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Media Perceptions of the Arctic Council

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.

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This week, World Policy Journal editorial assistant Natasha Bluth interviews Andrew Chater, a professor of political science at Brescia University College and co-author of “Understanding Media Perceptions of the Arctic” along with Mathieu Landriault, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa. In their paper, Chater and Landriault present research on the 241 articles in five U.S. and Canadian newspapers that mentioned the Arctic Council in the past 20 years. Their work assesses the frequency of articles about the Council over time, the opinions of the Council they express, and the accuracy of their descriptions of the Council. Changing media perceptions of the Council, the Arctic's most prominent international institution, indicate its evolving role in global politics.

NATASHA BLUTH: You mention in your article that media coverage of the Arctic Council has rarely been studied in a systematic and comprehensive fashion. Why is it important to study media representations of the Arctic Council?

ANDREW CHATER: One of the goals of the Council, and the goal of any institution, is to have its work be seen. The media is one of the major outlets the Arctic Council has to publicize its work, get its results out, and communicate the issues and work that it finds important. States spend a fair amount of time and resources on the Arctic Council—sending people to meetings and completing projects—and so for the general public to see those results is very important.

NB: How is your study different from others that exist about the Council?

AC: We study representations of the Council throughout its history. There have been other studies that have looked at more narrow periods of time or the coverage of the Council around a certain issue, like the Kyoto Protocol, for instance. Ours looked first at the Council throughout its history and, second, at the broader coverage of the Council rather than in regard to a particular issue. That was our contribution in terms of the media studies. A lot of studies also look at what the Council does and how it does it, while ours looks at how the Council communicates what it does and if the information is getting across.

NB: Your research focused on three questions: How frequently do newspapers mention the Council, do articles accurately describe and evaluate the Council, and is the Council generally supported or criticized in the media. What methodology did you use to answer these questions?

AC: We gathered together 241 articles from national newspapers in Canada and the U.S.—in Canada, The Global Mail and The National Post, and in the U.S., The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. For each one, we looked at descriptive statistics—how often the different newspapers were talking about the Council and if so, whether it was the primary focus of the article or a secondary one. Then we measured the significance to see if the relationships we were finding were statistically significant. There are different measures to calculate this, but one that we used was the chi square. Its measure assesses the fit between observed values and those expected theoretically.

NB: Can you briefly outline your results for each question? Did anything surprise you about how the Council is represented in the media?

AC: The first question was accuracy—whether the way that the Council was described was accurate in terms of what it does. We found that by and large, the articles were pretty accurate in describing the Council as a forum or an institution where states work together on environmental issues and sustainable development. There were a couple of articles that mischaracterized it as a security institution or an organization that deals with territorial disputes, neither of which is true. Because there's a lot of talk in the media about security issues in the region and the potential for conflict, I would have thought there would have been a few more articles that mischaracterized the Council, but for the most part, the 241 articles described the Arctic Council reasonably well.

The second question was whether the newspapers gave the Arctic Council a positive or negative assessment. For that one, we were thinking opinions might be more positive in Canada than in the U.S.; Canadian media and Canadians in general are often described as being more supportive of multilateralism and international cooperation, while in the United States, people are perhaps more suspicious of those things. But we actually found that overall, the assessment of the Council was positive—states working together on important environmental issues. There were a couple of articles that offered debatably negative characterizations, but overall, coverage was quite positive from both countries.

In terms of the third question, frequency, the Council was not mentioned very frequently. In a 20-year period, there were only 241 articles—not a lot if you think about how many articles are written per year. We found that there were different spikes in the amount of coverage of the Council at different times. For example, there were a bunch of articles after the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment came out in 2004, and also around the time when the Council came out with its international agreements in 2011 on search and rescue and the response to oil spills. Coverage tends to go up when there are big events like this that grab headlines, or when notable things come out of the Council.

