Canadian Daily Newspaper Editors' Evaluation of International Reporting

Walter C. Soderlund (University of Windsor)

Robert M. Krause (University of Windsor)

Richard G. Price (University of Windsor)

Abstract: A self-assessment regarding the state of international reporting in Canada on the part of the nation's daily newspaper editors.

Résumé: Une auto-appréciation de l'état du reportage international effectué au Canada par les éditeurs des journaux quotidiens nationaux.

Introduction

Given Canada's role in the international community, the reporting of international events should be of considerable interest to its citizens (Eayres, 1975; Dewitt and Kirton, 1983). In the area of economics a significant percentage of Gross Domestic Product is generated through international trade, so much so, that Canada's standard of living would be jeopardized by a substantial reduction in sales of goods on the world market. From 1980 to 1986 Canadian Exports as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product hovered at 30% (External Affairs, 1987, p. 4). Among 10 leading OECD countries, only Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany have higher percentages of GDP accounted for by exports (OECD, 1988, pp. 36-41). Moreover, beyond the economic sphere, Canada is active in such international arrangements and institutions as NATO, the Commonwealth, and the UN, where in addition to distinguished service on a number of peace-keeping forces, Canada currently occupies a seat on the Security Council and continues to play an important role in UNESCO (Holmes, 1986; Okafor, 1988). Canada also has a long-standing history of involvement in the field of international development, with commitment to various programs of multi-lateral and bi-lateral development assistance (House of Commons, 1987).

Support for the view that international news stories are important to Canadians can be found in the Royal Commission on Newspapers Report (1981, pp. 125-126). Additionally, in a study of student attitudes towards news coverage, it was found that international affairs ranked higher in political interest than national, provincial or local stories (Nevitte and Gibbins, 1986, p. 404).

But what kind of job has the nation's press been doing in providing information on the international scene to interested Canadians? The truth is that in the recent past Canada's newspapers have not received particularly high marks in the area of international reporting. In fact, two major studies of the country's press system, the Davey Committee (Senate, 1970) and the Kent Royal Commission (Royal Commission, 1981) (neither of which can be described as complimentary towards the nation's newspaper industry), singled out international reporting for special criticism.

The Davey Committee focused on the tendency of Canadian Press (CP) to rely on Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and Agence France Presse (AFP) for "the bulk of its international news" (1970, p. 4). The Committee found the resulting lack of a Canadian perspective on the news especially disturbing:

We do not suggest that the Associated Press, for example, is not a fine news service. It is. But it is an American news service, and no amount of tinkering with AP copy in CP's New York office will give it a Canadian character. An American reporter, writing for an American audience, writes in the American idiom, which is not the Canadian idiom. He writes from a background of American experience and American national interest, which are not the Canadian experience and the Canadian interest. He uses American illustrations, which are not Canadian illustrations, and draws on a literature, a history, and a political tradition which are his and not ours.

To an importer of widgets, the nationality and allegiance of his supplier are not especially important. To an importer of news they are. (p. 233)

Ten years later, the Kent Royal Commission was unimpressed with CP's response to the Davey Committee's complaint: "CP's answer to this advice has been to reduce its budget proportion for foreign coverage from 2.3 per cent in 1974 to 1.1 per cent in 1979" (Royal Commission, 1981, p. 122).

The reliance of CP on the major wire services is not of an inconsequential magnitude. Gertrude Robinson reported that in 1978 AP supplied 62% and Reuters 20% of stories carried on the CP English A wire (Robinson, 1983, p. 10). In research for the Kent Royal Commission, Carman Cumming and his colleagues found AP providing 75% and Reuters 10% of CP data files (Cumming et al., 1981, p. 37).

