How’d we do last time around?

Regan Ray

Polls were the “ugliest habit” of the election. Newspapers weren’t so biased after all. The foreign media didn’t really care too much at all. And CTV put an 8-year old on the bus. These are just a few of journalists’ published conclusions about their collective performance  in the 2006 federal election campaign.

Will we do better – or  worse –  this time? You be the judge.

Tony Burman, then editor-in-chief of CBC News, questioned in a post-election column whether the media are “a part of the problem or the solution” in this “new era” of Canadian politics.  He pointed to the example of Britain, where the media were often blamed for shrinking voter turnout and the “degrading” of politics.  In 2006, the CBC had been working  launched a major news study, which, in part, ooked at how people were responding to CBC coverage. Burman wrote:

That survey confirmed what most of us suspected: Canadians understand the place of politics in their lives but are bored with the media’s preoccupation with “political process.” They want to know the connection between politics and policy, and the impact on their lives. Many Canadians feel that all media — not just the CBC — cover politics without connecting it to the human dimension, and “human stories” without connecting them to genuine policy debates. The media should be the bridge over this chasm, but we are rarely that.

The Toronto Star’s Antonia Zerbisias gave out her own honours for the best and worst election coverage, titled “A.K.A. the Thank God it’s Over Awards.” Awards included “Best Impersonation of a Scalopus Aquaticus,” which went to the Canadian Press, which Zerbisias describes as “the unsung heroes of the media coverage during the campaign” whose reporters were getting so many leaks that other media organizations were starting to believe there was a mole in the Liberal war room.”  Her “Best Rescue of Journalistic Integrity” award went to CTV Newsnet’s Mike Duffy for his insisting on discussing an anti-military attack ad with Liberal strategist John Duffy, who did not want to talk about it.  And Zerbisias concluded that polls (“Headlines based on polls. Stories based on polls. Pollsters as pundits. Pollsters in the news. Polls as news.”) were hands down the “ugliest habit” of the 2006 election.

Polls may be an ugly habit, but media bias is an ugly perception among news readers and critics alike. For the 2006 federal election, the Observatory on Media and Public Policy at McGill University (in partnership with Maclean’s magazine) studied media bias in deeper and more qualitative way.

The Observatory examined 5 major dailies across Canada (the Vancouver Sun, the Calgary Herald, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and the National Post) and created a database of all election-related opinion/analysis columns and another of election-related news stories. The researchers calculated the “percentage of positive mentions of a party minus the percentage of negative mentions of that party, and so capture the gap between positive and negative coverage.” Results were separated for news items and editorial and opinion pieces.
The results? Opinion columns were opinionated and therefore reflected a bias, but the news coverage was pretty much neutral across the board. The researchers wrote in a post-election Toronto Star column:

“…results for editorial and opinion pieces confirmed relatively clearly the widely expected differences across newspapers. The Herald and Post were pro-Conservative, the Toronto Star was pro-Liberal, the Globe a little less so. It is interesting that in spite of the Globe’s final Conservative endorsement, its columnists were overall relatively pro-Liberal. Content in the Vancouver Sun reflected the nature of the campaign in that province. The Sun included columns supporting both the Liberals and the Conservatives, the former perhaps a little more.”

But was this bias reflected in news content? The researchers answer was: “For the most part, no.”

A Maclean’s editorial on the study noted that the Calgary Herald was the only real exception to this rule. “There, it seems reporters and editors could barely contain their glee at the prospect of calling hometown boy Stephen Harper prime minister, and the pro-Harper message filtered into news coverage more than anywhere else,” read the editorial.

However, Maclean’s editors added:

“The real measure of media effectiveness, however, is not in the parties they favour but the ideas they illuminate, and this was perhaps the study’s most encouraging finding. In this campaign, far more articles have focused on issues than on the so-called horse race among the parties. In the 2004 election, roughly 60 per cent of stories revolved on who was winning rather than what the leaders were saying. The lesson, Soroka [study author] says, is simple: if the parties give the media serious issues, they’ll report on them seriously. Give them froth and coverage will focus on predictions and polls.”

The Observatory analysis of coverage is being continued into this 2008 election.

Sure, there was a lot of back-slapping, hand-wringing, analysis and sarcasm about the coverage, but south of the border the national election barely registered a blip on most news radar screens. The Toronto Star‘s Andrew Chung reported on election day in 2006 that “the election is hardly registering” in many parts of the world.

The quirky always attracts though, and when CTV put an 8-year old kid on the campaign bus, the New York Times picked up on the stunt. The Times reporter wrote that CTV division president Robert Hurst “said the child reporter concept was criticized by some journalists as a gimmick, ‘but we decided to forge ahead with the beautiful idea of a fresh perspective.'”

Another U.S. outlet commented on the power of blogging during the last election campaign. A blogger at the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News, a asked “Did blogosphere influence vote?” The reporter explained how a blog published reports on the Gomery affair while traditional media obeyed publication bans and concluded:

“It would have been possible for an American newspaper Web site to have given Canadian readers the same information that Captain’s Quarters [blog] did. When the newspapers failed to act, Captain’s Quarters showed that bloggers can do more than just critique; they can report suppressed news and change the course of history.”

There is no doubt that bloggers have taken on a much larger role in the realm of political news reporting, both in Canada and in the U.S.

As this election shifts into high gear, it will be interesting to watch how this role develops as well as how journalists learned and changed since the last national vote.

The National Post‘s Robert Fulford wrote that this year’s election “may well be among the least significant events in living memory.” Politically, that may or may not be true, but for journalism, it’s certainly one to watch.

As Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon wrote at the start of the campaign: “Welcome to Election 2.0”

Regan Ray is J-Source’s Associate Editor