I don't know if surprising is the word, but I thought it was interesting that coverage increases after the Council creates more ambitious, larger scale, and more significant projects. While you can debate about whether the actual content of the agreements on search and rescue and oil spill response is that ambitious, the fact that there were any agreements at all was a change in the Council, which was notable. To that point, it was the most ambitious project that the Council had undertaken and released and the first for which the Council had been the venue of negotiations between Arctic states.

NB: Your article mentions that media about the Arctic Council peaked from 2013 to 2015. What explains this rise in coverage?

AC: The international agreements were one reason. They led to several articles about increasing international interest in the Arctic Council, even about China’s interest in becoming an Observer in the Council. Even though the Council didn’t create the agreements, states decided to discuss them at the Council, which showed how the Council was evolving and responding to international issues. It was the first time the Council had done that sort of thing. For China and the EU and other entities to want to become part of the Council—those are issues that at first glance maybe seem a little bit surprising. That China, a country without any Arctic territory, would want a seat at the table in an Arctic international institution is a bit like Canada wanting to become a member of the African Union. China’s interest was unusual, and the reasons behind it inspired more coverage.

A lesser point that we also discussed in the paper is that the Council came out with communications guidelines in 2011 and there were a few changes in the way they put out information: The Secretariat became responsible for larger communications and the strategy emphasized the importance of consistent branding of the Council, including a logo on its different products. Better, more coordinated communication may have also played a role in increasing coverage as a tertiary factor. Before, the communication strategy was more piecemeal; different working groups would put out their own work on what they thought was important and warranted press coverage, and the branding would depict the name of the individual Working Group instead of the Arctic Council.

NB: Overall, how successful is the Council in its efforts to raise public awareness of its mission? Do you have any suggestions as to how it can enhance its profile moving forward?

AC: I would say it’s had medium success. The Council usually communicates what it does fairly well. But there is a lot of potential for confusion about what it does—especially because there are so many issues happening in the Arctic that the Council doesn’t deal with—which makes it significant when it attracts accurate coverage of its activities.

The positive assessment of the Council also points to success. There is a lot to criticize the Arctic Council for, such as whether it adequately responds to environmental and other challenges in the Arctic region. I’m sure Council members would like the media to cover their activities more consistently—a series of articles around every ministerial meeting, or every Senior Arctic Officials meeting, for example. Here, I would say there has been mixed success.

At the end of the paper, we say that persistence on the part of the Council is panning out. If it continues to make sure the media is in the loop and draws attention to the significance of its work with a coordinated communication strategy, it's possible that the number of articles about the Council could increase in the future. But for some of the Council’s work, the coverage problem is similar to that of climate change. These are issues that don’t go away, but rather persist, and it's harder to attract media attention to long-term issues as opposed to those that are new or are pressing, emergency situations.

NB: Do you see media coverage increasing because of the U.S. presidency and its stance on climate change?

AC: I would not be surprised to see a spike in articles around the Council and its material because of the new U.S. administration. I don’t think the environmental issues that the Council deals with are very high on the Trump administration's agenda right now. However, the Council previously went through the [George W.] Bush administration—which also did not place a great amount of importance on climate change—and the organization did ambitious work on climate change during that time. In terms of communications, sometimes the fact that the Council is under the radar and isn’t in the spotlight a great deal can work to its advantage; it can do its work in the background, and it can still reach the people that are most important to reach—people in the policy community and people working in other governmental and environmental departments that might decide to employ some of the Council’s ideas.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrew Chater is an assistant professor in the School of Humanities at Brescia University College and a fellow for the Polar Research and Policy Initiative. You can find him on Twitter @andrew_chater.

Mathieu Landriault is a lecturer in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is also an associate researcher at the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Quebec (CIRRICQ), focusing on media and public opinion on Arctic security and sovereignty matters as well as Canadian foreign policy.

Andrew Chater and Mathieu Landriault’s article “Understanding Media Perceptions of the Arctic Council” can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of Jon S]

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