Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Canadians Deserve Better From the Fourth Estate

I’ve been troubled by the mainstream media’s coverage of the 41st General Election so far, and by all accounts, it isn’t going to improve. Specifically, my concerns relate to the media managing, and creating, the messages being conveyed to the electorate in such a way that Party Leaders and policies have become a prop in the media’s own Campaign Story. While this isn’t new, it seems that in this election, the media’s role has been more important than that of the political parties.

When the media itself is making the headlines during an election, that doesn’t bode well for democracy.

Nobody Cares

The media have been telling the story, since Day 1 of the election, that this election isn’t really about anything, and that no one really wants the election. Contrast this message to that of the Liberals and the NDP, who want Canadians to believe that this election is happening because of the Harper government’s contempt for parliament. And contrast the media’s message against that of the Conservative Party’s, which has been to offer voters a choice between a Harper government or a coalition government, while telling voters that this election shouldn’t be happening. Neither Party is suggesting that Canadians shouldn’t care about the election (or that they don’t care, which is subtly different). Why, then, is the media reporting that Canadians “don’t care” again and again and again?

I’m sure the media will say, “Well, that’s the story; Canadians don’t really care. And we’ve got the anecdotes to prove it.” I’ve commented on this before, and wondered aloud about how many voters might remark to the media that they really do care about an election, but when they do so, the clips just never make it to air, because it doesn’t support the media’s narrative. I would suggest that, based on all of the polls released daily which show voters support for the various political parties (and which usually do not report on “undecideds” or on how many have said that they will not be voting), that instead of apathy about the election, the real story is that Canadians are engaged enough to be able to be able to identify with a political party which they would like to support.

The problem with the media’s message that no one cares about the election is that it hasn’t been supported by the facts (at least that I’m aware of). Yes, I guess it makes compelling copy, but is it for real?

A supplementary question, which might not be relevant for the media: how does coverage of this nature assist Canadians with making the very important decision of who to vote for in the election? Keep that question in mind throughout this post.

Top Stories

What have some of the top stories of this election been so far? Have we seen much in the way of hard-hitting analysis of the party’s promises, policies and platforms? To be sure, we’ve seen some of that, but in terms of keeping this kind of analysis in front of the public for more than a day, it seems that news about policy is stale by the next day. Who really remembers, for example, what the Liberals really promised about Education, or what the Conservatives had to say about income splitting? Clearly, policy stories haven’t been “tops” in this election.

What’s been driving election coverage for the better part of the campaign have been the following stories (beyond the voter apathy story):

The Debate About the Debates

The decision of the media consortium to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the televised debates was the starting point for this story, which then seemed to take off in a few other directions. A lot of space has been taken up during this campaign to analyze who the media consortium is, and how we might be able to develop criteria to establish an entry level into the debates for next time. Opinions regarding whether May should or should not be there have been expressed, and discussions have been had about debate formats, including Stephen Harper’s infamous challenge to Michael Ignatieff for a one-on-one, which Harper retracted the following day.

This week, we’ve seen all sorts of things about how Leaders prepare for the debates, about whether to go for a knock-out punch, and about the need to practice ju-jitsu to fend off an opponent’s attack. We’ve heard about how important the debates are in the electoral process, but not important enough to make Canadians decide between watching them or a Habs game. And we’ve been subjected, time and again, to watching Brian Mulroney tell John Turner that he had a choice.

How does any of this help Canadians decide who to cast their ballots for on May 2nd?

Vote Compass

CBC’s on-line voter aid, Vote Compass, gathered a lot of press in the first week of the campaign, and as a story, it hasn’t completely gone away yet. Vote Compass was unveiled as a means of assisting voters in identifying the Party which would most represent their interests. Pretty quickly, it came under attack by other media organizations (notably Sun media) for a “Liberal Party” bias. Greens, too, have been decrying Vote Compass as actually misrepresenting the policies of the Green Party.

Stephen Harper’s Bubble Campaign

The media have really piled on Stephen Harper for his decision to take only 5 questions a day. This has led the media to claim that Harper is campaigning inside of a very stage-managed bubble, and have done all that they can to justify the claim. As a result, we’ve heard from students who have been turned away from Conservative rallies because they have Facebook photos where they have posed with other Leaders, or because they are part of a University’s Environmental Club. In some cases, the media has contrasted Harper’s closed-door approach to that of Michael Ignatieff, or they have supplemented the story with images of students who are trying to tell Harper that student votes matter.

Michael Ignatieff Doing Better than Expected

And the news media, of course, have been all over the story that, wow, look at Michael Ignatieff go…that he’s not nearly as bad on the campaign trail as he is in…real life? Parliament? Anywhere else? Given that the media has been predicting for years that Ignatieff will excel on the campaign trail, this story has come as little surprise to anyone.


None of these “top stories” really tell anybody much about anything at all about the similarities and differences of those running for office, or what their points of view about the issues are. These “top stories” have defined the election to date, which is a sad commentary, given that they say nothing much about anything.

One story which has started to creep into the media is that voters really want to hear about issues. I think this came from today’s NANOS poll (and I’m not going to go on about polls today). If Canadians are so hungry to hear about the issues, can we expect the focus of the media to begin shifting over the last couple of weeks of the election? I’m not optimistic at all, because I believe that the media has a narrative which it will continue to pursue, unless something from outside of the election comes up.

Fact is, the only meaningful discussion that Canadians are likely to see about the issues in this election will be in the two televised debates. Of course, this discussion will be unfiltered, and as such, it will be filled with the spin of the 4 parties present (and missing the contribution of Canada’s 5th Party, whose Leader was excluded by the broadcast consortium with the notion in mind that she wouldn’t have anything to contribute which Canadians would want to hear about). It’s almost guaranteed that the media will focus on the insubstantial elements of the debates, such as a knock-out, or who held their own, or discussions about power-ties or the best zingers. Unless one of the Leaders uses this opportunity to make a bold policy announcement (and none will), you can bet that the substance of the debates will be forgotten after a few days, while the zingers keep playing until May 2nd.

And the media narrative will continue. The election will become a two-horse race, between a surging Michael Ignatieff and a slipping Stephen Harper who is trying to hold onto his support with an iron grip. The NDP will continue to be sidelined (even if the polls continue to show the same level of support), and the Green Party will have been forgotten, just as the Bloc is outside of Quebec.

And on May 2nd, it will be Harper’s election to lose. Whether a Conservative Majority or Minority is the outcome, we won’t know until the last ridings in B.C. report in. And wow…won’t that make for gripping television?

Canadians might not ever really find out what the different parties really stand for. Instead, we’ve been cast adrift in a sea which is all surface and no depth.

We know that the media can do better during an election. Why, then, has it come to this, when so much which is important is on truly on the line?

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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