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Canadian newspaper coverage of the Alberta oil sands:The intractability of neoliberalism Open Access


Other title
news media
oil sands
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Way, Laura Anne
Supervisor and department
Urquhart, Ian (Political Science)
Trimble, Linda (Political Science)
Examining committee member and department
Epp, Roger (Political Science)
Taras, David (Communication Studies)
Dorow, Sara (Sociology)
Department of Political Science

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This dissertation examines the relationship between Canadian newspapers, the development of Alberta’s oil sands, and neoliberalism. It uses both content and discourse analysis to analyze coverage of oil sands development in six English-Canadian newspapers between October 1, 2005 and October 31, 2007. During this period of contestation, a variety of actors were questioning the central tenets of the neoliberal policy frame governing oil sands development. Policy frames do change over time, as transformative discourses—which challenge the empirical and normative bases of an existing policy frame—gain broader acceptance and replace an existing frame. Media coverage plays an important role in deconstructing and reconstructing policy frames by articulating transformative ideas and goals. The goal of this analysis is to determine the extent to which newspaper reporting about the oil sands reflected augmentative or transformative discourses, or both. My analysis found that, in general, these newspapers continued to embrace the augmentative discourses advanced by industry and government actors. While acknowledging some policy failures, these discourses reasserted solutions that fell within the normative boundaries of neoliberalism. Augmentative discourses prevailed across all news frames: economic, environmental, social, and those related to energy security. Transformative discourses, while not altogether absent from the coverage, were generally marginalized. That major dailies relegated the majority of their oil sands coverage to the business section served to institutionalize neoliberal values. Moreover, the newspapers repeatedly treated the normative values associated with neoliberalism as fact, requiring no further support or justification. Conversely, the newspapers viewed critiques as controversial. This triggered the need to provide ‘balance’ by giving industry and government actors who were publicly criticized the opportunity to respond, which further contributed to the strength of augmentative discourses. In addition, the newspapers primarily assigned responsibility to government, rather than industry, for policy failures. Paradoxically, by embracing neoliberal values, newspaper coverage delegitimized many of the policy instruments that government could use in their efforts to resolve these challenges. These findings demonstrate the limitations of journalistic practices to capture the complexity of policy issues surrounding oil sands development. I argue that the outcome of these limitations is the further entrenchment of neoliberalism.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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File title: Canadian newspaper coverage of oil sands development: The intractability of neoliberalism
File author: Laura Way
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File language: en-CA
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