Communication: The Canadian Experience

Thomas L. McPhail

Brenda M. McPhail

Writing an introductory Canadian mass communication text is not an enviable task. Between defining the realm of mass communication studies, sketching basic theoretical positions, and offering descriptions of media structures and practices, the narrative is constantly threatened with either becoming entangled in a series of theoretical intricacies or bursting into a patchwork of dissonant monographs. Rising to this challenge, McPhail & McPhail promise an approach that is "a blend of the latest thinking in communication theory and extensive coverage of Canadian contributions, research, and experience in the communication sector from a public policy perspective." In some of these aspirations they are quite successful.

Dividing their text into five major parts, the authors begin by sketching basic theoretical ground and then go on to offer an often insightful commentary on the history, structure and context of Canadian print, electronic, and telecommunication media systems--wrapping it together with a section on "related media issues" such as political communication and advertising. Throughout they attempt to illustrate how these media and their products are conditioned by technological, economic, and social imperatives, accenting how the superior size and economic strength of American media industries have combined with rapid technological innovation within Canada to mire Canadian media in a swamp of American domination.

The structures of the newspaper, broadcasting, and telecommunications industries are clearly described and many of the hurdles faced in harnessing these industries to the public interest in changing economic conditions are discussed. Particular attention is paid to the role of the state in defining issues and shaping the media environment, and the myriad of government inquiries and interventions into these areas are neatly summarized. Also included is an interesting introduction to media law written by Peter Mercer, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario.

However, while the hegemony of American culture is an explicit theme of this work, it also frames the text itself. The authors' position is that a "strong American social science bias... predominates in the methodological approaches to media research in Canada" (p. 13). Consequently, the "transportation model" of communication and Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm's ([1956], 1976) "four theories of the press" form the book's theoretical bulwarks; writers such as Berelson, Blumler, Klapper, McCombs & Shaw, and McQuail nuance its liberal, and basically functionalist, vision of the media and society. Canadian theoretical contributions--exemplified in the works of Innis, McLuhan, and Clement--are somewhat marginally framed as the "Canadian discourse on culture" and used to illustrate a "distinctly" Canadian preoccupation with the relationships between culture and communication. Although Canadian authors are often referenced for their descriptions of media systems, this "Canadian experience" of communication is read through distinctly American eyes.

Other problems arise from the authors' adherence to this liberal, process model of communication. Neither the study nor cultural context of the codes and conventions of signification are given clear introduction, and discussions of media content focus on the gatekeeping and agenda-setting functions of news production at the expense of developing a critical perspective on the relationships between media content and larger social structures and practices. The result is that the reader is left with the impression that Canadian cultural survival depends upon somehow integrating the economic and technological imperatives of the burgeoning information society with cultural concerns, rather than considering that it is perhaps a traditional adherence to such imperatives that has led to the current cultural crisis.

Obviously, an introductory text cannot be expected to encompass the full depth and breadth of communication studies. And, if a clearly written summary of the basic themes and issues of mass communication in Canada is what is called for, then this work might be recommended. However, while the "Canadian experience" of mass communication is well characterized as dominated by foreign ideas, its study in this country rises from traditions that offer more fruitful insight to that experience than the authors suggest.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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