The Royal Commission on Newspapers provided evidence which indicated that Canadians wanted more international news reporting, but tended to rely on television for this type of news. This orientation was interpreted by the Commissioners as stemming from the failure of newspapers to cover international events adequately:

A vicious circle is at work. There are few Canadian correspondents abroad. Consequently, the editorial staff of Canadian newspapers include too few people with knowledge of the outside world. Consequently, they do not know how to handle foreign news well. Consequently, the editors are able to convince themselves that what they cannot handle confidently is not what the readers want. People do not get the paper they would like but the paper its editorial staff is capable of producing. (Royal Commission, 1981, p. 125)

Canadian Press was again prodded "to sit up and do something about improving Canadian foreign coverage" (p. 126). Nor has international reporting in Canada's newspapers escaped criticism from foreign policy officials and academics. In a 1983 address to the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, de Montigny Marchand, Deputy Minister, External Affairs, pointed to a "widening gap" emerging "between those charged with directing or implementing Canada's foreign policy, and those responsible for reporting or interpreting it for the public" (Marchand, 1983, p. 6). Some years earlier, Sidney Freifeld had called for "an upgrading of foreign affairs commentaries for informed interpretation and coverage" (1976, p. 269). Denis Stairs reported criticism of the press from within External Affairs, citing shortcomings in areas of "breadth, depth and continuity" of international coverage and lack of a Canadian perspective. He concluded "the press in Canada is not widely regarded as a source of balanced comment on international affairs in general or of informed criticism of foreign policy in particular" (Stairs, 1976, pp. 230-234).

Methods

The major objective of this research is to probe the views of those who, by virtue of their positions, have a significant role in the structuring of newspaper content--the nation's daily newspaper editors. While it is acknowledged that editors are but one component among many which determine the position of international news in newspaper content, their role at the centre of newspaper organization gives them a unique vantage point from which to judge the overall direction their newspaper takes with respect to international news reporting. Accordingly, the survey data upon which this paper is based represents the opinions of over 50% of editors of Canada's daily newspapers. In addition to being asked to comment specifically on the areas singled out for criticism in the Davey Committee and the Kent Commission Reports (adequacy of sources and dangers of relying on American sources), editors were asked to evaluate the following dimensions of international reporting: the overall performance level of Canadian newspapers, whether this performance level has improved or declined over the past five years, the relative importance of international news compared to local, provincial, and national news, geographical areas of the world considered most important, and to identify Canada's premier newspapers in terms of international and overall coverage. Editors were also asked in open-ended questions (1) to single out the most important change which would lead to an improvement in international reporting, and (2) to suggest ways in which university journalism training programs might be improved to benefit international reporting.

It is important to point out that this data is based on self-evaluation and must be understood in this context. However, the views of this important group of media executives certainly has to be taken into acccount in any balanced appraisal leading to a comprehensive understanding of international news reporting.

Findings

A. Overall Evaluation of Newspaper Performance

The first area of investigation concerns editors' evaluations of their newspaper's performance in reporting international news based on the criteria "amount, qualilty, depth, range and objectivity of coverage." A majority of editors (57%) rate this performance as "good," 21% report it as "very good" to "excellent," while 23% find it "less than satisfactory." None rate it as "poor."

In examining the distribution of the responses by the key independent variables mentioned above, it is important first to point out that cell sizes tend to be small and few findings are statistically significant. Nevertheless, it is observed with respect to circulation, editors of small newspapers (10,000 and under) are most positive in their evaluation (43% falling into the "very good" to "excellent" category). On the language dimension, editors of French-language newspapers are more likely (36%) to designate the performance as "very good" to "excellent," while the English-language editors are more prone (26%) to rate the performance as "less than satisfactory." By region, editors in Atlantic Canada give the highest rating (57% "very good" to "excellent") while those in Ontario register the highest level of disapproval (35% "less than satisfactory"). Editors working on independent newspapers are both the most laudatory (33%) and the most critical (33%), while editors employed by chain-owned newspapers occupy the middle ground, 66% finding the performance "good."

