Every night for 30 years, the commanding call of Peter Mansbridge’s voice flitted through the homes of Canadians. As chief correspondent for CBC News and anchor of The National, Mansbridge was the trustworthy source of the nation’s news. When he signed off for the last time on July 1, 2017, his departure from the CBC not only marked the end of an era for Canadian news—it took four people to replace him—but the start of a tumultuous time for Mansbridge’s industry, as the epidemic of fake news took hold.
Two years into his retirement, Mansbridge, 71, is still a dependable source of knowledge and truth for Canadians. The crowd at WE Day Toronto can attest to this. During an interview backstage—where the news icon was on hand to give a speech on the importance of voting to 16,000 youth—Mansbridge’s passion for media literacy rings undeniable. “For most young people, what they need to understand is that the media is out there trying to inform them and trying to give them an idea of what their world is like.”
The newsman himself was just a teen when he first discovered the power of media. Legend has it that Mansbridge, an Officer of the Order of Canada, owes his broadcasting career to a chance encounter. While working as a ticket agent at an airport in Churchill, Manitoba, a 19-year-old Mansbridge made an announcement that caught the attention, and ears, of the manager of the local CBC radio station. The stranger complimented the young man’s voice and offered him a job hosting the station’s late-night music program. The rest is Canadian history.
Although the journalist’s career has spanned half a century, Mansbridge admits that everything has changed since he’s been off the air. News is moving to the digital sphere—fewer people read traditional newspapers, opting to get their news online or via social media. The medium, though, isn’t what troubles Mansbridge; his issue is with the message. Rather than reading the day’s breaking stories or headlines from around the world, Mansbridge believes young people consume news solely out of interest rather than education. “The decisions people make about the country, the community, the city they live in are based on the information they have. So if you get too focused on only a few things, you won’t have a broad idea of what’s going on in your world,” explains Mansbridge. “You have to be generally informed.”
The knowledge gap that comes hand-in-hand with a narrow view of the world is what keeps the journalist up at night. It’s also the inspiration behind Mansbridge’s WE Day speech: the importance of voting.
While the young people in the audience already understand the importance of taking action for the causes they care about, many of them are not yet old enough to vote. In the 2015 federal election, 73 per cent of adults aged 55 to 64 voted. Yet only 56 per cent of youth aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot. Mansbridge hopes that the youth of today can beginning closing this gap and, by doing so, shape change in our country.
“When young people decide as a block to vote they can have a tremendous influence.”
The journalist is optimistic, but also aware of morale issues afflicting politics in general. “I know the whole ‘You can’t trust politicians, they’re lying all the time.’ But the fact is, you decide who the successful ones are,” he says. “When young people decide as a block to vote they can have a tremendous influence.” That said, Mansbridge stresses the importance of casting an educated vote. For him, “there’s no point in voting if you’re not aware of the issues and not willing to spend time informing yourself about the different candidates and the different parties.”
So what’s standing between youth and media literacy? Evolution.
With such a vast array of information readily available today, young people’s attention spans are fleeting. According to a 2015 report by Microsoft, the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds since the digital revolution began in 2000. For context, goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds. “We’ve got to make our product more interesting. Young people today have more information at their fingertips than any other generation in history,” says Mansbridge. “It’s no good if you’ve got informed articles and nobody is reading them.”
However, with increased media literacy comes a greater risk of stumbling across misinformation.
The way Mansbridge sees it, fake news is like buying something at an unbelievable price; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. He warns against accepting things carte blanche when it comes to news, and encourages youth and adults alike to seek out more information if something seems especially slanted or simply outrageous.
He doesn’t hold back on the subject, “I mean there are outright lies, but there are also people who have specific interests, whether they be foreign powers or companies, who put out stories that they know to be untrue. They do it deliberately to try and shape opinion.”
Whether behind a CBC desk or on the WE Day stage, Mansbridge’s mission has remained the same since that fateful flight announcement in 1968: to bring the truth to Canadians. Now, after 50 years, he’s asking one thing of his audience: “Be diligent.”
Zoe Demarco is a writer and production manager for WE Stories. A third generation journalist, she has a natural curiosity for other people’s lives.