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

  • Author / Creator
    Way, Laura Anne
  • 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.

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  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
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    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.