Policy pressure

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McGill Reporter
March 6, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 11
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Policy pressure

Given Stuart Soroka's interest in how media can affect public policy and public opinion, not to mention his expertise in statistics and methodology, it wasn't surprising that he was quickly enlisted to produce a survey for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada this winter.

Political science professor Stuart Soroka
Photo: Claudio Calligaris

The political science professor, who was hired at McGill last fall, co-authored the survey with Université de Montréal professor Patrick Fournier, in preparation for the MISC conference: "Who Controls Canada's Media?"

The scientists sent a one-page survey to approximately 1000 journalists working at nine major dailies across Canada and asked reporters about their views on media ownership. About 360 reporters, columnists, copy editors and managers answered the poll.

"A vast majority of journalists believe that greater concentration of newspaper ownership decreases the quality of newspaper content (86 percent) and decreases the public credibility of newspapers (95 percent)," says Soroka.

According to the poll, media workers have a general mistrust towards concentration of newspaper ownership. While over half of respondents said that the views of newspaper owners often influence news coverage, only five percent of reporters agreed proprietorship should be a licence to control content.

Another interesting part of the study found important differences in opinion among the staff of French and English newspapers. At La Presse, for instance, 16 percent of journalists feel owners may have an influence on the news content, while 76 percent of Gazette reporters believe that this is definitely the case.

Studying polls and media influence aren't Soroka's only specialties, however. He is an expert on Canadian politics and political communications, and is particularly interested in the link between public preferences and government spending. "In short, the degree to which the public gets what the public wants," he explains, adding this is the focus of the Degrees of Democracy project, an ongoing research project he's involved in (with Christopher Wlezien of Nuffield College, Oxford).

Relationships between public opinion and government are also among the themes examined in Soroka's 2002 book, Agenda-Setting Dynamics in Canada (UBC Press). The book is one of the country's first analyses on the relationship between Canada's media, public and policymakers. "This is a very important area where there's been little research," says Soroka.

The work investigates how and why public issues, from inflation to the environment, rise and fall in salience over time. The environment grows and shrinks in part due to media content, for instance. "When you look up at the sky every day," says Soroka, "you can't observe a hole in the ozone." Consequently, the issue is less "obtrusive" and more open to media effects than is an issue with which individuals have regular experience, like the economy.

Another area of study where Soroka has recently delved is the relationship between the ethnic diversity and support for social welfare programs. The issue has been examined cross-nationally, but rarely using individual-level data. The research, conducted in collaboration with scholars at Queens and the University of British Columbia, suggests that the link between ethnic diversity and support for social welfare is weak at best.

"Cross-national comparisons suggest that ethnic diversity may have a negative impact on support for social welfare," says Soroka. "Our individual-level evidence in Canada does not wholly support this hypothesis - diversity is not necessary the enemy of the welfare state."

To consult the complete Soroka-Fournier newspaper poll, please consult: www.misc-iecm.mcgill.ca/media/pressrel.htm.

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