Canada's Snowbirds: Consumption of Mass Media

Marc Grenier (Carleton University)

Ross Perigoe (Concordia University)

Introduction During the last several years, but especially very recently, "Snowbirds," Canadian seasonal migrants to the U.S. (usually Florida), have received a great deal of attention in both the popular press and in the scholarly journals. In the popular press, interest in Snowbirds stems largely from the issue of provincial cuts to out-of-country health benefits they commonly enjoy.

In the scholarly literature, attention devoted to Snowbirds centres on the facilitating/inhibiting factors determining migration (Sullivan, 1985; Hogan, 1987; McHugh, 1990; Tucker et al., 1988); the socio-demographic characteristics of Snowbirds (Mullins & Tucker, 1988; Sullivan & Stevens, 1982; Krout, 1983; Martin, 1987; Monahan & Greene, 1982; Tucker et al., 1988); the health care and social service utilization patterns of Snowbirds in the host country and /or the real /alleged impact of this utilization on either the host and /or the home country (Mullins & Tucker, 1988; Marshall & Tucker, 1990; Tucker et al., 1988; Marshall, 1989; Daciuk & Marshall, 1990; Monahan & Greene, 1982); loneliness among Snowbirds (Sullivan & Stevens, 1982; Tucker et al., 1988; Martin, 1987; Mullins & Tucker, 1988); differences (if any) between seasonal and permanent Snowbirds (Martin, 1987; Hogan, 1987; McHugh, 1990; Monahan & Greene, 1982); and, lastly, the methods employed in research on Snowbirds (Mullins & Tucker, 1988).

As can be clearly seen from this brief review, the mass media-Snowbird relationship has not figured prominently in the study of Snowbirds in the scholarly literature and even in communications journals. However, this dearth of research on the role of mass media among the Snowbird elderly is quite inconsistent with the study of that role among the elderly in general, confirmed by a plethora of researchers in numerous disciplines over the years (Schramm, 1969; Davis, 1971; Adams & Groen, 1975; Davis et al., 1976; Dimmick et al., 1979; Doolittle, 1979; Durand et al., 1980; Korzenry & Neuendorf, 1980; Real et al., 1980; Rubin & Rubin, 1981; Powell & Williamson, 1985; Swayne & Greco, 1987; Fouts, 1989; Bell, 1992).

We will begin our Snowbird study by outlining the research methodology that was employed and by generally identifying some key socio-demographic characteristics. We will then provide a summary of our major findings and suggest areas for future research on the mass media-Snowbird relationship.

Sample study and methods

Ten thousand copies of a single-sheet, double-sided questionnaire were distributed in the March 16, 1992, issue of The Sun Times of Canada weekly newspaper. This paper is distributed throughout Florida by mail; as part of regular delivery in local newspapers; and is sold in stores specializing in newspaper sales.

The questionnaire consisted of 40 questions divided into four parts: background information; medical information; information on how Snowbirds keep in touch with news from home; and consumer information. Some questions were multiple choice; others were of the "Yes" or "No" format; others asked respondents to rank choices; others were open-ended; and still others asked for a written response. Most of the questions requiring a written response involved consumer information.

One week prior to the questionnaire's publication, a news story was printed in The Sun Times alerting readers to look for and fill out the questionnaire in the next issue. A week after the questionnaire was distributed, The Sun Times printed a reminder to its readers to fill out the form. The total Sun Times circulation was 14,000 at the time. Ten thousand copies were sold to paying subscribers, and 4,000 were given away on Air Canada planes. The questionnaire was distributed to all 10,000 subscribers but not to the Air Canada passengers. The incentive to fill out the questionnaire was a chance to win two return tickets on Air Canada to Vancouver from anywhere in Canada. Usable questionnaires were returned by 1,140 respondents, or an 11.4% response rate.


The findings on socio-demographic characteristics of our respondents do not deviate significantly from what is known in the existing literature on Snowbirds, and correspond very well with our addition of total household net worth as an extra socio-demographic factor. The addition of this factor serves to further underscore the claim that Snowbirds as a distinct social group are derived mainly from a relatively privileged stratum of the population of origin (Sullivan & Stevens, 1982; Monahan & Green, 1982; Sullivan, 1985; Martin, 1987; Tucker & Mullins, 1988). The largest proportion of our sample (371 out of 1,140 or approximately 33%) reported total household net worth at between $100,000 and $250,000, with next proportion registering net worth between $250,000 and $500,000 (301 out of 1,140 or 26%). In addition, Snowbirds tend to come from the richest province of Canada (Ontario); they tend to exercise significant property ownership either in the form of a home, condominium, trailer, mobile home, or some combination of these; and they sit at the middle-to-upper-middle income levels of the social hierarchy ($30,000-$100,000). Therefore, we would tend to agree strongly with the established literature that has found such affluent socio-demographic characteristics to be facilitating rather than inhibiting factors in Snowbird migration.

Our second main finding concerns the valuation of news from Canada. Our results must be tempered with the knowledge that in placing our questionnaire in a weekly Canadian newspaper (which has since become a twice-weekly paper), we were surveying a group of Florida residents who have already demonstrated an interest in Canadian news, since they pay to have the newspaper delivered. It is not surprising, then, that our respondents value news from Canada highly. It would be an error to presume that all Canadian Snowbirds share the same level of interest in news from Canada. Estimates show that some 800,000 Canadians winter in Florida from four to six months a year--about 300,000 Francophones and 500,000 Anglophones. Between them, The Sun Times of Canada and its competitor Canada News actually reach less than one fifth of the total number of Anglophones.

