Public relations posing as real news becoming more common in Alberta

It's getting more difficult to distinguish between news and public relations

Posted: November 27, 2016

In its heyday, the Alberta legislature press gallery had reporters based in Edmonton from across the province. (Alberta Legislature Press Gallery)

Since the U.S. election, attention has been cast on so-called "fake" news where false stories posing as legitimate information appear on Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Adding to the confusion for readers is the growing phenomena of information appearing on websites run by governments, companies and agencies. 

"Basically it's another form of public relations," said Christopher Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.


"They feel they're able to deliver whatever message they want to deliver better by going directly to the public," Waddell said. The media is left out as the traditional "gatekeeper" of information.

Governments creating their own stories is not new, but the practice has increased dramatically as consumers rely more on social media and mobile devices for news, and less on so-called legacy media outlets such as newspapers, radio and television stations.

In September, the City of Lloydminster  launched its own news service called the "Lloydminster Record."

According to its website, the Record was launched to "provide clarity, balance and perspective to news coverage."

The city posted audio of interviews with officials on Soundcloud, and countered news coverage about the city's manager's travel expenses by publishing large volumes of financial documents.

Todd Corrigall, director of strategies and partnerships for the City of Lloydminster, said they haven't posted any new stories on the site since it launched, but they will if they think it's necessary. 


"If there's an opportunity for us to provide that information to residents to give them a full and complete picture, that is a tool that is available to us," he said. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator says its reSource website replaced quarterly newsletters and annual reports.

Lloydminster isn't the only organization creating its own news stories. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is funded entirely by industry and is responsible for regulating Alberta's oil and gas industry.

In June, the AER launched a new site called reSource. The site, featured prominently on the regulator's landing page, contains numerous articles about the work of the AER, and features written by "contributors."

In an email, AER spokeswoman Carrie Rosa said the agency has 28 full-time communications staff who handle internal business, media requests and contribute to the reSource site. 

The site has a page featuring pictures and biographies of contributors who are AER communications staff. 


Rosa said reSource replaced a blog, a quarterly newsletter and print copies of the annual report.

"The AER conducts annual public opinion research and Albertans have told us they want more information in plain language," she said. "The information on reSource does not replace traditional news sources, but supports it."

NHL.com won't touch some subjects

Waddell, who has written extensively on media and politics, said professional sports teams and organizations figured out the formula for getting information straight to fans a long time ago.

NHL.com, for example, sends its own reporters to cover games and generate statistics, but there are subjects league reporters likely won't touch.

"You can be pretty sure NHL.com is not going to be doing a big series about painkillers and hockey players or concussions and hockey players," Waddell said.

"What the corporate world and communications have been able to do, assisted by the internet, is to replicate the physical appearance and nature of news, hoping that the audience is not discerning enough to recognize the difference between public relations and promotional material, and what's actually news."


The Alberta government has several communication branches, ranging from 178 public servants employed as non-partisan department staff members, to political press secretaries, issues managers, and the 43 members of the Public Affairs Bureau.

The province sends out regular press releases and media advisories through its Public Agency News, and has its own in-house video production unit and YouTube channel.

Membership in the Alberta legislature press gallery has shrunk to numbers seen in 1949. (Alberta Legislature Press Gallery)

Waddell says the ability to craft corporate or government news has become much easier with the emergence of the internet, and the decline in the number of working journalists.

According to a submission presented recently by the Canadian Media Guild to Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, 16,500 journalism jobs have been lost since 2008.

Diminishing numbers in the Alberta legislature press gallery provide a good example of this drastic decline.

The gallery is marking its 100th anniversary in 2016.


It once had television, radio and newspaper reporters from across Alberta. Today there are fewer than 10 Edmonton-based journalists who cover the legislature on a regular basis.

With the volume of information now available, Waddell says readers are now forced to find out if the information they're reading comes from a reliable source.

"It really forces the viewer, listener, reader to be much more of their own editor in determining which sources they trust and what people they trust."


Kim Trynacity

Kim Trynacity is an award-winning journalist and CBC Alberta's provincial affairs reporter. You can reach Kim by email at kim.trynacity@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ledgewatcher