By Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Canadians are increasingly skeptical of the news they consume and struggle to distinguish fact from fiction or propaganda, a new survey suggested Thursday.
The poll of more than 2,300 Canadians, conducted on behalf of the Canadian Journalism Foundation, found the number of respondents who question the validity of news reports has jumped 10 per cent in the past year, leading to high levels of distrust of both news stories and political figures.
The survey found 40 per cent of respondents said they struggled to distinguish between fact-based and false news stories, while 53 per cent reported reading an agenda-driven report masquerading as impartial reporting.
Natalie Turvey, president of the CJF, said the findings have serious implications as Canadians prepare to sift through coverage of the federal election slated for the fall.
“Our founding motto — ‘as journalism goes, so goes democracy’ — feels more relevant than ever as Canadians prepare to head to the polls,” Turvey said in an email. “To be engaged in our democracy, citizens need to have access to quality information.”
Turvey said the CJF will use a new $1 million grant from the Google News Initiative to develop tools that will better equip Canadians to sort real news from false or misleading information in the digital sphere.
The foundation’s survey, conducted between April 3 and 8 by Earnscliffe Strategy Group, assessed news consumption patterns broken down by age group.
It found that respondents across all demographics were increasingly relying on social media for their news.
While 71 per cent of respondents reported turning to traditional print or television outlets and affiliated websites for news coverage in 2016, that dropped to 62 per cent in this year’s poll. The number turning to social media rose from 54 to 58 per cent, the survey said.
Regardless of where news coverage is found, the poll suggested readers are left increasingly uncertain of how to process the information they’ve taken in.
It found 85 per cent of respondents said their concerns about the accuracy of news content left them unsure of which politicians to trust, up from 56 per cent the year before.
Participants also demonstrated a growing lack of faith in Canadians’ ability to distinguish between sound journalism and rumours or falsehood. About 74 per cent of respondents felt news consumers lacked that skill in 2019, up from 63 per cent last year.
The polling industry’s professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.
The trends highlighted in the poll are not unique to Canada, according to UNESCO, which is poised to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on Friday by highlighting the role journalism plays in elections.
UNESCO said distrust of the media and attacks against the credibility of journalists have been observed around the world. The result, it said, is increasingly polarized political conversation that threatens the integrity of the democratic process.
“When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes,” it said.
UNESCO said this year’s World Press Freedom events would tackle topics such as how journalists can compete with those peddling disinformation, how electoral regulations should apply to internet companies, and what partnerships can be put in place to improve media literacy around elections.
In Canada, observers have already raised warnings that more action is needed.
Last month, a report from the national cyberspy agency warned that voters will very likely experience some kind of online foreign meddling related to the October vote.
Canada’s Communications Security Establishment said that last year, half of all advanced democracies holding national elections were targeted by cyberthreat activity. It was a threefold increase since 2015, and the CSE expects the upward trend to continue.
Shawn McCarthy, president of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom and a reporter with a major newspaper, said both the public and governments have become more aware that inaccurate information is increasingly circulated and more easily consumed.
He said new federal legislation set to take effect next month requires online platforms to publish a digital registry of all political ads posted during the federal election campaign.
Elections Canada, however, has pointed out that the registry will only apply to paid ads and does not cover alternate means of communication such as texts, emails or other private messages. That still leaves many disinformation channels open for use, it said.
McCarthy said governments have a difficult balance to strike as they try to protect both freedom of speech and the democratic process, adding excessive measures could amount to censorship.
He said journalists must play a more active role in combating disinformation by calling out inaccuracies and providing context for their work.
He also warned against exploiting the trend of media distrust for political or rhetorical gain, citing citing frequent instances in the U.S. where politicians have cast facts that counter their agenda as “fake news.”
“We have this concern about false news, but we can’t let that shut us down to the inconvenient news that we all need to consider,” he said.