Our third main finding concerns the relationship between Snowbirds and the telephone. Nearly two thirds of all respondents (64.1% or 731 out of 1,140) reported that they called friends and relations at least once a week for news about Canada. Since we did not ask our respondents which specific types of news about Canada they asked friends or relatives about during their telephone conversations with them, a degree of care should be exercised in interpreting the data here. While news commonly is described as being coverage of the unusual, the unexpected, and the conveying of policies and events that affect our lives (Mencher, 1983, p. 51), we suspect that our respondents employed a broader definition of "news." The respondents' definition of news would typically include stories which would not necessarily be printed even in the local newspaper but which are important to individuals attempting to keep in touch with friends, immediate family, and relations. If it can be assumed that respondents really do phone home for news about Canada, then this could be explained by the fact that respondents find coverage of Canadian issues and events inadequate. In this event, to our respondents the phone becomes an effective competitor against other media as Snowbirds attempt to obtain news about Canada.

Our fourth main finding concerned the degree of significance our respondents attached to particular ways of getting news about Canada. Canadian television news began to be aired a scant four weeks prior to the distribution of our survey questionnaire. This news came in the form of two different broadcasts: one was a weekly summary transmitted throughout the state on various local TV stations; the other was seen Monday to Sunday, three times a day on cable TV. A daily radio news service from Canada has existed for nearly 30 years and is heard throughout the state of Florida. It was found that both Canadian radio and TV were defined as neither primary nor important methods of obtaining daily news about Canada. This finding corresponds very well with the very high degree of inadequacy which our respondents attached to coverage of Canadian issues and events by all media--the local Florida newspaper, radio, and TV. Television was especially insignificant in this regard (5.5% or 63 out of 1,140). But here we need to take other issues into consideration. Taking into account its recent arrival, and lack of promotion at that time, it could be said that television did rather well. While television may not satisfactorily bring news about Canada to Canadians in Florida, local television is viewed as an important aspect of living in Florida, if only for six months a year. Three quarters of the respondents pay cable companies to be able to receive the highest number of television stations available. Given their dissatisfaction with the quality of news coverage of Canada on the cable, it can be presumed that Canadians are paying for cable TV for some other reason, probably its entertainment value.

Given the length of time a Canadian radio newscast has existed in Florida, one might have expected a greater reliance on it for timely news. But this was not the case. Radio was chosen by only 10.3% (117 out of 1,140) as the most important way to get news about Canada.

Our fifth main finding was the value our respondents attached to reading a Canadian daily newspaper. We asked respondents to rate the importance of a daily, compared with other forms of media (such as Canadian community newspapers, Canadian magazines, and so forth). Daily newspapers were rated well below weekly newspapers and above magazines. One third of respondents (33.1% or 377 out of 1,140) reported that community newspapers were their primary source of news from Canada. Daily newspapers were the choice of 8.9% (101 out of 1,140). Magazines were the first choice of 5.4% (62 out of 1,140). More than one third of respondents (39.6% or 451 out of 1,140) reported reading a daily Canadian newspaper either once or twice a week.

Our last main finding was the overwhelming number of respondents we found that read, each week, their weekly newspaper from Canada (58.9% or 672 of 1,140). It seems that not only is national and provincial news important to many of our respondents, but a significant number of them take the trouble to have their weekly community newspaper sent to Florida so that they can keep up with the goings on in their own home town.


In this research brief, we have explored the relationship between mass media and Snowbirds as a distinct type of "elderly" Canadian, a relationship relatively neglected in the scholarly literature on Snowbirds. Our efforts to redress this neglect began by specifying the socio-demographic characteristics of our respondents in order to put into a proper context our analysis of media uses and preferences. We then went on to address how Snowbirds keep in touch with news from home by looking at the role played by local Florida media, daily and weekly Canadian newspapers, and Canadian radio and television.

It remains to provide our readers with suggestions for future research on the mass media-Snowbird relationship, since this is a relatively new field of scholarly investigation. First, more needs to be done to understand the relationship between socio-demographic characteristics and particular types of news valued by Snowbirds. Greater effort is required by researchers in this area to investigate potential relationships between the socio-demographic characteristics of Snowbirds and their media uses and preferences.

What also needs to be more closely and carefully investigated is the crucial importance of the telephone in the life of Snowbirds as it applies to news-gathering functions, especially as it may or may not relate to Snowbird satisfaction with other mass media.

Third, a concerted effort needs to be exerted to determine what Snowbirds would consider to be "adequate" coverage of Canadian issues and events, since so many of them attached a high degree of inadequacy to such coverage by all Florida-based media.

Last, we need to understand better the important role of daily and especially weekly newspapers in Snowbird life and, by contrast, the comparative insignificance of radio and television. It may be that Snowbirds operate daily with a much broader definition of what constitutes "news" than do other social groups. Future research needs to begin by exploring what Snowbirds define as relevant news before moving on to explore more complex aspects of the mass media-Snowbird relationship.


Thanks to Dr. Richard Tucker for advice on questionnaire wording, The Sun Times of Canada for the design and insertion in their newspaper, and Jan Sonderhouse and Jennifer Groves for data input.


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