Self-censorship among Canadian journalists: Insights from former practitioners


Autonomy is described as a core feature of journalists’ occupational ideology (Van Dalen, 2019: 1; Deuze, 2005; Kovach and Rosentiel, 2001) and researchers have paid increasing attention to this phenomenon (e.g. Hanitzsch et al., 2010; Reich and Hanitzsch, 2013). In Canada, surveys of journalists conducted over the last two decades reveal their positive perceptions regarding their professional autonomy (Pritchard and Sauvageau, 1999; Pritchard and Bernier, 2010; Rollwagen et al. 2019). These results may appear surprising though, given the multiple studies that document the pressures that impact Canadian journalistic autonomy at different levels, inside and outside the newsroom (e.g. Gingras, 2009; Goyette-Côté, Carbasse and George, 2012; Hackett and Uzelman, 2003; Kent, 1981; Skinner, Compton and Gasher, 2005).

Very few studies, however, directly address journalistic self-censorship in a Canadian context, a central issue affecting journalists’ professional autonomy. Marlin (1999) and Burman (2017) offer interesting analytical essays on the different factors that may explain why Canadian journalists self-censor. But it is Bernier’s (2008) research, based on a quantitative survey among journalists from the francophone province of Quebec, which offers some empirical insights on the matter. His survey reveals, for instance, that 30% of respondents 'expressed some agreement' with the statement that some of their colleagues had self-censored in recent months.

Bernier’s study, however, focuses mostly on the effects of media concentration and convergence, and it devotes only a few questions on the issue of self-censorship. Its reach is also restricted to a few large media groups in Quebec and thus provides no information about contextual aspects that may condition journalistic self-censorship elsewhere in Canada.

Our qualitative study aims to address these limitations in the literature. It builds on Hanitzsch et al.’s (2010) model of perceived influences on journalism at different levels (i.e. political, economic, organizational, professional, procedural, and reference groups). This provides a useful analytical framework, which we used to classify and interpret the different themes that emerge from the analysis of the interviews with 31 former journalists across nine Canadian provinces.

The study reveals, for example, the perceived importance of organizational influences (ownership, management, etc.) on journalistic self-censorship in Canada. The fear of upsetting media proprietors is the most common reason cited by respondents to self-censor. It also reveals how self-censorship can be perceived as pervasive in corporate media environments with high levels of media ownership concentration. This phenomenon appears particularly acute in the Atlantic province of New Brunswick, where nearly all newspapers are owned by one company. Conversely, journalists who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (i.e., the public broadcaster) are less concerned about this issue.

By shedding light on the influences perceived as causing journalistic censorship in Canada, this research furthers our understanding of an important question that affects the journalistic experience in a democratic context, while contributing to communication research on the matter.