Based on the same criteria as specified for the above question, editors were asked whether, over the past five years, international reporting in Canadian newspapers had "improved," "remained about the same" or "declined." Worthy of note is that not a single editor believes performance over this period has "declined." Roughly half register the opinion that performance has "remained about the same" and the other half that coverage has "improved."

Table 1 Trend in Quality of Reporting of International News Over the Past Five Years (by circulation of newspaper)
Circulation
10,000 10,001- 40,001- Over Total
and 40,000 150,000 150,000
under
(N = 7) (N = 23) (N = 11) (N = 12) (N = 53)
Improved 29% 39% 46% 92% 51%
Remained the same 71 61 54 8 49
100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Note:
X2 = 10.78; DF = 3; Signif. < .05; Cramer's V = .45.

On this evaluative question we find circulation is an important correlate of opinions that international reporting has "improved," with fully 92% of editors of the nation's largest newspapers offering this assessment (Sig. .05). While differences are not statistically significant, 64% of French-language newspaper editors report that international reporting has "improved," while only 46% of their English-language colleagues share this judgment. Given the above distribution, it is not surprising Quebec has the highest percentage of editors who report an improvement in international reporting (again 64%), while on the ownership dimension it is the editors of chain-owned newspapers who are more sanguine, 55% seeing improvement as opposed to only 40% of editors working on independent newspapers.

Among those editors who evaluated Canada's newspapers on the dimension of quality of international reporting (N = 42), 71% name The Globe and Mail as the best in the country, 17% The Toronto Star, while 12% name a variety of other newspapers. The Globe receives the highest percentage of first place mentions from editors of Western newspapers (89%) and fewest from Quebec editors (57%). English-language editors choose The Globe number one 10% more often than French-language editors (74% to 64%). Editors of low-circulation papers are more likely to choose The Globe as best in international reporting than is the case with their higher circulation counterparts, while the same holds true for editors of independent papers relative to editors of chain-owned papers.

When editors were asked to pick the best overall newspaper in the country, while The Globe and Mail still ranks first, its margin of perceived superiority over The Toronto Star has declined, 51% of first-place mentions for The Globe as opposed to 31% for The Star. Regional evaluations are similar to those reported in the previous question and again English-language editors are more likely than French-language editors to select The Globe.

The distribution of responses to this question by circulation of newspaper is of special interest. It is among the editors of the nation's smaller newspapers (86%) that The Globe enjoys its premier reputation. In marked contrast, the editors of the largest newspapers convincingly (67%) pick The Star as the best newspaper in the country (Sig. .05). This may well be accounted for by the national distribution of The Globe, which enables it to reach many more small-town newspaper editors than its Toronto rival, The Star. Editors of independent newspapers again are about 10% more likely to choose The Globe as number one than are those of chain-owned papers.

B. Characteristics of International News Reporting

In assessing specific characteristics of international news reporting in Canada, data in Table 2 show the relative importance attached by editors to local, provincial, national, and international news stories, by circulation of their respective papers.

Table 2 Relative Importance Accorded to Local, Provincial, National and International News (by circulation of newspaper)
Mean Std.
score dev. DF F-value Signif.
Panel 1: Local stories
(population mean = 9.34)
10,000 and under 9.14 1.21
10,001-40,000 9.40 1.97
3 .927 .434
40,001-150,000 9.91 .30 (NS)
Over 150,000 8.83 1.59
Panel 2: Provincial stories
(population mean = 8.07)
10,000 and under 8.14 1.46
10,001-40,000 8.09 1.86
3 1.07 .371
40,001-150,000 8.63 .92 (NS)
Over 150,000 7.50 1.24
Panel 3: National stories
(population mean = 7.67)
10,000 and under 7.82 1.11
10,001-40,000 7.56 2.08
3 .354 .786
40,001-150,000 7.82 1.08 (NS)
Over 150,000 8.00 1.20
Panel 4: International stories
(population mean = 6.60)
10,000 and under 6.00 2.38
10,001-40,000 6.65 2.36
3 .263 .851
40,001-150,000 6.63 1.36 (NS)
Over 150,000 6.83 1.52
Note:
1 = unimportant / 10 = very important.

