The most difficult section of a course I teach on the media in Quebec concerns the role the news media play as political actors in Quebec society. It is difficult because students tend to oversimplify this role, leaning toward what we might call "political determinism". That is, Le Devoir is a nationalist newspaper, therefore... Or, The Gazette is a federalist newspaper, therefore... When I polled students on the issue of bias during the recent provincial election, I found that many of them avoided reading newspapers because they assumed the papers would be so biased as to be untrustworthy. My task is to try to convince students that the news media's political role is much more complex, and to introduce subtlety and nuance into their analyses.
Gertrude Robinson's Constructing the Quebec Referendum makes this task much easier. The McGill University communications professor provides a detailed and precise assessment of how the Montreal news media represented and defined the 1980 Quebec referendum for both francophone and anglophone audiences. If readers are initially sceptical about what this study of the 1980 campaign can teach us about news reportage one referendum and two decades later, it must be noted at the outset that Robinson says as much about theory (political theory, communications theory) and methodology (specifically, discourse analysis) as she does about the referendum coverage itself. In the author's words, the book "explores the links between public action and public opinion creation" as part of a branch of scholarship which considers "how symbol systems impact on social reality". Using the referendum as a multi-layered case study, Robinson builds upon and refines the existing scholarly literature without losing sight of the socio-cultural specificity of Montreal.
Robinson portrays the news media as "public `sense making' institutions" which play a central role in constructing interpretive frames around the events they deem newsworthy: "news is a discourse rather than an event". Journalists, for example, framed the 1980 referendum as an election contested by two adversarial camps, rather than as the plebiscite or public consultation that it was. In the process, Robinson argues, the news media reduced at least six different audience interpretations of the referendum debate "into a single set of binary oppositions".
The book is divided into four parts of two chapters apiece. Part I recounts the historical context of the 1980 referendum, but more importantly, it sets up Robinson's study by situating Quebec journalism in its particular historical context. Robinson's colleague, Armande Saint-Jean, who wrote chapter two, explains that the 1980 referendum came on the heels of the two most turbulent decades in the history of Quebec journalism: the 1960s, when journalists became part of a new intellectual class in Quebec society through union activism and political engagement; and the 1970s, when both their union strength and their political commitment were curtailed in the wake of the October Crisis and strikes which failed to win journalists control over news production. By 1980, Saint-Jean explains, Quebec journalists were less social critics than "information packagers". One remnant of the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 was a fear among journalists-particularly francophones-of being seen as politically biased, and by 1980 most Quebec journalists had accepted "the classic North American notion of journalistic detachment". Media organizations went out of their way to establish policies of fairness and balance in their referendum coverage. One of the book's most compelling discussions pertains to the application of the balance criterion given that Montreal's news media were addressing audiences that were linguistically and politically polarized.
Part II examines the "narrative logic" of Montreal's TV news programs. Here, Robinson looks at the Quebec referendum on television and demonstrates how it "constructed two very different public views of political issues for French- and English-speaking Montreal voters". French and English television employed distinct "visual paradigms", and constructed their reports from different events, different voices, and different roles assumed by station personnel. English TV news reports, for example, were "constructed out of a greater number of roles [anchor, reporter, commentator, interviewer] and voices, and thus appeared more variegated".
Part III considers the news media's treatment of the tabling of the White Paper by the Parti Québécois and the Beige Paper by the Liberal Party. While all the Montreal media-with the exception of Le Devoir-favoured the No option, the French-language media found themselves addressing a "trisected audience" composed of sovereignists, federalists, and those who were neutral. This necessitated a particular approach to balance. La Presse, for example, adopted a "documentary" approach in its coverage of the PQ's White Paper. That is, approximately ninety per cent of its coverage consisted of published excerpts of the document, and less than ten per cent was comprised of staff reportage. The Gazette, by comparison, was addressing a more homogenous federalist readership and employed an "oral" approach to balance, which included much more reportage-about forty per cent of its total coverage. French-language television was careful to include more voices from the Yes camp in its coverage, even if both French and English television treated the No voices more favourably.
Part IV contains what is perhaps the most intriguing argument of the book. Robinson contends "that in the struggle for control over how political occurrences are to be defined, the journalists are clearly in command". Journalists select which events will be covered, which voices are reported, and perhaps most importantly, how those voices are presented. But besides the "definitional powers" journalists enjoy, Robinson contends that because journalists' voices speak most loudly and authoritatively in news reportage, they are thrust into a contradictory position in the political arena. That is, journalists are not simply independent observers mediating the communicative relationship between elected politicians and the public; instead, they have come to interfere with the media's "political linkage role in the democratic communication process". Both politicians and ordinary citizens have relinquished to journalists control over how their views are used in public discourse. This has implications not only for how politics is represented as news, but for how it is practised as well.
As this review suggests, this is not a book that will appeal to a general readership. It is a rich work of scholarship which advances considerably our understanding of the news media as meaning-making institutions in the political sphere. Its legacy will not be written in book sales but in the way Robinson's observations make their way into political science, critical journalism, and communications studies courses, helping students and professors alike to articulate the complexity of the news media's political role.
Mike Gasher is a lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal.