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

SEP 2008

It’s all in how you ask the question

Posted by padams under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy, Election 2008 Media commentary

Paul Adams

People often ask why polls released on the same day produce somewhat different results. Of course, some of this may just be the result of statistical error. That is, the differences between two polls may be within the margins of error of the polls. On other occasions, if you look closely, you can see that one poll was actually conducted on different dates, or over a different period than another, even if they are released the same day. This has been true, for example of the EKOS (conflict alert), Nanos and Harris-Decima daily tracking polls.

At EKOS, we think we have been a little ahead of other pollsters because the large sample sizes we get using a new methodology called interactive voice recognition (IVR) — a kind of robotic pollster. Of course, don’t expect other pollsters to agree with this, and quite rightly some people are asking how much we should trust this new technology. But that’s another story.

Sometimes, though, the effect of methodological differences in gathering poll data are perfectly clear. This has showed up in Nik Nanos’ daily tracking polls, which have consistently shown the Liberals running more strongly than other polls have, and have tracked the Green Party at significantly lower levels. 

This is important, of course. If Nanos is right, the Liberals are much more in contention in this election than the media and punditariat have given them credit for. And the attention to the Greens is disproportionate to their actual strength. Clearly, the media have taken their cue in framing this election from the consensus in the other polls that the Liberals are well behind the Conservatives, and dismissed the Nanos polls, in this respect, as an anomaly.

These media orientations may be crucial to the prospects of the parties, so it is important to understand why Nanos is so different. After all if he is right, and the rest of us pollsters are wrong, the media are missing the story.  

The difference in the Nanos numbers and those of other polling companies was explained quite well yesterday in an article by Glen McGregor appearing here in Ottawa in the Ottawa Citizen.

Unlike most other pollsters, Nanos is using an “open” question when asking respondents about their voting intention. What that means is that his phone operators ask people how they plan to vote, but don’t present them with a list of the parties from which to choose.

“If they don’t get the list, you get the cleanest read because they have to articulate their support,” Nanos told MacGregor.

This is an old debate in polling circles, and has merit on both sides.

I first encountered it in the early 1990s when I was working with Elly Alboim and Christopher Waddell among others on what was then the CBC-Globe and Mail poll. (I mention them because we are now all on staff at the Carleton J-School).

We published a national poll the same day as La Presse published one of their own focusing on Quebec. The La Presse poll showed the relatively newly-formed Bloc Quebecois running much more strongly than ours did, which led to accusations that the CBC, as a federal institution, was trying to deprecate the separatist BQ.

Of course, there was nothing to that accusation. We wondered however, whether the difference between our poll and La Presse’s could be explained by the fact that at the time we were using an open-ended question, without prompting respondents about the names of the parties. Perhaps without a menu to choose from people were “forgetting” that the BQ was an option; and the same might hold for the newish Reform Party in English Canada.

So in the next poll we did, we split the sample — asking half the respondents an open question, and half a closed question. Bingo! The closed question, in which all the parties were named, registered much higher support for both the BQ and Reform than the open question. Since these parties were going to be on the ballot, we decided to go with the closed question in future.

Similarly, at EKOS a few years ago, we decided to replace our old open question with a closed question — this time because of the emergence of the Greens. Sure enough, Green support popped up when we did that. And our results using the closed question actually tracked quite well to the final result.

Of course, none of this is to deny that there is an argument on the other side. After all, if you can’t even remember that a party is in the race without an operator reading its name out to you, how deep can your support for it be? 

What may be happening in this election is that many faint-hearted Liberals tell Nanos they are voting that way, but when presented with the Green option in other polls, they flip the other way. On election day, of course, they need to make a decision. And it may also be that as election day approaches, and people’s decisions become more firmly grounded, the difference in the methodology will start to wash out.

So what to make of all this, journalistically? I think it is wrong to reject the polls as meaningless, as some claim they do. I don’t think they actually do anyway. The polls agree on the ordering of the parties, at least at the top of the race: Tories first, Liberals second, NDP third. Moreover, all of them suggest that the Conservatives are in sight of a majority, but don’t have it in the bag.

Those are important issues for the media, and for voters who may choose to vote tactically.

But what journalists should do is look carefully at the differences among polls and why they exist, and not rely heavily on any single one. A couple of weekends ago, the Globe put great weight on its front page on a poll showing the Tories had had a strong first week. By Monday, the same pollster was saying there had been a softening in Tory support.

