Staying a step ahead of campaign spin doctors

Question: What are the best tricks for sidestepping political spin and getting at the real stories during an election campaign?

Answer by Robert Benzie

The most effective way to innoculate yourself from political spin is to try to be at least as up to speed on the issues of the day as the person feeding you the party line.

That entails effort on the part of the reporter, but I’ve found that the best political journalists tend to be well-read and well-connected. If an operative from Party X is spinning you about a new scheme to attract widget manufacturers to Canada it helps if you actually have some understanding of the industry from reading newspapers, magazines, specialized publications, and websites. A cursory glance at Wikipedia or a quickie Google search is not adequate research and smart spin doctors—and many of them are very clever, though some are almost as dim as the reporters they outwit—prey on lazy journalists.

It’s also useful to have a rapport with said operative in Party X because someone you know is less likely to bullshit you. They know their credibility is also at stake so if they steer you wrong you won’t trust them in future.

Beyond that, having contacts in Party Y and Party Z as well as on university faculties can often glean further insights into, say, widget manufacturing.

If you only know people at Party X or Party Y or Party Z—or rely upon party-affiliated bloggers to inform you—it’s likely you are being spun.

Not that there’s anything wrong with party hacks or even bloggers (though most Canadian political bloggers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to actually do any newsgathering so they tend to be onanistic cheerleaders for a given party.) These folks have a job to do and I respect them—I just don’t have to buy what they’re saying without checking it out first.

The real stories, whatever that means, will come because a well-rounded political reporter is as bias-free as humanly possible and can therefore view issues with great clarity. He or she should be able to cut through the BS of press releases and “reality checks” and perhaps uncover the stories that political parties don’t want to see published. Stories of public interest that voters deserve to see.

It’s not especially sexy or complicated, but all of this does involve some effort on the part of a reporter.

One final bit of advice—and not all of my colleagues agree with me on this and I appreciate their dissenting opinion—is that I never vote for anyone in an election I am covering. That agnosticism allows me to say I genuinely don’t have a horse in this race.

And that’s not spin.

Robert Benzie, the Queen’s Park bureau chief for The Toronto Star, has covered federal, provincial, and municipal politics since the mid 1990s.