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Is it “fake news” if Health Canada pays for articles to be distributed to newspapers across the country without disclosing that the content was produced by the federal government?
Under the headline “Feds’ Fake News Cost $ 577K” an Ottawa-based news site Blacklock’s Reporter revealed that it’s common practice for some federal government ministries to place government-sponsored content in community papers through a private content provider called News Canada Inc.
Health Canada has paid News Canada Inc. $ 490,000 over the last two and a half years, an amount that represents “a small percentage of the department’s total expenditures on communications,” said Health Canada spokesperson Eric Morrissette in an email.
The stories look like ordinary news articles. “How to protect yourself and others in the face of a growing opioid crisis” is one example of Health Canada sponsored content.
Health Canada says it spends a small percentage of its total communications budget on News Canada articles.(Kelly Crowe/CBC)
The content is not fake because it’s fact-based, but it’s also not “news,” according to Ryerson journalism assistant professor April Lindgren, who is leading a Ryerson research program on local news in Canada.
“If it’s a story about the opioid crisis, does it contain any voices questioning whether the federal government is doing enough to counter the opioid crisis? I don’t think so. If it’s a story about food inspection and food safety, is there anything in the piece about the adequacy of government health inspection systems?”
“One of the main characteristics of news is that it’s independently produced and to think that Health Canada writing about itself is producing timely, independently verified material is just not on,” Lindgren said.
The articles don’t disclose that the content was paid for and supplied by a federal government department.
“The media comes to the website and picks up the content if they choose to,” the company told CBC News in an email.
The News Canada email stated that more than 2,600 media outlets use their content, including 67 daily newspapers, 505 community newspapers, 365 radio stations and 129 magazines.
‘Sign of the times’
The content is free and the only requirement is that News Canada’s name must appear at the bottom or top of the article.
“It’s another sign of the times as newsrooms shrink or disappear,” said Lindgren.
Although it’s free content, the community newspapers are not entirely happy about the situation either. They’d prefer Health Canada buy an advertisement from the local paper rather than a pay a third party to distribute government content.
“This is the great irritant to us,” said John Hinds, executive director of the trade association representing Canada’s community newspapers, News Media Canada.
“The federal government used to advertise a lot in community newspapers as a way of communicating with citizens, particularly around areas like health and safety,” said Hinds. “But now they use this ‘earned media’ system where they pay the content company to distribute the material rather than taking out an ad in a local paper.”
“With few exceptions, such as for the occasional public notice, Health Canada does not directly advertise in community newspapers,” Morrissette said.
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