Acts of Journalism:
Social Exclusion in Montreal Media
An FQRSC Emergent Team Proposal: Greg Nielsen, Mike Gasher, Lisa Lynch, Beverley Best, Chantal Francoeur, Francois Demers, Colette Brin
The Program: In all acts of journalism, whether through print, broadcast, or web 2.0 technologies, and out of all of its organizational practices -- mainstream or alternative, corporate or public, citizen or civic -- the audience implied in the address is an ideal public. Acts of journalism imply an orientation toward an audience that either enforces or resists relations of inclusion in, or exclusion from, an ideal public or polis. For example, research in both journalism and the social sciences demonstrates that most reportage on excluded subjects-- the undocumented, the poor underclass, the refugee, the terrorist, the insane, the racialized or sexual «other», the criminal – rarely addresses the subjects being talked about (Bonnafous, 1991; Gans, 1995; Chavez, 2001; Henry, 2006; d’Haenens & Bink, 2007; Butler, 2009; Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999; Loic 2004; Foucault 1970). These subjects are not excluded in the sense that the media in the main do not talk about them, quote their voices, show their faces, or explain their points of view. There is copious reporting on the excluded. Our research question asks why the subjects of exclusion are not themselves addressed as the ideal publics of the media, and what acts of journalism might reduce the gap between those subjects and their implied audiences. In other words, we assume that journalists are not constructing their messages with the intent of speaking to the excluded but rather toward a third party. Hence, we plan to develop our research beyond audience studies of taste and ethnographies of reception by treating acts of journalism as having this implied audience embedded in the text, organizational contexts, and practices.
At first glance, developing the research question around the implied audience may seem banal and without much consequence. After all, when we speak privately to someone about our support or rejection of other persons, we are not addressing those other persons directly. There is no ethical or political problem in private discourse when we exclude the excluded. Most journalism, however, has adopted this same ethos in its public discourse, basing both its news judgement and its form of audience address on the perceived needs of an ideal public. Given that inclusiveness is a fundamental feature of a democratic political system and the media provide an important space for the conduct of public life, our research team looks to challenge this traditional ethos and to demonstrate that acts of journalism are a key location in what Silverstone (2007) calls the emerging “mediapolis,” a mediated social, civic and moral space where we engage otherness and where public understanding of exclusion is possibly at its most diminished and most in need of fundamental research both locally and globally. The “mediapolis” is understood here as an alternative way of thinking about the “ideal public” in that it implies a shift away from the concept of a people imagined by journalists, one that is potentially completely contained in each one of the mass media, toward multiple implied audiences, some of whom are excluded by the orchestra of medias in a given geographical space.
Beginning in the 1970s, through a blossoming of alternative media, minorities and interest groups neglected by mainstream media tried to bypass their organizational practices and reach their own implied audiences (Atton, 2002; Atton & Hamilton, 2008; Atkinson, 2010). New alternative media challenge professional journalism and also contribute to the fragmentation of the general public into niche audiences. That process has not yet stabilized, given the expansion of new practices of consumption-production in 2.0 technologies. This context renews and doubles the question of those excluded from the implied audiences of journalism. From questions about mainstream media: Do they report about the excluded? Do they report in such a way that the excluded subjects recognize themselves, their voices, and points of view? Are they depicted, analysed and commented on as an audience or framed as alien others? To questions about whether or not alternative or community media address themselves toward some excluded subjects. If so, how, and what is the possibility of interaction between mainstream and other media regarding the coverage of excluded subjects? Can the various media influence each other? How do the perceptions and sensibilities of the implied audiences of mainstream media and the implied audiences of the excluded expressing themselves through other media, merge and mix, if they do at all, and in what kind of public place?
Our program looks to stimulate and support different case studies that provide a contemporary mapping of news coverage in Montreal media in general, with a focus on questions related to the coverage of subjects of social and cultural exclusion in particular, and with an eye on the implications that these acts of journalism hold for news media practices and journalism organizations in Quebec and elsewhere in the immediate future. We are particularly interested in applying our collective research capacities toward studies that would locate patterns of exclusion in the mainstream news, and point out alternative and more inclusive practices from these varied platforms that might best reverse the erasure of these groups from the ideal public or political body of citizens, and hence allow them a fuller democratic participation.
