Forum of Federations 20th Anniversary: Media and Federalism

Federal states are often complex for citizens/taxpayers to figure out. They ask themselves: Which level of government is responsible for what? Which is taxing me, and for what? To whom do I complain, or whom do I praise?

Explaining federalism falls on the media, but in this world of people wanting instant news, explaining these complexities accurately becomes challenging. That the media would dive into the complexities of “equalization payments,” for example, which may total billions of dollars and keep various subnational budgets afloat, presumes the subject can be easily explained in ways that non-experts might understand. These assumptions can sometimes lead to inaccurate understanding or analysis.

The media, in Canada as in other federations, is split between regional and national outlets. As such, the split reflects the constitutional nature of federalism and the facts of population dispersal. In such circumstances, the media can sometimes reflect its local audience’s interests and perceptions more than challenging them.

In Canada – as in other countries – both national and regional media outlets have been shrinking as the media suffered huge losses in advertising and experience the younger generation’s preference for digital media. In the early years of the digital era, newspapers assumed that advertising would follow as eyeballs moved from the printed page to the screen. That assumption proved faulty and papers were forced to charge for access to their digital edition. But especially young readers had become so accustomed to getting news for free on television or the digital giants such as Google that they balked at paying for newspapers online.

What do these changes mean for media coverage in a federal country? Fewer journalists mean less news about everything from courts to politics, sports to culture, business to city governments. How will this impact on perceptions and understanding of federalism? And what impact could this have on citizen’s knowledge of governance issues and the accountability of governments in federal systems?


Jeffrey Simpson (Moderator)
Journalist and author, former national affairs columnist at the Globe and Mail, recipient of the National Magazine Award for political writing and the National Newspaper Award for column writing, Canada

Julius Ihonvbere
Member of the Nigerian National Assembly and Chairman, House Committee on Basic Education and Services, Nigeria

Jennifer Ditchburn
Journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options, the online magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), Canada

Shankkar Aiyar
Political economy analyst, columnist and author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change, India

Georg Häsler Sansano
Analyst on Security and Defence at Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and previously an editor at Swiss public TV (SRF) 2009, Switzerland

Grant Kippen
Chief Electoral Advisor for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Canada

Forum of Federations