Distorted and disconnected: how election coverage “often missed the mark”

Two weeks after the federal election, there’s still lots to be said about how journalists covered the election. Elly Alboim offers a stinging reproach: that journalists missed crucial events and trends and didn’t connect with what voters were thinking, and ultimately, how they voted. While some of the blame lies with wildly contradictory polls, Alboim faults journalism’s imperative for dramatic narratives and the news organizations who don’t invest enough in political reporting. Alboim delivered his searing post-mortem at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Ottawa; this article has been adapted from those remarks.    

By Elly Alboim

The 2011 election campaign, as so many before it, revealed some basic fault lines in political reporting and the way it approaches the coverage of elections in Canada. The problems are systemic and hard to resolve.  They tend to impact more on the daily coverage of the campaign than on the writings of opinion columnists.  Although there are examples of continuing excellence in both areas, there are also general difficulties that pertain to both.  

Journalists, political parties and voters

It seems clear that journalists, political parties and voters approach the information of an election campaign in very different ways because of differing requirements and objectives.

For the political apparatus, a campaign is an ongoing iterative “educational” process that proceeds repetitively and somewhat incrementally in order to bolster its core vote and attract new voters. For voters (at least for those who finally vote), it is even less dynamic — a five week period that either confirms a pre-existing preference or, in the case of ambivalence, ends with a decision. Voters seek information to help them come to that decision. For journalists, it is an ongoing and developing news story marked by a series of events that lead to vote day — the largest news event of the process. Covering the news generally requires an event or locus on which to report. It leads most to coverage of the leaders’ tours, the polls, the debates and the “incidents.”

There is an obvious clash between the approaches and requirements of politicians and journalists. Journalists are looking to find news as they traditionally define it. Politicians are, in the main, looking to avoid making news because it tends to focus on the negative and controversial. They try to control the news frame as best they can. Many journalists don’t know how to, or don’t want to report on incrementalism and repetition — the stuff of manufactured news. It’s like reporting on paint drying and doesn’t fit within traditional definitions of news. Of course, there is a wealth of explanatory and feature material produced during the course of a campaign but it does not make the front page or the top of newscasts where the general “shaping” of the information about the campaign is carried out.

Journalists approach their world in a consistent way 365 days a year. To ask them to suspend their normal news criteria for 35 days every few years and act largely as a conduit for political messaging or to disregard momentary (and normally “newsworthy”) gaffes, embarrassments or incidents is virtually impossible.  

The disconnect: news coverage often missed the mark

In general, this news focus creates a disconnection between audience demand and journalistic supply because of the two vastly differing lenses through which voters and journalists view the campaign.  

This phenomenon is most obvious in coverage of the debates. Research has shown that most undecided or ambivalent voters look to the debates to provide substantive information to help inform their decision. They are impatient with the adversarial pugilistic elements that are so symbolic to them of what they dislike about the political process. Journalists, on the other hand, approach debates as a sports event that ends up with winners and losers. Their criteria for judging winners and losers have much more to do with sports performance than substance mastery.  Journalists are often surprised, as they were this time, by the delayed real time outcome of debates, largely because voters use different criteria to judge outcome.

But there is much additional evidence that shows that news coverage often missed the mark in understanding the only real issue at play — the impending vote decision.

There were numerous occasions when journalists wondered aloud in frustration why their coverage of gaffes, embarrassments, control issues and third party interventions did not seem to have any impact, why their stories “had no legs.”  Anecdotal assessments of leader performance and the tone and competence of the tours — normal surrogates for the way the campaign is going — did not seem to be in synch with the polling. The tour competence metaphor (if you can’t run a tour, how can you run a country?) that has been so prevalent since the 1979 Joe Clark world tour failed spectacularly. Media also overemphasized the cyber and youth campaigns.

Largely this is because the news paradigm rewards dramatic narrative as an organizing construct. Reporters search for common threads to build their narrative from a welter of facts, some of them contradictory. The narrative arcs created through this campaign were often distorted and unrelated to what voters were looking for on the substantive side but nevertheless were used to frame the sense and direction of momentum.

