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Research examines the effect of media ownership on content

By Janet Harron

When Kelly Blidook, an assistant professor in Memorial University’s Political Science department, was completing his PhD at McGill University between 2003-2007, he worked on a research project that is now garnering him international recognition.

Dr. Blidook recently took part in a conference in Mexico City titled The Role of the Media in Democracy: Experiences from Mexico and Canada. It was organized and sponsored by the Universidad Iberoamericana and the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City. Organizers paired up five Mexican and five Canadian scholars to talk about topics such as the effect of media on voting behaviour, and how journalism can effect elections.

Dr. Blidook’s research examines the effect of media ownership on the content of Canadian newspapers. Using a large data set compiled during the 2004 and 2006 Canadian elections, Dr. Blidook – at the time a PhD student and one of the research assistants on the project – tracked every election article in five English language daily newspapers over the period of the 2004 and 2006 federal election campaigns. This was about 2,000 articles for each election.

His findings were surprising in that although three of the newspapers studied were owned by the same company (Canwest Global) there was not a consistent bias throughout all of them. Therefore, one potential threat of centralized media ownership (i.e. a strong bias for one political party throughout a news organization) didn’t carry in this instance.

Dr. Blidook’s study looks at the first and second elections in which CanWest papers officially endorsed the Conservatives. He cautions that we might be looking at different results were the study to have been done over a longer period of time, for example, by including the 2000 and 2008 elections. During the 2000 election, CanWest Global tended to promote the Liberal Party.

While he did find some significant differences in content between newspapers commonly owned under CanWest, Dr. Blidook doesn’t suggest that this should be taken to mean that ownership does not matter.

Saying of his findings that, “I think about it in terms of evidence as opposed to truth,” he concedes that there are a lot of potential threats that can exist with certain patterns of media ownership but that “I’m only looking at one potential threat and only looking at it one way. Still, the threat of an ‘ownership bias’ across newspapers is not evident in these findings.”

Among the questions considered in collecting data were which parties, leaders and issues were mentioned and how often, and whether these were presented in a negative, neutral or positive manner. Each story was “treated as equal” according to Dr. Blidook and was examined from a quantitative rather than qualitative perspective, meaning that the specific context of each story was not considered as part of his research. “The study focuses on general trends with these newspapers, as opposed to specific cases of coverage.”

Dr. Blidook’s other areas of research include work on Canadian MPs, if and how they tend to represent their local constituencies, and how their individual actions affect government actions. One of his recent publications also outlined the effect of media coverage of health care on public opinion in Canada, a hot topic in Newfoundland and Labrador due to the recent Cameron inquiry.

With regard to his current study, Dr. Blidook is quick to point out that although his findings suggest that there are differences between newspapers with shared ownership, this evidence doesn’t contradict the other troubling issues facing newspapers today. Ownership concentration in the media may ultimately lead to less unique stories and a smaller number of journalists producing greater amounts of content. The increased use of wire services for both print and web-based news means that the convergence of messages is likely greater now than it was previously.

Dr. Blidook’s future plans regarding this area of research is to add more context to his Canadian case study through a closer examination of newspapers’ treatment of parties and leaders, along with surveys from journalists, and to publish his findings.