The Discourse of confidence during the financial crisis in Canadian newspapers

A flyer pasted to a telephone pole reads "Good news is coming"

By Leigha Smith, MA student, Concordia University

During the 2007-2008 financial crisis, both English and French newspapers in Canada began to echo expressions uttered by financial institutions about confidence. Chantal Gagnon and Pier-Pascale Boulanger dedicated an article—"Investigating positive/negative bias in Canadian newspapers through translation: A study of 'confidence' in a corpus of business news"—to the study of negativity and positivity in a 9-million-word bilingual corpus of Canadian newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Le Devoir, and La Presse.

Focusing on the year 2008, the researchers found a proliferation of positive expressions of confidence, which is especially intriguing now that we understand the far-reaching and catastrophic consequences of the financial crisis. How and why did Canadian financial news echo the optimistic sentiments expressed by financial institutions?

As demonstrated by Gagnon and Boulanger, the discourse of confidence, through occurrences of the words “confidence,” “we are confident,” and their French equivalents, was a function of impression management during the crisis, which was aimed mainly at restoring faith in the financial system. This discourse of confidence originated from institutions such as banks, corporations, and governments, and was often uncritically relayed by newspapers (Gagnon and Boulanger, p. 14). This is not to say that all newspaper discussions of financial confidence during the crisis were positive. Some terms, such as "crisis of confidence," reflected a negative perspective. In such negative casts, banks and markets were portrayed as passive "sufferers" of a lack of confidence as opposed to agents or actors in the crisis. The authors found that negative commentary resulted from journalists' discourse, while positive comments were sourced from banks, companies, and governments.

This imbalance is striking, but explainable. As economic prosperity depends in part on public and institutional confidence in the economy, expressions of confidence in news media can have palpable impact on economic outcomes. These expressions of confidence serve multifunctionally: as utterances of faith, as pleas for patience, or as promises as to the effectiveness of the financial system. Expressions of economic confidence, in other words, are effective incantations in favour even of the struggling financial system.

If financial institutions believe professing confidence in the economy may help save the economy, they rely on newspapers to spread that perspective among the general public. This positivity bias—in contrast to newspaper media in general, which tends to express a negativity bias (Soroka & McAdams, 2015)—is significantly present in financial news (Shiller, 2008). Leading up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, for example, stories of rising stock and housing markets were embellished, while stories of precarity were buried or less emphasized (Shiller, 2008; Schiffrin, 2015).

Gagnon and Boulanger detail this positivity bias. They found that articles in English were more inclined to project future financial outcomes in positive terms, while articles written in French were more balanced, with more negative expressions and less emphasis on future projections (see Figure 3 below). These differences may be partially explained by cultural affinity: Anglophone papers more likely to draw from American sources. As many Anglophone readers of financial news in Canada may have had vested interest in American financial markets, Anglophone reporters may have felt more compelled to instil market confidence in their readers.

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(Gagnon and Boulanger, p. 9)

This study concludes that the interdiscursive nature of newspaper articles—that is, the embedding of financial institutions' promotional narratives into the genre of the newspaper article intended for public information—led to a coverage that was in fact heavily biased toward institutional interests, without offering significant critical voices to counterbalance. Attentive readers of financial news today might rightly ask whose interests Canadian newspapers may be promoting based on the perspectives they broadcast.