Covering the elusive: wildly contradictory polls, missing the importance of last-day commercials

Aside from the systemic distortions caused by the news paradigm, there are the real-world problems caused by the best impulses of journalists — the need for an evidentiary base to what they choose to report.   Often, there is an understandable lag between the beginning of movement and decision and evidence for it. The normal evidentiary tools provided by election technology failed this campaign. The polling was often wildly contradictory. Seat projections, which are only as good as the polling data that goes into them, created significant cacophony.  Over time, reporters have learned to trust their instincts and the anecdotal evidence they accumulate and fall back on them in periods of uncertain evidence. In election campaigns spread over 3000 miles with differing regional campaigns and players, that is, at best, an uncertain practice. And it occasionally creates a resistance to accepting unconventional wisdom. Seasoned Quebec reporters refused to concede to the very last day of the campaign that the BQ would lose more than a handful of seats. Many continued to believe that important party “stars” could ride out any wave or vote split in Quebec and elsewhere. Many missed the impact of a coalescing anti-Harper protest vote, assuming the NDP had a glass ceiling it could not breach.

Further, it is hard to cover that which you cannot see or do not have the resources to find.

For the third time in four elections, journalists missed the fact and impact of the last 72 hour ad blitz. The conventional wisdom that the final weekend yields little news once again led to most missing significant voter movement, particularly in Ontario. No one systematically monitored the “buy” or its targeting during the campaign and its final weekend. In a country where most voters say they get much of their information during a campaign from political advertising, that is a significant coverage gap.  

There was sporadic reporting of vote suppression efforts in the campaign and on election day itself, but no systematic investigation of them. The anecdotal evidence would suggest there may have been significant effort and resources going into vote suppression.

In many ways, these are failures of media organizations to invest in political reporting capacity and in maintaining institutional expertise and memory. Few national organizations do much more these days than maintain trimmed down parliamentary bureaus because they do not particularly prize political reporting.  

Now that it is over, has anything changed?  

On the evidence so far, not very much.

The sports metaphors resurfaced immediately to frame the results. As always, the winners got the benefit of the doubt as the narrative settled in. The Prime Minister was portrayed as a colossus on the verge of creating a dynasty. Had two of a hundred voters turned elsewhere, he would have been portrayed as a loser unable to ever deliver a majority. Jack Layton’s gains were seen as the result of years of determined, strategic efforts that led to a mid campaign epiphany, when just four weeks ago journalists were questioning whether the NDP would be squeezed into oblivion.

The losers suffered similar narrative fates. Gilles Duceppe went from a probable next premier of Quebec to a tired out leader of a burned out party. Michael Ignatieff went from the emerging Cinderella of the campaign to someone who never had a chance and who foolishly precipitated a destructive campaign.

Within hours, journalists who missed the voter movement and did not foresee the outcome, had fully formed strong views about the long term future of each of the parties and the probable outcomes of the next election, now fully four years (less a day) away.

The news of the first week after the first majority government in seven years had been elected, centered, in part, on an NDP candidate who had been elected despite having no relationship with her riding. A curio perhaps but no different than other “placeholder candidates” whom sweep elections have brought to office.

The other story of the week involved the appointment and length of term of a potential interim leader of the third party with just 34 seats in the new House. The confusion surrounding that process — hardly mystifying in the circumstances — became the metaphor for the future prospects of the Liberal party.   

Looking forward

It has been seven years since the last majority government. Many in the current press gallery have never covered a majority government whose rhythm is so much different than that of a minority. The importance of committees diminishes substantially. Private members’ bills move forward largely at the pleasure of the government. There is virtually no electoral tension in the system. If the Harper government chooses to move forward with the kind of transformational change the Prime Minister has articulated in the past, it will be covered by media that has not seen an activist government since the years of Brian Mulroney. It has learned to cover transactions not systemic overhauls.

And it will likely face those challenges in an opaque environment. The government has learned there is little cost to conducting the public business the way it has — the contempt ruling in the previous House obviously did not frame the election campaign. The Supreme Court restricting access to Ministers’ papers will reinforce the government’s instincts. Much of the real debate about government legislation will move from public committees to the privacy of the Conservative caucus. The civil service, resigned to four more years at least, will see no percentage in leaking damaging material because of the political certainty that cannot be altered.

Overall, public interest will inevitably flag as the overheated rhetoric and coverage diminishes. And certainly, most news organizations will lose interest as well. There will be a rotation of reporters on the Hill as many move onto more interesting work.

And four years from now, there will be another election campaign and we will all go through this all over again.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief. He is also Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.