Political communication and the mass media play a key role in Canadian democracy. Yet we know little about Canadians' ability to influence public policy directly through the media, or how the media itself shapes political discussion and public policy. While political parties remain a primary conduit to express political preferences in modem democracies, some have argued that the mass media may be in the process of replacing political parties and interest groups as an accessible conduit of political communication between government and the governed.
The suggestion that the mass media is replacing political parties is overly simplistic, if only because it ignores the filtering capacity of those who manage the media - those who are capable of agenda setting. However, circumstances may exist where the thesis is applicable. These circumstances would demand an unfiltered and unfettered access to the media by the public, as well as some expectation that the target audience - those in positions of political power and decision-making - are paying attention. To explore the relationship between media and public policy, we examined the political effects of talk radio in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Specifically, we asked the research question: what impact does talk radio have on public policy in Newfoundland? A series of elite interviews suggest that talk radio, despite its pervasiveness and the frequent close attention paid to it by elected officials, has little effect on public policy. It does have a strong effect on government behaviour as political actors pay considerable attention to talk radio in Newfoundland and Labrador.
A related direction of research has to do with the provincial government's use, or lack of use, of public opinion polls. We were informed that the government's purchasing of private polling information is comparatively small and plays little part in the cabinet decision-making process. Yet the government clearly remains concerned with their public image as well as the public reception of their policies. The circumstances that surround the government's use of public opinion polls are surprising given the resources currently dedicated to polling in other jurisdictions in Canada and elsewhere. A further exploration into the impact that public opinion has on decision-making in the government would likely yield interesting results for both the study of public policy and of political culture in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Published in: Media, Culture and Society 2010:32:6, 997-1016.