Robert Hackett looks at media’s underlying problems

MEDIA by Mitch Diamantopoulos

Robert Hackett: Climate Crisis, Media Alternative: What Kind Of Journalism Do We Need For A Planetary Emergency?
Tuesday 24 / School Of Journalism

Robert Hackett thinks you deserve good news. We’re not talking about finding love, landing your dream job or winning the lottery, though all those things sound great. No, Hackett — a world-leading authority on media politics who has spent his life studying the news — wants you to have access to smart, honest and accurate reporting that gives you the information you need as someone living in this great, yet sometimes frustrating, country.

Because you deserve it.

The Simon Fraser University communications professor’s latest crusade is to help the press come to terms with the climate change challenge. On March 24, Hackett will headline the School Of Journalism’s News At Noon lecture series.

We asked J-school department head (and Prairie Dog founding editor/BFF) Mitch Diamantopoulos to interview Hackett about the talk he’ll give at the school that employs Mitch. Because if Prairie Dog is gonna run an interview with a media reformer, dammit, we want a story with as much conflict of interest as we can cram in. /Stephen Whitworth

Robert Hackett: A News Life

You co-directed NewsWatch Canada since 1993, most actively in the 1990s. What is the most important thing you learned from watching the news so closely for over  two decades?

Omission is the most important form of bias in conventional news. It isn’t just that journalism is “history on the run”. NewsWatch argued in The Missing News that blind spots in the news agenda are related to professional ideologies, inadequate resources, organizational routines and structures. We found that in the 1990s, the press loved “junk food news” like the latest Microsoft product frenzy, but under-reported important issues like labour struggles, poverty, inequality, corporate crime, Canadian militarism, or the power of public relations and media corporations themselves.

You lived in Regina as a boy, discovered the work of the University of Regina’s world renowned communications scholar Dallas Smythe later in life and went on to follow in his tradition. In fact, you became colleagues at SFU in 1984, and you won this year’s Dallas Smythe Award from the Union for Democratic Communications. If you could pick one key insight that most Reginans don’t know about our own Marshall McLuhan, what would it be?

Dallas Smythe helped found the critical political economy approach, which insists that communication is inherently linked to power structures, and that (unlike McLuhan!) technological development and media content can’t be understood apart from relations of production, and the governing logics of capitalism.  In the 1970s, Smythe identified communication as a blind spot of critical theories about capitalism.  His best-known idea is that the most important product of commercial media is us — the audience.  For Smythe, that had all sorts of implications.  For example, when we watch TV, we are doing a kind of work, for advertisers and media corporations.

You’ve argued that all social struggles — from poverty to labour rights to the environment — are all media struggles in the end. Why is the media so important to social progress?

So-called “legacy” media are not about to disappear.  The death of newspapers is “greatly exaggerated”, according to media historian Marc Edge, and conventional news media continue to set political agendas, define terms of debate, and certify issues and perspectives as publicly relevant.  No movement for social change can afford to ignore them. At the same time, digital networks, including so-called “social media”, offer new organizing and community-building tools, and new ways to intervene in public discourse. Equitable access to those tools can’t be taken for granted. That’s one reason for social movements to engage in communication policy issues, including privacy, ownership concentration, and Net neutrality.

According to journalist Naomi Klein, climate change “changes everything” politically. You’re working on a book on how journalism needs to change too. You’re heading up an international research group on the question and this is the focus of your talk on campus this month. In a nutshell, how do you think journalism has been part of the problem and how do you think it might be part of the solution?

That’ll be the focus of my talk in Regina on March 24, drawing from a collaborative project in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Climate Justice program.  Conventional journalism has not well-covered the big picture, failing to connect the dots between climate change and (for example) consumer culture; has boosted destructive extractive mega-projects like the tar sands; and has treated climate politics as a game for elites, in which the rest of us are bystanders. If journalism is to fulfil a democratic function of not merely providing abstracted bits of information but of facilitating public engagement to address this planetary emergency, it needs more productive storytelling frames, such as localizing the impacts of climate change, highlighting successful political engagement by ordinary people, and accurately conveying the urgency of global climate crisis while offering concrete policy solutions beyond changing a few light bulbs.

Some argue the Internet has given us unprecedented informational choice but you’ve suggested we need a different kind of journalism to provide balance to the skew of our dominant corporate media, that we need alternative media. People reading this interview are holding an alt-city paper in their hands or clicking on its web pages right now. Why is it so important for them to have that alternative?

Where do we get media that can hold power accountable, frame climate politics as Naomi Klein (rightly) does as a conflict between the fossil fuel and extractivist interests versus global civil society, do informed analysis without being constrained by the ideology of “objectivity” or the pressure of short-term deadlines, and systematically include the voices of victims of climate crisis and engaged citizens working for change?  Not from corporate media  that depend on commercial revenue and are slashing newsroom budgets. But not from the internet’s opinion-mongering blowhards or news aggregators/recyclers either. Democracy needs well-resourced, original and independent journalism.  That’s where alternative media come in.

Every November, you help organize Media Democracy Day in Vancouver. What does ‘media democracy’ mean to you and why is to so important?

In Remaking Media, Bill Carroll and I defined media democracy, perhaps wonkishly, as “efforts to change media messages, practices, institutions and contexts, including state communication policies, in a direction which enhances participation and equality (rather than hierarchy and exclusion).” It’s important because as American media reformer Robert McChesney argues, regardless of what your primary issue is, your second issue should be democratic media, because without that, progressive social change will be more difficult right across the board.

In the U.S., Free Press has rallied a powerful media reform movement. In Britain, Co-operatives U.K have targeted alternative media development. Is Canada falling behind in this area?

Canada does have important policy-oriented media reform organizations, such as Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, and, which defends fair Internet access against big telecom companies. But yes, Canadian civil society should pay more attention to communication policy’s connection to democratic values, especially given Harper’s sustained assault on democracy. Why not start with an annual Media Democracy Day in Saskatchewan?

News At Lunch is 12:00-1 p.m. March 24 at the University of Regina School of Journalism (AdHum, rm. 105). This lecture is free and open to the public.