Building democracy: the relationship between media and elections

On Nov. 13, a group of election coverage experts gathered in Toronto to discuss how media coverage affects election results. Eric Mark Do attended and recaps here the highlights of the evening.

In the wake of a U.S. presidential election that saw the media checking politicians’ facts and claims, one Canadian journalist hopes the media here adopt these practices.

On Nov. 13, a group of election coverage experts gathered in Toronto to discuss how media coverage affects election results. Eric Mark Do attended and recaps here the highlights of the evening.

In the wake of a U.S. presidential election that saw the media checking politicians’ facts and claims, one Canadian journalist hopes the media here adopt these practices.

But if the media are to take on the role of fact-checker, they must do it consistently, said Adam Radwanski, Queen’s Park columnist at The Globe and Mail, at a panel on Nov. 13. During the second presidential debate, for instance, moderator Candy Crowley, who’s also CNN’s chief political correspondent, should have either fact-checked throughout or not at allinstead of only interjecting once.

Generally though, over the course of the campaign, there was more of an  “appetite” for media analysis of whether what the candidates said was true, as opposed to just repeating candidates’ words, Radwanski said. “I think it does perform a valuable service in terms of providing that filter that can be missing in campaigns.” 

The panel discussion “Media and Elections: Building Democracy” was hosted by Journalists for Human Rights and also included Robert Benzie, Queen’s Park bureau chief at the Toronto Star; Edward Keenan, senior editor at The Grid; Sean Simpson, associate vice-president at polling firm Ipsos Reid; and Christina Stevens, Toronto correspondent at Global National.

They agreed that even though party leaders can now bypass traditional media sources to talk to voters, the type of coverage those sources provide still has a significant effect on election outcomes. Journalists must also balance reporting on important issueswhich may not be as popular with readerswith pieces that generally drive more traffic.

New roles of media

Keenan said the media has a big role to play in providing context and analysis, “and even in a traditional objective sense, still call bullshit or weigh the evidence and try to determine which stories make sense and which don’t.” He said that while the media reported on what Rob Ford planned to do for Toronto during the 2010 municipal election, they could have “spent a lot more time” digging deeper into exactly how he planned to do it as mayor.

On a campaign trail, journalists sometimes hear the exact same speeches from candidates, just in different locations, said Benzie, so journalists don't really pay attention to the stump speech by the end of a campaign. “You're just sort of there for almost like a slip-up, or the rare moment of candour in a scrum,” he said.

Political leaders are less worried about getting their message out through the media, and more concerned with not creating unwanted attention from a mishap, said Radwanski. Social media and other platforms have made it easier for candidates to reach out to voters, but while it may seem like a great idea to have them speaking unfiltered to people, it “can be problematic if they’re really just targeting their message to their own voters.” That’s where the media need to step in.

During last year’s Ontario provincial election, the Tories distributed a flyer to specific ridings with what some described as homophobic messages on it. Radwanski said that it might not have negatively affected the campaign had the media not reported on it. “The more these parties tailor their messages, the more (things) can go completely under the radar that they’re actually promising to voters. And I think we really do have to keep our eye out for that.”

Effect of media coverage

The panellists discussed coverage of former NDP leader Jack Layton in the 2011 federal election as a factor in the party’s succession to official opposition status.

“This time around, the media for some reason really covered him in a different way,” said Sean Simpson of Ipsos Reid. “And in so doing, people fell in love with him a little bit more and it changed the political make-up of this country.”

Polling has a huge influence in driving voters, Radwanski said. Layton’s popularity took off in Ontario during the campaign partly because the media reported that polls detected a surge in Quebec. “I don't think people would have spontaneously had Layton-mania here if not for that. It flowed out of there because of coverage of the polls, so it became kind of self-fulfilling,” he said.

The opposite can also happen.