Our research on acts of journalism, though, is also prompted by the observation that critiques of media too often focus on all-encompassing consequences that corporate ownership and distribution have on audiences or on dominant ideology, rather than on finding ways to overcome established practices of writing and storytelling toward implied audiences by journalists themselves. Though they do serve to fuel much-needed alternative visions, such critiques of news industries often end in a normative stalemate. Historical attempts to construct alternative media often mean speaking to narrower audiences or audiences of the already converted. Meanwhile mainstream journalists continue their conventional acts of naming conditions for public hospitality toward the excluded, with little interruption or critical review. We plan to compare studies from both of these fields.
A unique feature of our program, then, is the mapping of a sampling of contemporary acts of journalism in Montreal across all of its practices and organizational contexts. Journalism does not have a monolithic structure. If Montreal's mainstream news producers include corporate commercial enterprises in newspapers (La Presse, The Gazette, Le Journal de Montréal), radio (CKAC, CJAD), television (TVA, CTV) and on-line journalism (cyberpresse, canoë), the mainstream also includes public broadcasters (Radio Canada, CBC) and an independent daily newspaper (Le Devoir). The Montreal journalism landscape becomes extremely diverse when we include free daily newspapers, community weeklies, alternative weeklies, third-language publications, community and cooperative radio stations, and web sites devoted to citizen journalism, alternative media, and advocacy journalism. Our program proposes to investigate reportage on the varied subjects of exclusion across these platforms by linking acts of journalism--or how journalists construct implied audiences— to the political and economic contexts of news organizations, and to the rapidly evolving technologies and everyday practices in the field. The investigation focuses on both commercial and non-commercial Montreal news agencies across this range of media platforms and organizational practices.
Media systems are most often studied as cornerstones of national cultures in regional or global contexts (Halin & Mancini, 2004; Starr, 2004; Skinner et al., 2005; Vipond, 2000; Robinson, 1998; Gingras, 2006; Coleman & Ross, 2010). Studies of urban media systems are rarer, but tend to focus on a heuristic mapping that resembles an ecosystem (see the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia studies). In order for us to examine the journalistic address to an implied audience across all media platforms and organizational contexts of the Montreal mediaopolis, we first need to map its media ecosystem. This research on Montreal has never been done. We propose to do it by drawing on existing resources from the Féderation professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ); the provincial media repertoire from le Centre d'études des médias at l'Université Laval; the resources of le Centre des médias alternatifs du Québec; and by adding new media sites that have not yet been documented. Getting an overall mapping of Montreal’s media ecosystem will facilitate our sampling from different media platforms and allow us to study how individual news organizations (through ethnographic studies and political and economic contexts) in the city describe themselves as tribunes that report on various forms of urban life as well as group exclusion and related social problems that we plan to study via the programs and texts they produce.
Montreal is an ideal choice for our team’s composition. Our team is comprised of members with both journalism experience and nationally and internationally recognized track records in research regarding pertinent dimensions of Montreal’s (and Quebec’s) mediapolis. We are knowledgeable about Montreal’s status as a centre for national politics while being widely regarded as a city that is distinct from other Canadian and North American cities, and the diverse range of its practices in news production.
Although Montreal’s economy, levels of social exclusion, and struggles over the accommodation of religious and cultural minorities, are in line with other second-tier Northern cities, Montreal is also a global media capital for the French-speaking world, an integrated multicultural city that remains linguistically divided, and among the most significantly trilingual cities in North America (Germaine & Rose, 2000; Abraham, 2004; Simon, 2006). This thick diversity indicates that Montreal is a city that is absorbing high-level impacts from global trends that render local forms of social and cultural exclusion especially visible. Our approach is to focus tightly on the shared observation that the “journalism address” does not in the main intend that excluded individuals or communities that are the subjects of reports become audiences. We also look to identify and contrast alternative cases in which media are experimenting with more inclusive forms of address. These acts of journalism constitute the research object that unite our team’s program within broader sociological differences that shape the contemporary set of social and cultural geopolitics for Montreal’s mediapolis.