Polls provide interesting information bound by statistical and methodological limits. We don’t know which one will be closest till after the election is held. A record of success (or of past failure) by a pollster is worth bearing in mind, but even past success doesn’t guarantee the best results next time. 

Paul Adams is a former political reporter with the CBC and the Globe and Mail, and is now a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty, and executive director of EKOS Research Associates.


Culture en péril? Gone viral

Posted by jsallot under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy, Election 2008 Media commentary


New media in the form of a hilarious YouTube video could make life difficult for Conservatives in Quebec.

The video, titled Culture en péril,  has gone viral with more than a half-million viewers in the last five days.

It depicts Quebec singer-songwriter Michel Rivard appealing before a board of clueless federal bureaucrats for a small cultural grant for a folk festival.

The board consists of a bunch of Anglophones who clearly do not understand what Rivard is talking about. They become alarmed when they think he’s using the old anglo-saxon F-word when in fact he is using the French word phoque. It gets even funnier after that.

The bureaucrats are seated in front of a Big Brotherish portrait of Stephen Harper. The back drop to the portrait is an American flag.

The message is clear. You can’t count on Tories to protect Quebec culture.

But I wonder if the fact that the French-language video has been viewed so often in such a short span might undercut the claim that Quebec culture is in peril?

SEP 2008

The debates and the Internet

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary


Christopher Waddell

While media organizations covering the campaign fall over themselves to hype the importance of the Internet in this campaign, there’s a reason why they are concentrating on the frequently inconsequential (what’s available on blogs and You Tube) and ignoring the web’s real potential. 

For instance treating 10,000 people watching a Stephane Dion clip on YouTube as being significant, misses the point by a mile. There are about 100,000 voters in every urban riding in Canada, there are about 20,000,000 people eligible to vote and the Globe and Mail, for instance, sells about 300,000 copies a day across the country. So how important are those 10,000 hits on a YouTube clip?

More important is the fact that the Internet creates the potential to tell stories in different ways, combining audio, video, still photographs and text. 

But if news organizations focused on highlighting examples of that, they would have to direct their readers, listeners and viewers to innovative work at competitors’ sites that would take those eyes away from their own newspapers, newscasts, programs and web sites. Imagine for instance CBC’s The National highlighting an interesting way to package information and tell a story that’s on the CTV News web site, or the Globe and Mail sending readers to the Toronto Star’s site. It’s not going to happen.

It’s easier to focus “Internet coverage” on blogs and YouTube – often reported with little context about who is producing it or sense of what impact they have on voters.

The Internet is MUCH more than that.

Here’s an example  from the New York Times of the potential for the Internet to change significantly how we see and absorb information. By the way you can watch all the major speeches – Republicans and Democrats – from the two U.S. conventions this way on the Times web site 

My bet is that the Times will do the same thing for the three Presidential debates – the first one is this Friday.

I hope a Canadian news organization will do the same for our leaders’ debates on Oct 1 and 2 – if one does, I’ll bet their competitors won’t mention it. 

Christopher Waddell is associate director of the school and a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and election night executive producer for CBC TV News.


Journalist hints at possibility politicians will be candid

Posted by jsallot under Election 2008, Election 2008 Faculty links, Election 2008 Media commentary

Jeff Sallot

The politics page at globeandmail.com is featuring a story today headlined: Layton hints at possible Liberal-NDP coalition 

The lead says: NDP Leader Jack Layton refused Monday to rule out the possibility of entering an alliance with the federal Liberals to prevent another Harper government.

How many weasel words and phrases can we find here?

Hints is popular when the people being written about don’t  actually say what the headline writer wishes they had said.

Possible is another qualifier word. What else did Jack Layton hint is possible? I suppose that until the polls close Oct. 14 he can say that the New Democrats could possibly form a majority government.

“Refused … to rule out”  is another weasely formation.

I’ve been tempted to use the same phrase myself when politicians have been performing the dance of the seven veils.  But I prefer to cast the hinted at possibility in a more positive frame.  How about this? Jack Layton left the door open to a possible coaltion with the Liberals. It works better as a lead.

Reporter and editors actually hate these kinds of stories. They don’t deserve the headline play the Layton story got at globeandmail.com today. Yet they can’t be ignored until we start hearing politicians speaking candidly.

Jeff Sallot teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is a former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery,  and has covered nine federal elections.