Simpson cited this year’s Alberta provincial election in which pollsters called for a Wildrose victory, but the party lost. “So I think that polling does in fact … have a huge impact, whether it be a bandwagon effect or an underdog effect or just people changing their minds because they don’t want a particular outcomestrategic voting,” said Simpson. “So I think that the impact is quite substantial.”

Issue-based reporting vs. interest pieces, balancing readership, sensationalism

Stevens recently travelled to Sierra Leone for JHR and said that reporting on the issues is rare there. Mostly reporters just write whatever was said at a political rally. “There’s not a lot of context. There’s not a lot of pushing any actual issues.”

Here in the West, getting issue-based stories published, rather than ones about politicians, can also be a challenge. “The public interest in those issue pieces is very small,” said Keenan. “I can measure the traffic online—like I get 15 times as many hits on my average piece about (Mayor) Rob Ford being a buffoon than I do on the pieces I write about what the difference between LRTs and subways is.

“There’s only so far you can go to frame the issues. You can lead your readers so far but they lead you as well I think.”

An audience member asked how the media sensationalizing stories in order to sell papers or drive traffic helps a democracy.

It’s not all about money, Keenan responded, but also about reader interest. “I'm not sure how well democracy is served by serious issue-based stories if nobody really in a democracy reads them. I think that there’s a balance that most conscientious journalists are trying to strike between writing the most interesting and compelling story you can write, and including the most important pieces of information.”

He said it’s not just about page viewsit’s about writing stories that people will read so they understand the situation better.

Robert Benzie agreed. “Half of my job is to make a boring provincial political issue interesting enough to get on the front page of the Toronto Star,” he said. “I have to make it interesting so that my editor will want to put it in the paper, so that you’ll want to read it.”

Now, with the numerous ways to track how well an article is doing online, there definitely is pressure to deliver traffic, said Radwanski. “On the one hand, you can’t just write stuff that nobody reads or that has a relatively niche appeal. But you also can’t just start whoring yourself out to every hit you can get either, which there is a real danger of.”

What elections are really about (character)

Keenan said he used to obsess over the amount of coverage given to the candidates, and wondered why the issues weren't being addressed more. Then he realized, in his experience with Toronto elections, a candidate’s stance on the issues is mostly irrelevant to both voters and media. “It was purely symbolic because what we’re electing is like a manager,” he said. “So the philosophy of the leader and their competence is in many ways far more important. And that philosophy will inform them on various issues.”

In the U.S. election, voters were largely looking to figure out what Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama’s core beliefs were, said Radwanski. “If people can’t see your core and they don’t think that you have strong views and things drive you, that can be a real problem. And I think that comes throughone waymedia coverage, and the way they present themselves.”

Debates are a platform for candidates to do just that. “I think in general the issues in the debates are largely a way of voters sort of doing a character test on the person … a judgement test of whether they trust that person in office,” Radwanski said.

Objectivity in elections

Christina Stevens found that some of the Sierra Leone media are “hopelessly one-sided” and many are owned by political parties. But the same journalistic principles should apply no matter where you are. She said she tries to just present both sides equally and thinks to herself, “I’ve done a good job if neither side thinks that I was on their side.”

Radwanski took that notion further. “The worst feeling is a bunch of emails from partisans telling you what a great job you did. Nobody likes that.”

“Good reporters can maintain a sense of objectivity and really try to cover a story from all the viable angles that are there,” said Keenan. Lazier reporters just balance the number of times candidates are quoted, he said. “That’s a poor substitute for actually reporting the story objectively and unbiased.”

Some journalists don’t vote in elections that they cover, and Benzie is one of them. He lives in an NDP riding, and said he doesn’t want people speculating that his articles are influenced by how he votes. He said he hasn’t voted for so long that he doesn’t even remember who the last person he voted for was.

“I do know that I want people to know how objective I am,” Benzie said. “Even though I know it’s impossible to be totally agnostic in life, it makes me a better journalista newsgathererif I can see things with a clear eye.”