What US Media Can Learn from Canada

There’s a sturdy commitment in Canada to journalism’s mission to serve the public by telling the truth that has abated in America.

In 1928, the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting was convened to sort out the future of the Canadian airwaves, its chief concerns including the encroachment of US broadcasting.

A certain irony might please its members nearly a century later. Canadian media outlets, and especially the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, are better delivering domestic news than their American counterparts, and also offering a less hysterical take on news in the US.

I’ve worked in and observed media in and outside of America for decades. Over those years I’ve found myself more and more often wincing at the declining quality of journalism at America’s most consequential outlets. The CBC has become a tonic, a high-quality news model I wish American organizations would emulate.

Its strengths include a codified commitment to its news reaching and covering Canadians across all of the vast country’s provinces; objectivity that US audiences must often strain to find in their homegrown media; and a dedication to uniting audiences rather than inflaming tensions between them. 

These goals were reinforced in the 1991 Broadcasting Act’s mandate to “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian” and “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.”

Recent coverage bears out that this mandate remains a guiding force. The CBC News website gives prominence to domestic topics covered in a traditional hard news style, then supplemented by evenhanded analysis and human interest stories spotlighting diverse Canadians. Its approach to a cost-of-living crisis, for instance, has been thorough and serious-minded, supplementing economic data and reports on political maneuvering around the issue with tenant eviction footage and profiles of Canadians facing obscene rent hikes.

Visitors to CBC News can quickly sort top stories by province, including remote ones. There’s extensive coverage of the First Nations population, with an emphasis on inclusion, that avoids American-style hand-wringing or finger-pointing on matters of race, ethnicity and equality. International coverage is split between wire reports and analysis that doesn’t suggest the author was hyperventilating while writing. 

The CBC also reports on America with a level head. A recent article about the effects of Title 42’s expiration on migrants in Portland, Maine was a good example of treating a tough story with a human touch that avoided recriminations and mawkishness. 

There are of course American outlets doing admirable jobs of presenting news free of misleading emotional fireworks. But I have seen too many news organizations join the downward spiral toward histrionically preaching to their choirs. 

A story on affordable housing would likely try to pit supposedly evolved city dwellers against apparently racist suburbanites. Rural stretches of the US would get a piece purporting to understand Americans unfamiliar to the reporter that reads like a dispatch from tribal Papua New Guinea. 

What accounts for the difference? 

I’d wager it’s a steadier commitment in Canada to journalism’s mission to serve the public by telling the truth, which has sadly abated in America. If major American outlets have mandates as explicit as those laid out by the CBC in 1991, they’re being ignored. 

An obvious explanation for this is the CBC being a public broadcaster and American media being dominated by viciously competitive private companies. The CBC has received roughly $1.2 billion in government funding every year since 2018.

Still, it faces its own big competition from the private CTV, as well as the BBC and a slew of American rivals. Despite this, and inevitable speedbumps, the CBC has stuck more often than not to its founding mission to contribute to the “moral economy of the nation.”

The nation appreciates that. 

The Pew Research Center’s 2022 report on Canadian media found that 42% of people surveyed trusted the news overall, compared to 26% of Americans in that Pew survey. Fifty-nine percent of Canadians trusted the CBC and 62% the CTV. Just 43% of Americans trusted ABC and CBS News, the highest ranked national platforms. In Canada, 29% of people said the media was independent from undue political influence (versus 18% in America) and 27% thought it was free from undue business influence (16% in the US). 

These numbers don’t paint a riotously rosy picture of media perceptions in either country. And Canadian trust numbers took a big hit recently due to pandemic restriction fatigue (see: the Ottawa trucker protests and coverage of them). Still, the CBC and trust in it have weathered such storms exceptionally well as the broadcaster strived to unite the country in convulsive times. 

Government funding has been a huge help in making this possible. But the tenor of the CBC´s news delivery, who it delivers the news to and what news it covers, as laid out in 1928, continues to make Canadians among the world’s most trustful people of news. Media in other countries should study the CBC’s mission, mandates and example if they want to similarly serve a faithful public.