In a series of four questions, editors were asked to rate the "importance" of each type of news to their newspaper on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 representing "unimportant" and 10 representing "very important." A comparison of population mean scores confirms research that indicates newspapers are primarily oriented towards local news (mean score 9.34) (Kubas, 1981, pp. 26-27) and also that they are least interested in international news (mean score 6.60). And, although these differences are not statistically significant, a further examination of the analysis of variance points out that it is the largest newspapers which are least interested in local and provincial news and most interested in national and international news. Although a mirror image linear trend does not emerge for small newspapers, they are nevertheless the least interested in national and international news.

While there are are no statistically significant language-based differences in the rating of local and provincial news stories, English-language editors are more likely than their French-language counterparts to rate national and international news higher in importance (both at the .05 level).

Shifting attention to international reporting, editors were asked to rank the importance of various geographical areas of the world to their newspapers using the 1 to 10 scale with the same anchors. The United States heads the list (mean score 8.6), followed by the Middle East (mean score 7.3) and Western Europe (mean score 7.0). Occupying mid-range positions in terms of importance are Latin America and the Caribbean (mean score 6.5) and Eastern Europe (mean score 6.1). The least important areas are Asia (mean score 5.2) and Africa (mean score 5.1). Every area except Western Europe is ranked as more important by English-language editors than by French-language editors. Also, editors in either Atlantic Canada or Ontario lead in ranking all areas as most important. Except for Africa and Eastern Europe, editors of newspapers in the 40,001 to 150,000 circulation range lead in attributing importance to all areas. No consistent pattern of ranking emerges with respect to independent vs. chain ownership.

In another attempt to measure the importance attached to international news, each editor was asked to estimate the average percentage of newshole allocated to international news by his/her paper. The responses ranged from 1 to 35%, with 10% of editors reporting under 10%, 47% reporting between 10.1 and 15%, 22% reporting between 15.1 and 20%, and 22% reporting between 20.1 and 35%. Patterns in amounts of space allocated to international reporting are difficult to establish for region, circulation and language. However, while these findings are not statistically significant, 33% of independent newspaper editors report devoting between 20.1 and 35% of newshole to international news, while only 16% of editors of chain-owned papers report the highest range of percentages. Interestingly, circulation of the newspaper apparently bears no relationship to percentage of newshole allocated to international news.

C. Sources of International News

To begin an examination of this dimension of international reporting, it is significant to point out that only eight editors report employing journalists who are located outside of Canada. Great Britain and the United States, in that order, are the locations where these journalists are most likely to be stationed. For the majority of these newspapers, only one or two journalists are so employed and it was impossible to detect a significantly different set of responses to questions on the part of editors of these newspapers as opposed to those which do not employ their own foreign correspondents.

Indeed, as data in Table 3 suggest, local staff members and special correspondents garner only one editor's vote as being the most important source of international news. Clearly, CP leads all of the various sources, receiving over twice as many first place votes as its nearest competitor (AP). These figures of course do not address the important question of how much CP international news is taken from foreign wire services. AFP, while receiving only 8% of first place votes overall, accounted for 29% of French-language editors' votes, tying it with AP as the second most important source of international news for French-language papers.

center; Table 3
Most Important Sources of
International News

Table 3
Most Important Sources of
International News
Canadian Press (CP) 57%
Associated Press (AP) 26
Agence France Presse (AFP) 8
Southam News Service (SNS) 4
Reuters 2
Local Staff/Special
Correspondents 2
Other sources 1
100%

When editors were probed further on the question of sources to determine their level of satisfaction with the quality of information available to them from the sources which they had previously ranked, an impressive 61% indicate they are satisified, 17% are undecided, while 22% report dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is manifested primarily among editors of Ontario newspapers (35%), while French-language editors register the highest levels of satisfaction with sources (69%), although neither distribution of data was statistically significant. There are no readily discernible patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction by either newspaper circulation or ownership.

