Week three was supposed to be when things took off: media would know a whole lot more, and the election narrative would become clearer — and hopefully more dramatic. However, by week’s end not much had changed. Elly Alboim discusses the media’s search for good narrative when it comes to reporting Election 2011. Reprinted in full with permission from Carleton University’s Political Perspectives.
Among media, week three began with a sense of pregnant expectation. This was the week that the campaign would really begin, when things might start to shift and the campaign take off. By week’s end we would know a lot more and the narrative of the election would become clearer – and hopefully more dramatic.
Well, by week’s end, we did know a lot more. Things were pretty much where they’d been. The polls moved a bit but only within their margins of error. The Conservatives were still a bit shy of majority and there was no perceived Liberal momentum. News developments — the AG report, the misleading quote, the Afghan detainee file — had bubbled up and dissipated. You could almost hear the air come out of a number of narrative balloons.
The quest for compelling campaign narrative is a powerful media instinct – the search for the Holy Grail of politics. There are still two weeks left and few yet want to write the outcome most synchronous with current evidence — a virtual rerun of 2008 with minor seat swings. The more powerful story of a dogged prime minister finally winning his majority is not in the cards (at least not yet) under the current numbers. The fall from grace story line of an utter collapse (Circa 1984) of the Harvard dream isn’t either.
So by week’s end, the search for secondary story lines surfaced. Helen Guergis’ plight became a story line of callous power and an indifference towards women. An argument about early voting at the University of Guelph was evidence of vote suppression of the youth vote. That built on the base of stories chronicling youth vote mobs and clever anti-Harper social media efforts and wondering if the 55% of young people who sat out the last election might be becoming motivated to vote and exert the power of their numbers.
And minor NDP gains in the polls became the emerging undercard story of a squeeze on the Liberals in Quebec and perhaps elsewhere although it wasn’t altogether clear whether it was real or what its potential consequence might be. Potentially interesting at some level but far from realization and far removed from the probable main and relatively uninteresting story of a return to power of the Conservatives.
Some journalists wondered out loud why none of the incidents and events of the campaign seemed to have made a difference. They mused how stories they thought “had legs”, didn’t. There was an undertone of disquiet that a PM who so clearly showed disdain for them and for the central institutions of government could be so far ahead. For those who remember, there were similar feelings about Brian Mulroney’s win in 1988 after losing almost half his cabinet to problems of one sort or another.
So week four begins uncertainly as the boys and girls on the buses continue their quest for a captivating story line and compelling news. They are not yet ready to write this one off and of course, should not because there has been no vote and there are many days still ahead. But the track is getting shorter and the tell tale signs of stirring, let alone a break of any kind, are not evident.
Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief.
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