SEP 2008

Election techniques and the effects question

Posted by iwagman under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Ira Wagman

Although it takes place in public the act of voting remains a private matter.  Like other moments that occur behind drawn curtains, voting carries an air of mystery. We never really know how individuals voted, do we?  Someone can say that they voted for one party, but who knows if they really did?   What people tell a pollster what they were thinking when they voted, how do we know they are telling the truth? The fact that we don’t know what drives voting behaviour on decision day should give us pause to interrogate the various techniques we use during elections to predict or influence that mysterious moment when the “X” marks the spot.

Polling seems to attract the most attention, but there are also advertising campaigns, Facebook groups, blogging and microblogging activities, town hall meetings, and newspaper coverage.  Then there are those campaign strategies.  Last weekend, Michael Valpy’s article in The Globe and Mail outlined how the Conservatives maintain a database containing electoral data that is used to generate character types so that the party can craft its message.  The architect of this strategy is Patrick Muttart, the PM’s deputy chief of staff for strategic planning.  Muttart has drawn inspiration from tactics used in John Howard’s political campaign in Australia by developing a roster of character types to help the party focus its message.  Who are these character types?  First, there’s “Zoe”, an urbanite who eats organic food.  She is not on the Conservative Party’s radar. Also unreachable for the Tories: “Marcus and Fiona”, a couple of double-income, no kids professionals who likely live in urban areas.  With Zoe, Marcus, and Fiona out now of the picture, who should the Conservatives talk to?   Enter  “Dougie”, the tradesman in his 20s who and is more interested in hunting and fishing than crime or welfare abuse; “Eunice”, a 70-year old widower on a fixed income; “Steve”, a small business owner, and “Heather”, a women in her 40s with three children (For more on this approach, see this article from The Hill Times, which is available from the website of a polling firm. The file is in PDF form).

While it is easy to be impressed by the diverse communicative weaponry and creative energy of Canadian political parties, taking a measure of the overall effects of these strategies on the end result is hard to determine.  Do they attract attention?  Yes.  Is it part of the internal cultures of political campaigns?  Sure.  Does it help the parties craft their messages?  Probably.  Do the controversies that take place in the blogosphere detract from serious issues?  It’s not clear, since the parties seem fairly successful at releasing policy statements on a daily basis.  If the media chooses not to interrogate them, whose fault is that?   But these effects are reasonably obvious, aren’t they?   However, when it comes to the big question – whether a pooping puffin, a message crafted to Dougie, an uptick in the Green Party’s national numbers. or a paean to Stephen Harper on YouTube actually impacts upon the final decision, your guess is as good as mine.

What, then, can we make of these techniques of electioneering?  For starters, it helps to keep in mind that such measures are self-promotional in nature.  Polling firms use election work to attract corporate clients; advertising firms work with political parties to get more business; and the world of political strategists no doubt has its own celebrity cultures grounded in aspirations for consulting work for various powerful interests.  During the quiet time after elections, most of the people involved in the process would probably agree  — of the record, of course – that their work is more of an art than a science.  And it would be wise for us to see it this way.

However, imprecise the methods may be, there is the still the inherent belief that some, if not all of these techniques, may have an effect on the final outcome.  Where does this come from?  Blind faith may be one place, but another is our continued fascination with the legend of the Pied Piper (image via).

We remain fascinated by the belief that some people have the power to redirect traffic. In the case of politics, the traffic is not made up of rats, like in the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but of voters. We are fascinated by the potential (or more precisely, the belief in the potential) to move people in a certain way through the mastery of some kind of instrument, be it a flute or a podcast.

Media organizations are seen by many to be the puppet masters of public opinion,  but so are public relations firms, polling operations, and anyone else who acts as a consultant to political parties.  The authority of these actors may derive from a hopeful place, that someone or something can help this or that party gain the edge needed to succeed by connecting in some way with a savvy or disenchanted electorate.   But from that place comes a stubborn and long-held belief, one that sees the use of this or that tool as having an “effect” on voter behaviour.  Such an argument may be persuasive enough to generate work for the service providers of the election industry but the question of whether these things actually work – and how — is conveniently left hanging in the air.  Perhaps this is because political cultures are a lot like our own environments, where we hire friends and people we like or trust to do things we can’t do or need done and endow them with capabilities that cannot be tested or proven.   If that is the case, we should see the various attempts at measuring or reaching out to us not as acts of manipulation but as symbols of desperation, and, furthermore, as a reflection of the rhetorical and audiovisual landscape that now forms part of our political culture.

