Make no assumptions: Researchers present early findings on Canadian Press Councils

“You’re not just an audience,” Lisa Taylor, an instructor from Ryerson University’s School of Journalism told a room full of publishers and reporters. “This is our lab.”

Taylor, along with the Chair of Ryerson’s journalism school Ivor Shapiro and graduate student Edward Tubb, were at INK+BEYOND 2012 to present some of their preliminary findings on the perceptions, effectiveness, and vulnerability of press councils in Canada, and provoke discussion on what the future may hold for them.

Commissioned by Ryerson’s journalism research centre four months ago at the behest of Newspapers Canada, the goal of the online study was to examine the different structures of existing press councils in Canada

Using a bilingual survey that was open to professional journalists as well as the public, people could anonymously answer questions on their experiences with press councils, their responsiveness to complaints, and if press councils should take on more of an advocacy or educational role.

The test drew more than 500 responses, 70 per cent of which were from people outside of the news media. But before going into detail, Taylor was quick to note the limitations of the study’s findings.

“This is a very small sample size,” Taylor stressed. “We can show you what we’ve found, but it’s tough to draw any conclusions. It’s hard to distinguish (what’s valid).”

The results collected so far were nevertheless interesting. Out of the total number of respondents, six percent of people who identified themselves as part of the “audience” had complained to a press council in the past. Of that group, more than two-thirds were not satisfied with the result.

Additionally, only about 20 percent of audience participants thought news organizations were held accountable for their actions, compared to the more than half of the industry professionals surveyed who gave the same answer.

“We should suspect a bit of bias,” said Shapiro, “but these results show it’s important to answer the question.”

Throughout the presentation, Taylor stopped to ask the audience of publishers and reporters for their thoughts on the group’s findings. Shapiro and Tubb recorded feedback and revealed that the research committee plans to fold the new information into their research.

“Your comments are a part of this,” said Taylor. “By posing new questions, we’ll then ask them.”

Of all the concerns regarding press councils, what sparked the most vigorous debate was a question on whether or not a national council could, or should, exist in Canada.

The majority of industry professionals who responded to the question on the survey were neutral on the subject, while audience reactions were slightly favourable to the idea.

Although the difference in two results did not carry any statistical weight, the problems faced by press councils in some provinces meant many at the talk were vocal on the issue.

“I think it’s a matter of survival,” said one attendee. “Many major news organizations are pulling out (provincial) press councils. That’s a huge challenge.”

Several news groups have left press councils in recent years, calling their effectiveness into question. In 2010, Quebecor Inc. withdrew from the Quebec Press Council, followed by the group’s Sun Media papers pulling out of the Ontario council a year later. Earlier this year, the Manitoba Press Council ceased operations.

But there are many unknowns when talking about a national council, particularly when it comes to funding.

“Where would the money come from, the government?” another audience member asked during the debate. “Then you’ve got a whole other set of problems.&