CAJ election post-mortem panel round-up

Why does political columnist Chantal Hébert credit her cracked rib for
being able to report accurately on the so-called Orange Crush? Read
Ellin Bessner’s round-up of last week’s CAJ election post-mortem panel. 

Political columnist Chantal Hébert credits her cracked rib and staying off Twitter for why she was able to report accurately on the so-called “Orange Crush” and the surprising results of the recent May 2 federal election. That, and staying off the leaders’ tour buses and planes.

In fact, Hébert told an audience at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual conference Friday in Ottawa, that being one of the ‘boys on the bus’ caused many Canadian reporters and editors to spend too much time in their own Twitter bubble and too little time talking to voters.

The panel session, titled “Election 2011 Post-Mortem” was held less then two weeks after the New Democratic Party under Jack Layton swept into Official Opposition status with over 100 seats for the first time in Canada’s history, and Stephen Harper won his party’s first majority government for the Conservatives since 1988.

Hébert, who writes for the Toronto Star, and L’Actualite, as well as appearing on the CBC’s At Issue panel, said she cracked a rib during the first week of the campaign and was in too much pain to be able to withstand the rigours of travel for what would be her 11th federal election.

“I decided to do it differently,” Hébert said, and that included staying away from the sometimes-insular environment that develops among the press gallery members and other journalists and spin-doctors who are thrown together on a leader’s tour.

The syndrome was well documented in Rolling Stone writer Timothy Crouse’s book The Boys on the Bus, a look inside the press tour covering the 1972 U.S presidential election of Richard Nixon and George McGovern.

“Although it’s always pleasant to have these back of the bus discourses with colleagues, the last thing I want to do during an election campaign is plug in to the journalistic discourse,” Hébert said.

Which is how Hébert said she was able to tap in to the views of voters a lot sooner then pollsters and many other media outlets did.

“While everything …was happening between the journalists and the people on the plane and on the [leaders] tours, on the ground only one issue seemed to resonate everywhere I went, and that was ‘stable government, stable government, stable government,” Hébert said. ‘”You could hear it in the bars, you could hear it in hotel lobbies, you could hear it if you went to buy vegetables, it kept coming back.”

And it wasn’t just among the Le Plateau intellectuals in Montreal’s Outremont neighbourhood where she lives. Hébert saw Jack Layton’s positive upbeat message being noticed in the Magdalen Islands and on the south shore of Montreal, too.

“{Layton] talked about doctors, and jobs,” Hébert said, and not about the issues that were flying around the Twitter world and other social media conversations inhabited by the reporters, politicians, and party tour directors thousands of feet in the air.

Hébert recounted how she covered a speech by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in the Brossard-LaPrairie riding just after the Conservatives ejection of a London, Ontario student from a rally, which turned into a Facebook storm. Ignatieff spoke well, she recalled, but he spent nearly the entire speech condemning the Conservatives’ Facebook tactic as anti-democratic.  He did also promise to build a new bridge to replace the Champlain Bridge connecting the riding to Montreal.

But after the event, when the journalists on the tour had already boarded the bus and left, some audience members came up to her as she waited for her lift, and asked her why Ignatieff didn’t talk to them about issues.

“I thought ‘Mr. Ignatieff is speaking about the issue of the day for the press bus, the bubble, the Twitter world, the Facebook world, but the people who are in this room did not come here  [for that]…They came to hear issues’,” Hébert noted.

The lesson for political reporters to take out of this election?  

“ They need to talk to voters the old fashioned way,” Hebert said, because in her mind, a good journalist should not have the world “surprisingly” too often in their stories.

Hébert is not registered with Twitter and isn’t sure she will be anytime soon.

Compare that with CBC journalist Kady O’Malley who covered the election through live blogs for the CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau, and on Twitter, where she has sent out over 40,000 tweets so far, and has 12,469 followers on her @kady account. She told the conference during a panel on Saturday afternoon that Twitter did become “its own little ecosystem”, which she agreed affected the stories that voters would see on their network TV newscasts that night.

But as for missing the trends, O’Malley defended her work and that of her colleagues during the election, saying the predicting should be left to the pollsters and the answers should be revealed by the ballot box.

“ It’s not my job to see waves coming, I’m not Nostradamus,” O’Malley argued. “It’s my job to report on what I see.”

She described voters as a ”giant mystery to everyone” which is what she thinks democracy is all about.

And while many observers had predicted this would be the Twitter election, where politicians would engage with voters using social media, panelist Paul Adams found that mainly 20 to 30 people including political operatives, bloggers, and journalists used Twitter as a new speedy way to talk to each other and enrich the conversation.  

Adams is a former CBC reporter and pollster, now teaching at Carleton University. He said most local politicians either described the perogies at a campaign stop, or repeated the official messages sent down by their party’s war room. But where it was effective, said Adams, was as a source of institutional memory.

“It was an unbelievable resource where something would be at a press conference and very quickly you’d have people providing background information on Twitter,” he said.

It helped with accountability and fact checking, and was able in some cases to provide historical references and that’s a good thing, said Elly Alboim, of Carleton University, also the director of strategic communications at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group. Newsrooms, he warned, have lost their valuable political expertise, and are often using inexperienced reporters to cover elections, instead of relying on veteran political journalists.

Which is why he faults the media for not predicting the Orange Crush and the Conservative majority in this recent election, until the very end. He said they weren’t looking in the right place.

According to Alboim, most Canadians say they get their politician information from election advertising, but reporters didn’t cover the parties’ ad buys, nationally or regionally.  

“It’s a failure of journalists, “ Alboim told the conference, saying they might have better understood the messages resonating among voters from the “He didn’t come back for you” attack ads against Ignatieff, to the more specific local issues broadcast in different parts of the country.

“The news agenda seemed to not affect the outcome,” he observed.

Alboim issued a challenge to political reporters now that the election is over, predicting that their editors will be “uninterested” in covering politics as a beat.

“A press gallery with no experience covering activist majority government” will have to work harder then ever to overcome the Conservatives’ successful strategy of “opaqueness” and a civil service no longer having any reason to risk their careers in order to act as whistleblowers or leak information to journalists.

The most important story to be covered now?

Vote suppression, in which some voters received telephone calls telling them to go to non- existent polling stations.

“I call on Team Journalism Canada to go cover this,” Alboim said.

Here’s a video of the discussion:

Ellin Bessner has been teaching journalism in the Toronto area since 1999, at Ryerson University, Seneca College and now, on the faculty of  Centennial College. A former foreign correspondent in Europe, and business anchor at CTV Newsnet, she still works occasionally as a reporter for CBC Radio in Toronto and as back up news anchor at Jazz FM 91.1, as well as writing blogs, and articles for local newspapers in the Toronto area.