In the end, this should provide us with some solace. This is because it is just as likely that the people who put a party into power may not be “Steve” or “Zoe”, but those real people who aren’t usually counted: the one who tells people she or he is voting for a party, but votes for a different one instead; the one who has a personal grudge against one of the candidates, and votes for a different party in an act of revenge; or the person who votes in a way consistent with those in his or her social world.  The fact that some of these character types — the venal, the conniving, and the lemming — slip past the keen eye of political observers may have to do with the fact that they bear such a striking resemblance to the people we have to vote for.  Such things are often hard to see from close range.

This should serve as a reminder that although we may often feel as though elections are pre-determined or “modeled”, what remains pristine is the mystery of what we really do in that moment, protected only by a cardboard box, where we mark the ballot, drop it in the box, and slip effortlessly back into the rhythms of regular life.

Ira Wagman is an Assistant Professor, Communication Studies, in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.

SEP 2008

Issues versus gaffes

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Christopher Waddell

Andrew Coyne has an interesting column in this week’s Maclean’s, quite critical of how the media is covering this campaign. His point is a good one – most voters want to know as he says about party leaders and candidates: “Who are these people, and what are they going to do to us?”

Yet, as Coyne argues, the media want to concentrate on gaffes, polls and strategy and that’s certainly what is happening two weeks into this campaign. The evidence seems to bear him out – newspaper coverage so far is much more like that in 2004 than in 2006 with a heavy focus on strategy and the horse race supplemented by daily poll coverage. Left on the sidelines are issues.

A review of  the election stories published since Sept. 7 in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and National Post suggests about one-third of the 420 stories in the three papers focus on campaign tactics and strategy strategy.  That comes from a newspaper-coverage database we are building again this campaign for the post-election book Carleton’s journalism school always prepares.

By comparison in the 2005-06 campaign, only about 20 per cent of the stories in the three papers dealt with strategy. With the Conservatives making a campaign promise a day, the media responded that time with a much stronger focus on the issues – analyzing what the Conservatives were proposing and how the other parties responded.

In 2004 more than one-third of the campaign stories in the three papers centred on strategy and tactics. As Coyne says after every election, news organization say they will do things differently next time. In 2006 they did but so far it’s back to old tricks this time around. 

So what are the issues no one’s covering? Here are just a few:

  • Defence spending – what’s real and what isn’t of what the Conservatives have announced over the past few years and what would the other parties do?
  • Canada’s relations with the U.S. – with a new U.S. adminstration on the horizon what do the parties think Canada’s stand should be on the possibility of reopening NAFTA? Should our economic and political relations with the U.S. change and what can be done about the growing problems at the border? How should Canada prepare for the economic problems that will face the new U.S. administration?
  • Climate change – there is a post-2012 climate change conference in Denmark next year. What do the parties think Canada’s position should be?
  • Party financing and the Internet – how are the parties in Canada using the web to raise money and how are the Liberals financing their campaign?
  • Cities – most Canadians live in urban centres yet urban issues – from transportation  to housing to homelessness get short shrift. Are there any innovative approaches out there to these problems?
  • Civil liberties versus the risk of terrorism – What do the parties think the proper balance should be and if it isn’t right now, what has to change?
  • Afghanistan – Canadians are fighting in their first war in more than half a century and it’s not an election issue?

There’s still half the campaign left. Lots of time to replace the search for “gaffes” with a grilling of the parties and the leaders about their positions on the issues facing the country, whether they want to talk about them or not. 

Christopher Waddell is associate director of the school and a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and election night executive producer for CBC TV News.

SEP 2008

Journalists and “off-colour” jokes

Posted by padams under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Paul Adams

Notice the journalists squirming just a little with the Gerry Ritz story? Death by a thousand cold-cuts etc…

On Mansbridge’s At-Issue panel last night, Andrew Coyne asked who can say honestly they haven’t made a tasteless joke themselves, and everyone sagely nodded agreement.

Newsrooms are the original home of the tasteless joke, of course. When I was little, my aunt Madeleine, who was one of the few women in the Winnipeg Free Press newsroom would regale us over Sunday dinner with a joke whose meaning had clearly passed her entirely by. My Dad would take her aside and give a brief explanation, which would bring an appalled look to her face and a vow never to repeat such a story again — until the next Sunday dinner.

