Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Emerging Narratives

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Day six of the campaign and media narratives, many of them predictable, are emerging.

Journalism loves narrative, especially at election time. One of the great classical story lines is “the surge of the underdog.” The other is the ”comeuppance of the prideful”. Both are equally attractive as dramatic narrative. For Michael Ignatieff at the start of the campaign either was possible as a framing narrative.

On another level, political journalists love a contest – it adds dramatic tension and makes you feel that getting up in the morning in yet another city is worth doing. Every election campaign begins with the journalistic hope for a meaningful contest.

There are signs that we are seeing both story lines emerging. Although it is all impressionistic – as these things are – there is a sense that coverage of Michael Ignatieff is clustering around the “underdog beginning to surprise” and in doing so, turning what seemed a probable rout into a possible contest. It is early days and there will need to be more evidence to sustain the story line over time if it is to be viable. But today’s poll showing for the first time that the Liberal number starts with a 3 will be seized upon. If there are others showing that, or a narrowing of the gap, the media dynamic will change substantially and accelerate.

The media frame that would follow as predictably as rain in April will be about rumblings and nervousness in the Conservative camp, inferences about the strategy behind the PM’s attacks on Mr. Ignatieff and continued pressure on the PM in daily scrums to probe his equanimity. The obverse side of the “surge of the underdog” is after all the incipient “humbling of the mighty.”

There’s another issue emerging in media coverage. Again this is impressionistic. There’s been lots of reporting and analysis over the years about the PM’s consistent use of offence as defence and the proclivity of the government to aggressively state and restate that white is black even when there is significant evidence to the contrary. Reporters have remarked on it in admiration (for its effectiveness as a tactic) and in frustration (that most people don’t seem to see through it.)

The PM continued his aggressive attacks against the “coalition” on day one of the campaign and has stuck to it (despite its indifferent relationship with history and current reality) for obvious strategic reasons. But it has led to media push back. An election campaign is a different time for political journalists. They do “reality checks” at the drop of a policy, leaflet or clip. They emphasize their accountability role to show their independence and toughness. And they work together as a pack much more than they do at normal times. The election campaign is now a venue to vent some of the frustration that’s been building with the PM, the PMO and the government and the way they consistently assert that white is black. As a result, the PM has been facing difficult media scrums day after day.

Does any of this signify anything meaningful? It’s still early days and it’s not clear the public
will have noticed any of it. If the numbers don’t change much over the next while, these story lines will change once again to the detriment of Mr. Ignatieff. And if there is some momentum for the Liberals, they can look forward to the next predictable turn in media focus – harsh, critical scrutiny of someone who suddenly has a more plausibly positive future.

Elly Alboim is an Associate Professor of Journalism and former CBC TV News parliamentary bureau chief

Reader's Comments

  1. Aaron Ralph |

    There is never an excuse for pack journalism and its excesses and narrowing of the narrative is well-documented in elemental U.S. books from the 1970s.

    Twitter may actually both help and hurt the infusion of the pack journalism Elly has alluded to and its impact will be interesting to analyze post-election. Twitter helps as the “pack” can see in real time what their peers (and alpha journos) are saying across the country and move their own narratives closer to the norm. (Iconoclasts will try to be different.) Twitter can hurt pack impact by broadening out the perspective in real time as journalists attend different events and talk to voters countrywide (if they’re not talking to voters they’re missing part of their job).

    For example, today Jack Layton said he’d invest money in future “green” projects while it became known that Stephen Harper would provide a federal loan guarantee for Lower Churchill Falls hydro project. On-the-ball reporters would have asked Jack Layton if Lower Churchill Falls qualified as “green” to him,too (some say hydro is green and some say it isn’t). Likewise Stephen Harper could be asked if he would provide similar loan guarantees for prospective projects in Ontario, Manitoba, B.C., etc. And if he worried about how “green” project was. These are all fair questions and raised by the two announcements. And twitter gave plenty of tweets from journalists on both. But nothing on the interrelated questions here.

    The issue of the narrative is where journalists try to hijack “stories”. Reporting should be foremost. Not just reporting what a politician says but reporting observations rather than opinions. What were the attendees saying? Were they smiling? Big crowd? Good or bad organization? These are all reportorial elements. The push for “opinion” from journalists in a bubble is mal-placed and counters efforts of political leaders to provide vision and leadership. Journalists always presume to know what’s going on but few citizens agree. A focus on reporting, while qualified analysts dish in panels, makes more sense for election coverage. No one should hold their breath. TV wants watchers, radio wants listeners, newspapers want buyers, all want conflict and a horse race narrative.