite for inconvenient facts; and a rejection of journalist celebrity.

***

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Published by

Howard Law

I am retired staff of Unifor, the union representing 300,000 Canadians in twenty different sectors of the economy, including 10,000 journalists and media workers. As the former Director of the Media Sector and as an unapologetic cultural nationalist, I have an abiding passion for public policy in Canadian media.

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