The final dimension of news sources which is explored is the seriousness of the criticism that "Canadians see the world through U.S. eyes" (Scanlon 1974, pp. 34-39). Editors were asked to rate the importance of this criticism on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing "frivolous" and 10 representing "very serious." The mean score for the entire sample is 6.9, indicating a consensus on the part of the editors that it is a "serious" problem. Indeed, 63% of editors rank the problem at 7 or higher on the scale.

The analysis of variance reported in Table 4 shows the effects of circulation on the perceptions of editors regarding the seriousness of the problem of American sources. While the mean differences are far from statistically significant, there is a trend that merits attention. Editors of the smallest newspapers are clearly the most concerned, (mean score 7.28) while those of the largest newspapers express the least amount of concern (mean score 6.0). Again, while differences in mean scores are not statistically significant, editors in the Atlantic Provinces (mean score 7.7) and those working for French-language newspapers (mean score 7.4), appear especially concerned with the problems associated with the reliance on American sources.

Table 4 Mean Score Comparisons on Seriousness of criticism that \"Canadians see the world through U.S. eyes\" (by circulation of newspaper)
Mean Std.
score dev. DF F-value Signif.
10,000 and under 7.28 2.50
10,001-40,000 7.09 1.92
3 .81 .49
40,001-150,000 7.10 2.81 (NS)
Over 150,000 6.00 2.00
Notes:
1 = frivolous / 10 = very serious.
Population mean score = 6.9.

D. Recommendations of Editors to Improve International News Reporting

Two open-ended questions were asked of editors: (1) "In your opinion what is the single most important thing that could be done leading to an improvement in Canadian reporting of international news?" and; (2) "Based upon your experience, what changes should be made in University journalism programs that would lead to an improvement in the quality of Canadian international news reporting?"

A summary of responses to question 1, grouped into eight categories is shown in Table 5. In fact, the first three categories overlap, and they are separated to point out relatively subtle differences in emphasis. Category 1 responses focus on the need to put more news bureaux overseas (primarily by CP) and, by so doing, adding news staff abroad. Category 2 responses highlight the financial resources needed to accomplish the goals outlined in category 1, while category 3 responses specify the need to put "Canadian" reporters abroad. Taken as a single dimension, getting more Canadian journalists into the field overwhelms all other responses. Indeed, other suggestions tend to be offered by only one or two editors.

Table 5 Single Most Important Thing to Do Leading to an Improvement in Canadian International News Reporting
Number of
Category mentions
1 Place more news bureaux (CP) and staff abroad 16
2 Increase the amount of money spent on international reporting 7
3 Utilize specifically more Canadian reporters 7
4 Make more newspaper space available 2
5 Improve journalistic training 2
6 Shift focus of international reporting away from the U.S. 1
7 Create a 24-hr. news channel 1
8 Other 4
(N = 40)


Table 6 Changes in University Journalism Training Leading to an Improvement in International News Reporting
Number of
Category mentions
1 Do nothing different; it is the responsibility of the
newspapers to improve international news reporting 7
2 Do a better job teaching journalism, i.e., turn out
men and women who can spell and report accurately 4
3 Broaden the scope of journalism training: 17
a. include more courses on history, political science,
economics, geography, religion and language (10)
b. promote more international student exchange (5)
c. create a specific program in international news studies (1)
d. create a program specifically for mid-career working
journalists in international reporting (1)
Other 1
(N = 29)

Responses to question 2 fall broadly into three major categories which are shown in Table 6. The first category represents essentially the opinion that the problem of improving international reporting is one that should be addressed by newspapers, not by universities. The second category is a variant of this opinion, limiting the role of universities to teaching journalism, while at the same time indicating (sometimes not too subtly) that there is some room for improvement. The third category of responses consists of recommendations for changes in university journalism training programs. Here the major suggestion (made by 10 editors) is the need to broaden the scope of such programs to include more substantive courses in areas such as history, political science, economics and language. Another interesting suggestion (made by five editors) is the need to promote more international student exchanges, and, while mentioned by only one editor each, the suggestion to create a specific program in international news reporting and a mid-career training program for international reporting, seem worthy of serious discussion.

