At the end of an election campaign, there are always questions about media coverage. Did the news favour certain candidates or parties at the expense of others? Was there too much focus on public gaffes and poll results, and not enough on issues and the election as democratic process? Finally, could there have been less stories on the leaders and more on local candidates?
Many of the above questions imply a critique of the high-speed, high-stress, spin-doctored daily grind of journalists following leaders on the campaign trail. These journalists work for the major media – in Quebec, we call them les médias nationaux. But campaign coverage is not the exclusive domain of political reporters on the leaders’ buses. Columnists, local media, and journalists assigned to issue-related beats – such as health or education – also have an important role to play.Nowadays, traditional media also have to face the growing competition of bloggers and other “citizen journalists”, although the impact of the online public sphere in Quebec is still far from that seen in the United States and France.
With dwindling resources in newsrooms, and all the independent and reliable information sources on the Web, is it acceptable for mainstream media to forsake in-depth reporting to focus on the horserace? After all, serious coverage doesn’t sell, and really motivated voters will troll websites and blogs, attend local debates and consult specialized media. The occasional “reality check” will be brandished by some as proof that newsrooms are doing an honest job. But let’s face it, it’s hard to focus on these more substantial stories when the circus is in town.
The lines between journalism, partisan communication, and entertainment, already somewhat blurred, seem to have completely disappeared in this campaign. The Parti Québécois had its own “video journalist” on the campaign trail, while a bus named Espace Jean Lapierre — with a large photograph of the former federal minister on the side — toured the province, reporting for the Quebecor media.
Not to mention two Radio-Canada journalists shedding their cloak of objectivity to stand as candidates for opposing parties. On the Gesca chain’s website, voters were invited to submit photos of candidates’ celebrity lookalikes, mocking the classic tabloid title: “Separated at birth?”. Leaders dutifully showed up for the obligatory interview at the popular talk-show Tout le monde en parle. Humourous websites, such as tetesaclaques.tv, posted election jokes and sketches, while amateur videos poking fun at the leaders poured into YouTube.
On the plus side, there were some solid reality-check stories on campaign promises and interesting experiments in citizen-based reporting. This campaign was probably the most interactive so far, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it reasoned debate. Journalists seem to have been equally critical of the three major parties and their leaders – although it’s debatable whether slips of the tongue and choices of attire really help to make an enlightened choice at the ballot box.
Hopefully, after the dust settles on this election, journalists and managers will take some time to reflect on what could have been done differently and plan the next campaign accordingly. Some interesting options, inspired from the public journalism model that don’t involve additional costs, include citizen panels, features on issues not on the party agenda, voters’ toolkits and Q&A sessions with local candidates.
Election post-mortems are usually a hurried and superficial affair – there is always another story to cover and everyone is suffering from election fatigue. But perhaps journalists should take them more seriously. The success of alternative news sources is, among other things, a symptom of growing frustration with mainstream media covering elections like a hockey game or a reality show. Yes, there are many creative, entertaining, opinionated sources of election information available. But for the most part, it’s hard to tell whether these sources are reliable, independent, and rigorous.
So, have the rules of election coverage changed? Absolutely. We need substantial and engaging journalism, during and between elections, more than ever.
COLETTE BRIN, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor at the Département d’information et de communication, Université Laval. Her research areas include media policy, credibility, journalism history, and public journalism experiments in Canadian newsrooms.