To develop this program, we pursue three overlapping axes with accompanying research questions:
News observatory (Nielsen, Brin, Gasher) – developing approaches for readings of news texts, images and sounds from all media in our sample with the express purpose of analyzing the Montreal mediapolis across internal and external sources used to frame stories that establish patterns of inclusion and exclusion. RQ1. How does the address toward the implied audience frame news and how do the sources cited serve to distance or draw together the implied audience and the subjects of reports?
The objective of the first research axis is to create appropriate concepts derived from studies that team members have done on framing (Entman, 2004; d’Haenens, 2007) and studies of sources used in contemporary mainstream and alternative news coverage of marginalized groups across the Montreal media ecosystem and mediapolis. Studying sources helps reveal how socially excluded “others” being reported on are doubly removed from the public conversation even though their voices are often present in media reportage. They are absent even when their voices are present in the form of quotes addressed to readers, viewers, or listeners. This is because the response from the subjects being talked about is almost always limited to an individual quote that lends an internal emotional source to the story or is used as a framing device that is balanced with objective external sources like government reports, legal officials, or research experts. Keyword selections and case studies for the pilot test in the second year will be developed in line with ongoing research by faculty graduate student team members (Nielsen, 2009 a, b, 2008 a, b, c; 2007, 2005; 2002; Allen, Mandache & Nielsen, 2002; Brin, 2009; Gasher & Gabriele, 2004; Gasher & Klein, 2008; Gasher, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007).
Political economy of news (Gasher, Best, Demers) – developing strategies for analysis of the local and global political-economic structures of news organizations, for the purpose of identifying factors which explain the organizations' relationship to audiences. RQ 2. What are the global and local structural relations that inform the relationship between Montreal news organizations and their particular ideal publics?
The objective is to demonstrate how global structures -- including expanding networks of global production, the increasing flexibility of labour forces, and “mass customization,” or the growing prerogatives of finance capital (Harvey, 2010; McChesney, 2007; Mosco, 2009) -- illuminate and mediate particular instances of the Montreal mediapolis. Any ideal audience formation or act of journalism is taken as both inseparable from, and irreducible to, the larger social structure that mediates it. This constant and irresolvable tension between the individual expression or form and its mediating structure is preserved in analysis. Audiences, for example, are not seen as pre-assembled congregations waiting to be addressed; when news organizations produce news texts, they produce audiences for those texts at the same time. Why? The process of producing the audience is ongoing and complex as news providers compete for readers, viewers and listeners in an “attention economy” (Davenport & Beck, 2001). The process becomes that much more complex as the number of news producers, the platforms and styles they employ, the motives they serve, and the topics they address multiply; news production is no longer the select domain of mainstream, corporate news providers, but is augmented by alternative media, citizen journalists and the ethnic press, each seeking distinct audiences across a range of media platforms. This means that the classic explanation of how media function economically – by selling audiences to advertisers – needs to be refined and augmented to accommodate not only non-commercial media, but newer journalism forms whose economic sustainability is an open and pressing question (Hanke, 2005; Basen, 2009; Skinner, 2010).
Creating a framework for news ethnography (Lynch, Francoeur, Nielsen) – this axis draws on our collective experience conducting studies based on newsroom observation and interviews with Montreal journalists (including producers and editors). RQ 3. What is the journalists' understanding of what they do and how the news organization's relationship is developed toward the audience?
The objective in this axis is to develop the long tradition of journalism ethnography, looking to the rich descriptions and analysis of Tunstall (1971), Shlesinger (1987) and Gans (2004), as well as field studies (Bourdieu, 2005; Benson and Nevue 2005), for models for how our own project should function descriptively. We argue that tacit rules guide the representation of “otherness” in the newsroom, and our research will seek to theorize this. We are also attentive to the manner in which the historic political dynamics of Quebec shape these representations; to see how this might shape our questioning. Gans’ work is especially relevant because, though he was not focusing on journalists reporting on minorities, his questioning of journalists sought to determine what we want to determine: namely, who they select for coverage and who they leave out. Our questions will seek to identify what constitutes not only the universal “outside” of Montreal journalism, but the specifically constituted “outside” of the Quebec media system.