Conclusions

In that the data presented here are based on self-evaluation, they cannot be taken as "hard" evidence that Canadian international reporting is substantially better than its established reputation. Nevertheless, some conclusions can be drawn. First, the nation's daily newspaper editors appear aware of and genuinely concerned with the problems involved in international news reporting. The data do not convey a sense of complacency. This said, however, editors clearly do not see the problems in the area of international reporting as being as serious as portrayed in government-sponsored investigations and in works of diplomats and academics. Only 23% feel newspaper performance in the area is "less than satisfactory" and no editors characterize the performance as "poor." Moreover, not a single editor believes newspaper performance has declined over the past five years, with a full 50% pointing to an improvement. At the same time data do point rather strongly to the essentially "local" orientation of newspapers, although the nation's largest newspapers do attach greater importance to international news and the overall mean score on the importance of international news for all editors is above the mid-point of the scale.

The major deficiency in Canadian international reporting, which is identified in the questions on "most important source of international news" and again in the open-ended responses to what can be done to improve international reporting, is the dearth of Canadian international correspondents. This problem seems to be best remedied, according to the editors, by increasing the number of CP bureaux abroad, thus employing Canadian journalists to report the news with a Canadian perspective. Given the relatively high level of satisfaction with international information available, combined with at least an equally high level of concern with the impact of American sources, it appears the nation's daily newspaper editors are in fact, to a considerable extent, echoing the Davey Committee's exhortation of two decades ago to CP to increase its commitment to international reporting.

Notes

1
The authors wish to thank the Research Board at the University of Windsor for funding the study, Jean Pignal for his assistance in translating the questionnaire into French and for his efforts in coding and analyzing the data, and of course, the editors who took the time from their busy schedules to answer our questionnaires.
2
Data were obtained from questionnaires which were mailed to 105 editors of daily newspapers in Canada (in French or English as appropriate), in the Spring of 1988. Our response rate, with one follow-up mailing, was 51%. Responses yield the following distributions on key independent variables:
  • REGION Atlantic Canada 14%, Quebec 21%, Ontario 38%, the West 27%;
  • LANGUAGE English 81%, French 19%;
  • OWNERSHIP Chain 72%, Independent 28%;
  • CIRCULATION 10,000 and under 13%, 10,001-40,000 43%, 40,001-150,000 21%, over 150,000 23%.

Our sample overrepresents Quebec, French, independently owned and large circulation newspapers and underrepresents western and small circulation newspapers.

References

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OECD. (1988). Main economic indicators. Paris: Department of Economics and Statistics.

Okafor, Joel Collins. (1988). A middle power gamble: Canada's role in the International Programme for Development of Communication (IPDC). Master's major paper, Department of Political Science, University of Windsor, Windsor.

Robinson, Gertrude J. (1983). Canadian foreign policy: From irrelevant to non-existent beat? Paper presented to the conference Media and Foreign Policy, Windsor.

Royal Commission on Newspapers. (1981). Report. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

Scanlon, T. Joseph. (1974, September). Canada sees the world through U.S. eyes. Canadian Forum, 54, 34-39.

Senate. (1970). The uncertain mirror (Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, Vol. 1). Ottawa: Queen's Printer.

Stairs, Denis. (1976, Spring). The press and foreign policy in Canada. International Journal, 31, 223-243.



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