In the years since, the influx of women, and people of colour into newsrooms has reduced the number of explicitly sexual and racist jokes — and even homophobic jokes are probably in decline as more and more reporters are “out”. But there are no dead people in newsrooms, and usually no grieving relatives, and I think it is somewhere in the media stylebook that dead people are pretty much fair game — so long as none of this gets into the newspaper or on air.

If you collected all the newsroom September 11 jokes and published them, the whole profession would probably have to resign in disgrace. There goes the entire MSM — whoosh. Bloggers, with your gentle sensibilities: fill the vacuum.

The fact is, not everyone does make a habit of joking about dead people. Maybe you can say journos do it as a psychological release because of the stress of their jobs — I’m sure medical residents do it too. Or maybe we’re just jerks.

But I know my mother never makes jokes like that. I know my aunt would never knowingly do so. Who knows? The world may be filled with these people. Journalists just don’t include any of them in their circle of close friends.

Maybe that’s why we’ve never had a journalist appointed as Minister of Agriculture. 

Paul Adams is a former political reporter with the CBC and the Globe and Mail, and is now a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty, and executive director of EKOS Research Associates.


Mike Miner writes:

I just had to check:

Joseph-Aldric Ouimet, Minister of Agriculture July 13, 1895 – December 20, 1895

“After being educated in a seminary, and a brief career as a journalist, Ouimet became a lawyer. He was first elected to the House of Commons at the age of 25.”

Carleton, BJ 2000


I note his short tenure — PA

SEP 2008

Corrections and carbon tax

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Christopher Waddell

There’s just something about carbon taxes that seems to attract corrections. Here’s today’s Toronto Star:

“The word “taxes” was omitted from a Sept. 13 article about the Green Party. The sentence should have read: She (Elizabeth May) spoke passionately about reducing greenhouse gases, described the challenge as a huge economic opportunity for alternative energy sources, and argued the party’s proposal for a “carbon tax” would be offset by cuts to income and payroll taxes.”

Christopher Waddell is associate director of the school and a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and election night executive producer for CBC TV News.


Weekend Assignment Desk

Posted by padams under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Paul Adams

Reporters: Ever have a weekend assignment editor who wanted you to abandon the news and do a story on some hobby-horse of his? Of course you have. But if not, I offer my services free of charge (and free of obligation).

Here’s the hook: Tzipi Livni was just elected head of Israel’s Kadima faction and will now try to negotiate a coalition to install her as the next prime minister.

Here’s the background: For the last decade, starting with Stockwell Day, followed by Paul Martin, and carrying through to Stephen Harper, Canadian political leaders have been falling over each other trying to prove they are not only supporters of Israel but more or less uncritical supporters of its government. Conservative ministers have even started saying we are Israel’s “allies”; not just friends or supporters, but allies — with its hint of military cooperation. Like maybe the Israelis can help patrol the arctic, and we can reciprocate if things get sticky with Iran.

Here’s your assignment editor’s hobby-horse: To the extent that most Canadians think of the Middle East there is a degree of consensus (not unanimity, for sure) on several things. Consensus that may or may not be founded in sound understanding, admittedly.

  • Israel has a right to exist as a predominantly Jewish state within peaceful, defensible borders
  • As a general rule, little Israeli and Palestinian children shouldn’t be blown to smithereens, no matter how important the point you are trying to make or the military objective you are trying to achieve
  • Strenuous, sincere efforts at negotiation should always take precedence over the use of force.
  • Canadians probably shouldn’t get too deeply involved in this sticky mess, on one side or the other.

Here’s the Big Question: Why does Canadian policy seem to coincide with public opinion only on the first point, and increasingly diverge on the others?  Maybe its all political puffin poop, but then that’s the story!

Assignment: Big thumbsucker for Sunday’s paper — unless there’s news.

Paul Adams is a former political reporter with the CBC and the Globe and Mail, and is now a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty, and executive director of EKOS Research Associates.


Ooops. Wrong number

Posted by jsallot under Election 2008, Election 2008 Faculty links, Election 2008 Media commentary


The Ottawa Sun’s Greg Weston reports Nanos Research poll numbers today suggesting Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are on track for a majority.

Reporting from the campaign trail in Quebec, Weston says Nanos found that even among Liberal voters 38 per cent indicate they “are OK with the prospect of Harper’s having a majority.”

Say what?

Read more…