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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Memo to Media: Voters decide the end of the election story

As I write this, there’s about a week left in the federal election campaign and it looks like the biggest challenge facing news media outlets in the coming days will be remembering they can’t announce the winner until the evening of January 23.

As with so many previous elections in Canada and elsewhere, public opinion polling is driving a common media storyline that almost makes voting day seem irrelevant.

It’s ironic, but at a time when the reliability of public opinion polls is being questioned as never before, polls have dominated coverage of this campaign to an unprecedented extent. In particular, the “daily tracking poll” produced by The Strategic Counsel company for CTV and the Globe and Mail has provided reporters and editors from all media outlets with an irresistible touchstone around which to build their election narrative from day to day.

That’s particularly true now with election day so close and the polls seemingly showing the Conservatives building a lead that – should they be an accurate foreshadowing of election day – would give Stephen Harper and his party an opportunity to form a government. Of course, the same thing happened in 2004 and a lot of journalists looked silly when the Liberals emerged with a minority government. You’d think the media this time would avoid giving in to the temptation to proclaim a winner before election day, but apparently the lessons of history are not as compelling as today’s polling results. Political journalists are often accused of running in packs, with some justification, and pack journalism tends to be most obvious during election campaigns.

Even if there were no polls, journalists working together on election campaigns would likely share a consensus impression of what was happening. Polls, especially when a number of surveys produce comparable results, make that tendency virtually irresistible. After all, journalists are storytellers as well as reporters and they look for narrative structure. Most news reports are like short stories, with a storyline that begins and ends with that day’s report. But an election campaign is more like a novel. As a novel opens, anything is possible. But with every passing chapter, the story and its characters experience events and challenges that shape them and push them toward an inevitable fate.

In this campaign, the storyline as it now stands sees the Liberals paying the price for past mistakes and the Conservatives flowering into a governing party. (The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois are minor characters whose role in the main story is important only insofar as it impacts the star players.) Check out the tracking poll graphic being published every day in the front section of the Globe and Mail for a nice visual depiction of this storyline. Of course, there’s only one poll that counts and that’s the one that takes place when Canadians vote. We know voters don’t always act as polls predict.

Nevertheless, as we build to this story’s climax, most reporters and editors will be tempted – consciously or not – to make storytelling choices that reflect and reinforce this poll-driven narrative. The urge will be strong for reporters directly covering the campaign but could be even stronger for the head-office editors who make the critical decisions about assignments, visuals and story placement. When a storyline is already in play at the start of each day, content decisions come easily.

So far in this campaign, media coverage has had its ups and downs. To their credit, most media outlets recognized election coverage must go beyond the leaders’ campaigns. They’ve published independent examinations into issues and spent some time and money examining the thoughts and concerns of ordinary voters – though after several weeks of “Reality Checks,” earnest interviews with undecided and sometimes uninformed voters, and segments with actors portraying anonymous “campaign insiders” (CBC News, you’ve got some explaining to do), a cynic might dismiss much of this effort as gimmickry rather than sound journalism.

Still, from the beginning of the election to the first week of January, the dominant shared storyline permitted some variation in the storytelling because the polling companies had the two main parties running neck-and-neck or, in poll-speak, within the margin of statistical error. Now the polls show some clear separation, so there’s a much more exciting story to tell, a real race with leaders and losers. Until the final week of the campaign, the story was like a mystery novel that goes on for too many pages before the first murder is committed. At last, political blood is spilled and the real action begins.

I’m not suggesting public opinion surveys should be ignored in the waning days of the election. I’m not advocating banning election polls. Personally, I find polls that claim to show what’s going on in people’s minds to be quite fascinating. But I would urge news decision-makers, especially in the final days of the campaign, to consciously resist the urge to over-hype their poll results.

Here’s why. We know most people interact with news media intermittently and for short periods of time. They scan a front page now and then and catch a bit of a newscast whenever they can. Their knowledge of the campaign so far is likely forged by a haphazard series of impressions from front-page headlines and photographs, radio and TV news clips, and the opinions of friends and family.

However, many people who intend to vote will devote more time and pay more systematic attention to the news media as election day draws closer. The news media needs to serve the interests of this important new audience. That’s why (other than risking egg on its face) the news media has a special responsibility during the last days of the campaign to avoid letting a dominant storyline determine the tenor of its election coverage.

A few suggestions:

In covering the leaders’ campaigns, editors must fight the inclination to select only photographs in which Stephen Harper looks prime ministerial and Paul Martin looks frazzled and defeated. They must strive to ensure that every campaign story isn’t built on a plot foundation of Liberal desperation or Tory glee.

In fact, in the final days of the campaign, I’d like to see the news media consciously take a step back from emphasizing the day-after-day staging of the leaders’ tours on their front pages and put more emphasis on providing content and perspective specifically designed to help inform voters who have not been following the campaign every day.

How to do that? Obviously, there should be summaries of important issues and party policies and an effort made to estimate the price of each party’s commitments. After being published in print, they should be posted to the web but pointers to those web pages should be printed every day.

Thoughtful reviews and perspectives on the campaigns and the important events that influenced them should also be published. It would also be useful to see some analysis of what Liberal and Conservative governments would look like – who would be contenders for cabinet positions and what interest groups could be expected to have influence over the government and its backbenchers?

Let’s also see some analysis into the options facing each party should it form a minority government. How would a Liberal or Conservative minority achieve stability? (This is where the NDP and Bloc come back into the dominant narrative.) What would the price of stability be? We already have some sense of how the Liberals would act in a minority situation but the Conservatives should not get a free pass on this issue. In particular, the potential impact of a Conservative minority government that depends on Bloc Quebecois support should be explored.

Not all of this should be written by journalists. Let’s find out what other community leaders – partisan and non-partisan – have to say about the potential consequences of the choices facing Canadians on election day.

News outlets should also review their coverage to date and work to clarify issues or events that may not have been explained as thoroughly or fairly as possible.

A good example would be the RCMP’s mid-campaign announcement it was investigating allegations that someone in the finance ministry may have leaked information about an investment tax policy change to some investors.

If Harper does win the election, this will likely be seen as a turning point in the campaign. In many people’s minds, the dramatic news of this investigation confirmed opposition party accusations that the Martin government was just as corrupt as Chretien’s. It certainly cut Martin off at the knees.

Yet one of the first things cub reporters learn is that police investigations in themselves mean nothing. Investigators first have to determine if a crime has actually been committed and then they work to identify the innocent as well as the guilty.

I’m not convinced the reporting of this particular investigation has made that point clear enough to be fair to the Liberals.

Last, but not least, all news outlets should be sure to provide lots of information about the local candidates whose names will actually appear on their readers’ or viewers’ ballots.

And wouldn’t it be nice to see broadcast outlets acknowledge their news formats simply can’t match newspapers for depth and breadth of coverage and urge voters to spend a few days before the election reading newspapers and web sites? This even gives CTV and Global a legitimate reason to promote their print partners.

Let’s hope, in these final days of the campaign, that Canadian journalists make a real effort to give Josephine Q. Citizen the information and insight she needs so that as she marks her ballot she feels confident the immediate future of the country is truly in her hands and not already pre-determined by polls and media storylines.

ALAN BASS is Chair of Journalism at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

His professional experience includes covering national political, economic and social issues as a reporter in Ottawa for the United Press and Canadian Press news agencies; working as a reporter and editor at the London Free Press; and editing a magazine and doing corporate communications work at the University of Western Ontario.

Interests include the impact of the Internet on journalism and communication, political journalism and professionalism in journalism.

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