Given the time and attention both he and his government have devoted to courting ethnic voters, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to learn that Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a private tête-a-têtes with representatives from the local ethnic and cultural press during a recent swing through British Columbia.

Thanks to Vancouver 24 Hours reporter Jeremy Nuttall — who, to give credit where credit is due, was not only the first to write about the event, but also managed to obtain the audio, which he promptly posted to the web — we now have some idea what went on behind closed doors: a "fawning thank you" from one reporter, a question about his "legacy" from another, and an offer by Harper to pose for pictures after the session wrapped up. 

But according to Nuttall, two of the larger media outlets in the area — Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao, which is partly owned by the Toronto Star publishing group, and multicultural broadcaster Omni TV, which is part of the Rogers media family — were notably absent from the PM's roundtable.

Nuttall also interviewed Asian Journal editor Rattan Mall, who said that "out of the Lower Mainland’s South Asian papers, only the Asian Star and Indo-Canadian Times were at the event," and described the selection process as “weird.”

“I think they like to reach out to the non-English, ethnic media ... They’re really very different, each one has got its own agenda ... sometimes some journalists want to get ads, so they compromise,” Mall told Vancouver 24 Hours.

'Cattle call gong show' 

It's that sort of potential compromise that concerns Canadian Ethnic Media Association chair and Omni TV vice-president Madeline Ziniak.

"Generally, those journalists who are aggressive, and who like to do analysis and be challenging to the PM or any politician, more and more, they aren't enjoying this kind of cattle call gong show approach," she told CBC News.

According to Ziniak, before the holidays Harper, who skipped his annual Christmas reception for the parliamentary press gallery, was the guest of honour at what his office billed as an "intimate family event" in Toronto, to which key "media leaders" were encouraged to bring members of their families in lieu of a TV crew.

"No cameras, no photos, no audio ... you can't report it in any way. Everyone had to wait in the holding area until Harper and his wife [Laureen] appeared, and there were no questions, just individual photos."

Given those restrictions, Ziniak says, "Why go and waste your time?"

Access a 'badge of honour' for some

But for some smaller community newspapers and radio stations, rubbing shoulders with the prime minister or other high-ranking government officials can be seen as a "badge of honour," she says — especially if that may not have been the case in their homeland.

Still, she believes ethnic media must be accountable, and not just "humbly accept these photo ops."

"One could say, 'Hey, it's great that they're paying attention to diversity, and having sessions with smaller newspapers and media entities that can have a hard time in a large scrum with traditional or larger ethnic media entities, so you're giving them that opportunity,' but what is that opportunity?

"It's a very controlled environment where some questions aren't answered ... They know the ones who ask the hard questions, and sometimes, those reporters aren't invited."

She agrees that it's important to pay attention to all ethnic media outlets, and not just the giants.

"But I don't want it to be a situation where you're abusing that goodwill, and the fact that a lot of community leaders love to show their communities, 'I'm important, I'm next to the PM.'"

Link between coverage, ad buys questioned

On a broader scale, Ziniak would like to get more details on how, exactly, the government decides where to put the steadily increasing chunk of the federal advertising budget earmarked for ethnic publications.

"We know it's not exactly an equitable approach," she says.

"For a smaller community, like, say, the Roma community, it might be the only available outlet in their own language, but if you have 11 Spanish-language radio shows, how are they making the selection? We've seen some interesting choices in that regard."

Even a modest government ad buy could represent a far more substantial percentage of annual revenue for a smaller media organization than a large one. 

Prime Minister's Office spokesperson Carl Vallee declined to comment on how the PM's office decides which ethnic media outlets to add to — or, for that matter, remove from — the invite list.

"The prime minister regularly does roundtables with members of cultural media across the country because he believes it's important to keep the Canadians that they speak to informed about the national life of our country," he told CBC News.

He also dismissed the suggestion of a link between ad buys and tone of coverage.

"Ad buys are determined by Public Works and Government Services Canada via an independent process," Vallee said.

Those rules wouldn't apply to the Conservative Party, of course.  

Media coverage study

While working on an ongoing study into how Toronto-area ethnic media covered the last election, Ryerson University associate journalism professor April Lindgren noted a possible correlation. 

"In one Punjabi-language newspaper, for instance, the number of Conservative advertisements was about double the total of ads placed by the Liberals and NDP combined," she notes.

"While the stories in that newspaper tended be neutral in tone overall, it did favour the Conservatives in terms of more subtle indicators of bias," Lindgren says. "The Conservatives, for instance, were most frequently the focus of stories where only one party was mentioned. They also appeared in the most photographs and tended to be the first party mentioned in stories.

"Some of this might be the result of a more effective, aggressive Tory campaign," she stresses. "The Conservative may have been better at getting their people out there talking to ethnic media. But you can't rule out that advertising dollars also had an influence." 

For instance, she says "when I looked at a second Punjabi-language newspaper where each of the parties purchased about the same amount of advertising, the Conservative advantaged in terms of coverage was less pronounced. In fact, in that case, Liberals actually appeared most frequently in photographs published during the campaign period."

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that misspelled the name of Madeline Ziniak, vice-president of Omni TV.
    Jan 23, 2014 12:18 PM ET