National media coverage of the 2011 federal election was a failure
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu May 31 2012. Mark Brister
This essay by Mark Brister is the runner-up for the 2012 Dalton Camp Award for commentary on the link between democracy and the media.
Democratic governance can only be realized to the extent that citizens are willing and able to participate. Elections are the most visible opportunity for the expression of collective will, and during campaigns voters will ideally carefully weigh the force of arguments advanced by opposing parties, casting their ballot in the spirit of a common good.
Election campaigns must also serve as information campaigns, clearly demarcating differences between available choices. David Taras points out the challenges this theoretical configuration encounters in the Canadian context, lamenting that “the gap between our idealized view that the public is made up of engaged and concerned citizens and the reality of widespread ignorance and cynicism is startling.” Written more than a decade ago, these words haunt political dialogue in what is left of our public spheres.
We cannot possibly place the entire burden of civic enlightenment and national coalescence at the feet of the fourth estate, but a small constellation of traditional media organizations nonetheless remains the critical conduit carrying complex political messages to nescient publics. Judged by its proficiency in executing this function, national media coverage of the 2011 federal election was an utter failure. Instead of preparing Canadians, reporters bombarded us with commentary fantasizing about seat distribution permutations, scoring the exchanges of party leaders, and incessantly regurgitating a torrent of polls tracking the relative standing of parties. Media obsession with evaluating events in terms of how they may impact the potential outcome of the election displaced other elements of national dialogue, impoverishing our collective deliberation at a watershed moment in the country’s history. We must see renewed interest in the process of democratic choice through the invigoration of electors as active agents in the democratic process, lest cherished institutions perish without trial.
The media Narcissus
On March 21, amid half-hearted spring budget negotiations, a parliamentary committee judged the Conservative party to be in contempt of Parliament for failing to provide approximate costing for proposed criminal justice legislation, corporate tax cuts, and the planned acquisition of the mythic F-35 fighter jets. The debilitated minority government was doomed by one fate or another, but four days later then opposition leader Michael Ignatieff rose to present a motion of non-confidence, asking members to agree with the committee’s unprecedented condemnation. Conservative party leader Stephen Harper gave the first speech of the campaign outside of Rideau Hall the next day, where he reiterated an attack that was by this point well-practiced: the spectre of a Liberal-led coalition. In what would be one of the longest direct engagements with journalists Harper would permit on the campaign trail, every question posed concerned the possible co-operation of opposition parties in the event of another minority outcome. The vast majority of questions put to Ignatieff later that day further probed the coalition “monkey,” despite a press release published by the Liberal party earlier that day dismissing the possibility in unambiguous terms. “Rhetoric on one issue dominates campaign,” blared the headline of Monday’s Globe and Mail, and with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, pointed out that “the voter trying to make sense of it all might be wondering why the second day of the campaign was dominated by an issue the opposition is saying will never become a reality.”
Coalition questions allow the assertion of an outcome in advance and provide a simple oppositional plane to rank parties in “a classic he-said, she-said story that is a lot less taxing than the big issues.” Like Narcissus, seduced by a reflection he was unable to recognize as his own, the fourth estate remained transfixed on the coalition simulacrum throughout the campaign. The McGill Media Observatory’s digital newspaper archive survey revealed that “coalition” was the top keyword mention every week of the campaign. The point is not that questions about a possible coalition shouldn’t be asked, especially when a party’s position is ambiguous. Rather, due to a failure to interrogate politicians in the inaugural moments of the campaign about whether a government can refuse requests by parliamentarians to deliver expense estimates, the question may have been answered by default on May 2 when the Conservatives won a majority mandate.
The English language leaders’ debate was another particularly conspicuous moment of the campaign, attracting an estimated viewership of 3.85 million. Even in retrospect, competing claims from this lively two-hour exchange are difficult to evaluate: When and how were corporate tax cuts first legislated? What is the history of the New Democratic Party’s position on the gun registry issue? What did the auditor general’s report on the G8/G20 spending reveal? Featured as part of CBC’s The National, the At Issue panel asserts itself to be the “most watched political panel,” aiming to provide insight into unfolding political events. Immediately following the debate, At Issue presented information of little use to voters trying to make sense of these competing claims. Panelist Allan Gregg ironically pointed out that the debate helped clarify the difference between parties on issues like “value priorities,” “tax cuts” and “law and order,” but the panel did not discuss how these differences were clarified, instead focusing on Harper’s “steady” performance, Ignatieff being “good on the attack” but showing an “inability to clarify his position on the coalition,” and antagonistic partisan barbs more likely to disenchant than inform.
