Politicians setting news agenda, not journalists

Sue Ferguson

Thank goodness somebody finally started talking about it. Childcare, that is. For the first two weeks of campaigning, barely a whisper could be heard. And then Family Day on the campaign trail helped nudge news gatherers out of their obsessive horse-race tracking, and into a discussion of the issues. It’s as if the media needed reminding that elections are not simply a popularity contest, but actually a moment to engage a country in debate and discussion about things that matter.

Of course, as far as issues go in this election, childcare is taking a back-of-the-bus seat to crime, the environment, and the perennial front-rider, the economy. Why? Because the news media are, for the most part, content to let politicians set the agenda. In this, reporters really are news gatherers, filling their baskets with whatever apples the leaders pick from their campaign tree for the day. They are also largely content to let the leaders determine how issues are covered. But I’ll get back to that.

Remember 2006? Ken Dryden? The national childcare system Paul Martin’s government began to hammer out with the provinces?  Remember the cause célebre of the Liberal campaign pitted against Harper’s $100-a-month so-called universal childcare benefit? When the writ dropped, I was sure some enterprising reporter would press Stéphane Dion for his party’s plans this time around. But searching the news in vain in early September, I realized that that was so clearly then, and this is now. Except for one confounding report about Dion doubling those monthly payments – a report that turned out to be wrong (although I’m not aware of anybody clarifying that mistake) – childcare was a non-issue. I despaired.

But alas, Family Day came and went, and now, because Dion and Layton have given it the nod, the reports are trickling in. “Trickling,” that is, because to say “flowing” would be too grandiose. (In the first 20 days of the 2006 election, childcare was a headliner in 39 stories in the Canadian Newsstand database; over the same period in this election, it’s made it into 17 stories.) As Ryerson Journalism professor Ann Rauhala, who specializes in childcare and the media, says, “How nice of them to finally notice.”  

Few have done much more than “notice.” Most of the coverage to date is as scripted as politicians’ speeches. In this respect, it is déjà vu all over again. As in the 2006 election, coverage of childcare sticks closely to what the parties announce, and the competing plans are framed (as the parties frame them) in terms of “spaces” (Dion/Layton) versus “choice” (Harper).

How else might the issue be framed? Well, to begin with, as Childcare Research and Resource Unit (CRRU) coordinator Martha Friendly insists, Harper’s plan “is not childcare.” Rather, it is a small income supplement which, according to the “success stories” listed on the Conservative’s own website, is used for anything from babysitting to museum memberships to paying the hydro bill. Although the $2.4 billion they’re spending on these monthly allowances surpasses any previous childcare spending, says Friendly, “no one has the faintest idea of where that money is going.” That’s a great angle for a news feature. Too bad nobody’s chasing it.

Then there’s the question of what sort of childcare system the opposition parties propose. What stands out here is Liberal backtracking. Not only are the Liberals promising substantially less money than before (they say they’ll spend $1.25 billion by the fourth year of the plan, whereas in 2006 they promised $5 billion over five years), they have nothing to say about what the 165,000 spaces they’re promising will look like. Are they talking about non-profit, community-based childcare, with a substantial investment in early childhood education – the sort of childcare they trumpeted last time? Or not? Meanwhile, nobody is challenging Dion about these issues. Or Harper, or Layton, or May. It should be a no-brainer.

To the extent that Liberal backtracking is covered, reports dutifully mention the funding retreat. These stories occasionally include an analyst – an economic analyst, not a childcare analyst – explaining that the current fiscal climate makes the 2006 promises unworkable.

Funny. That’s what Dion says.

If journalists chose to pursue the issue seriously, they might ask the same question of a childcare expert, who almost certainly would point out that Canada comes last in OECD funding for early childhood education, and that for every dollar spent today on quality childcare, many more are saved in future social service spending on education, healthcare and prisons. Now that’s a frame that moves well beyond the leaders’ speechifying, connects with real concerns of the electorate and educates readers.

For the exception that proves the rule, an Oct. 5 Toronto Star article shows a commitment to getting behind the party line and refers to the OECD report and research done by the CRRU.

It’s odd that more journalists are not doggedly pursuing an election issue that a) was a central policy plank of the Liberals in the last, not-so-long-ago election; b) potentially affects a huge swath of the newspaper (middle class) readership; c) the scientific and medical community has overwhelmingly endorsed as beneficial to children and families. Rauhala has some ideas about why. She refers to the “huge disconnect” between newsrooms and women’s issues generally (despite the beefing up of Life and Family sections). But equally significant, she suggests, is the fact that reporters end up thinking like the Liberals: childcare didn’t win the Liberals the election in 2006, and it isn’t “sexy to explain,” so it’s “easier to just forget about it.”  

And forgetting, it seems, is precisely what most politicians hope we will do – a wish the news media are too often determined to grant.

Sue Ferguson teaches journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University – Brantford Campus. Her research focuses on both the news media and children, and children’s media and culture. Prior to joining WLU-Brantford, she worked as an editor and writer at Maclean’s magazine.

(Photo by pfly. Published under Creative Commons license.)