A front-page column in the Globe and Mail the following day failed to provide any substantive points of policy contrast, instead addressing the question of whether Harper’s performance was worthy of a majority victory, and though the front-page column in the National Post did mention conflict on issues central to the debate, it was within a hollow framing of leader performance. Formal news coverage of the debate from all three major networks, much like the bulk of reporting of the leaders’ tour, focused on the same array of inconsequential topics. Post-debate coverage on CTV juxtaposed sound-bites to simulate a tug of war between leaders and subsequently provided commentary that further removed the viewer from policy considerations. Character appraisals are important insofar as we elect representatives as trustees of the public interest. However, polling during the campaign consistently showed almost a majority of Canadians intended to vote on the basis of a party’s platform, not its leader. The meta-analysis of the English leaders’ debate went beyond the style of substance, insisting on further malnourishing its audience with the substance of style, representing one of the more caustic missed opportunities of the campaign.
The carnival mirror
Funnelling the bewildering cacophony into a rubric of empirical order, 76 national polls ranking the relative standing of political parties and leaders were published during the 37-day campaign period.
CTV News and the Globe and Mail hired Nanos Research to conduct almost daily tracking, and pollsters like EKOSPresident Frank Graves were featured in regular appearances on current affairs shows like CBC’s Power and Politics. Increasing competition among polling firms, differences in methodology, and sampling problems produced wild variations during the campaign — on at least three occasions polls conducted during overlapping periods produced a 10-point spread in their estimation of Conservative support. Reporting on these results was occasionally submitted to scrutiny, but print and television reports routinely omitted information required to properly interpret these polls, such as the chasm of difference between national and regional margins of error, giving the impression of a race where there was none. Amidst the fervour to forecast the election (as if it were an inevitable weather system), seat projection sites like threehundredeight.com rose in popularity, utilizing models later devalued by actual election results.
Through their ostensible representative function, metrics of public opinion can serve democratic purposes. Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, argues that daily surveys conducted by his firm gave voters a voice by allowing them to identify the issue of greatest concern, setting a trajectory for public discussion. Yet the overwhelming aim of polling during the election was to gauge the relative standing of parties and party leaders. “I’m totally depressed,” complained an exasperated Graves, “[public opinion firms are] trying to explain the underlying social forces that are producing political change, and the media, despite protestations to the contrary, are much more interested in the horse-race side of things.” More than a “snapshot,” horse-race polls have become a ubiquitous electoral hermeneutic, reducing an intricate tapestry of collaborative visions into a sterile, competitive ordinal. A carnival mirror, this imagery entertains and distorts, crowding our limited repertoire of political images, warping the conception of our role in the democratic process from contemplative agents to nominal units.
Embracing the democratic citizen in political reporting
There were cases where popular programs attempted to integrate policy comparisons (sometimes present to a greater or lesser degree in The National’s 15 “reality checks”) containing refreshing contextualizing information, though they were often presented as afterthought. Given the financial challenges faced by media organizations today, and the reluctance of other actors such as politicians themselves to behave in a way that facilitates democratic involvement, there is no easy antidote for the aforementioned grotesque electoral esthetic. But we can imagine some modest steps.
The first is to regularly provide information on the previous session of Parliament and events leading up to the election during the election campaign, facilitating the placement of the moment within a historical context. One prominent political commentator covering the 2011 election was unable to recall how the government fell less than a year later. Questioning style and variety is also important. Reporters should not bludgeon politicians with adversarial questions like “why are you ducking the question” in desperate reach for a Frost/Nixon moment of journalistic triumph. Voters can recognize when a question has been ducked, and even in an era of elaborate staging and performance the television medium often reveals much that is unintended. “When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source,” argues John Sawatsky, “when you put values in your questions, it’s like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn’t notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn’t notice the window. They should be looking at the lake.” This technique could distract the media Narcissus from its own allure.
Viewers can make character judgments with relative ease, but most don’t have the time to wade through a 65-page Conservative platform and compare details with the other two major parties. Nightly newscasts should set aside time each day during the campaign period to compare various policy planks, displacing the gladiatorial contest between party leaders. Reports can also take an instructive lesson from the live chat running parallel to the English language debate on the CBC.ca website, with commentators offering helpful responses to viewer questions. Tracking polls should be reported with less frequency, and all relevant methodological data should be included. Instead of daily national popularity tracking, news organizations could commission “deliberative polling,” where a large representative sample of the population is informed about a subject and then questioned about their opinion. This switches our focus from considering standings to the policy preferences. The voter we see in the mirror is no longer a twisted myrmidon, but represents an ideal to which we aspire.
The observations here are not new. I may be waiting for Godot, but to believe in democracy is to be an idealist. Democracy is not the innate consequence of establishing a series of institutions; it is sustained through the momentum of an active and informed citizenry. Media organizations must adopt a democratic ethic or falter as a crucial civic link in this geographically vast and ideationally sonorous country. Charged with defending the national public dialogue, and relatively insulated from the pressures of the private funding model, the CBC must lead the charge for a more vibrant democratic ethos. Revised along these lines, the broadcaster will have clearly restored its public purpose in a political environment increasingly hostile to its existence.
Mark Brister is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Guelph.
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