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

The three-pillar approach

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Kate Scroggins

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion gave supporters a glimpse of his party’s platform at his campaign launch in Ottawa yesterday, saying he wants to make Canada “richer, fairer and greener.”

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SEP 2008

Fear, greed and other economic fundamentals

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy

Karim H. Karim

“The market is never wrong,” a student insisted in one of my classes several years ago. His statement came to mind frequently during the course of the last week’s roller coaster ride in the stock exchanges.

It exemplified the almost unquestioned faith that some have in the workings of the markets.

Industrial societies have made them integral to our economies. Traders’ daily choices determine the monetary value of the materials that are vital to our well-being.

Whether it is speculation about the price of petroleum or about financial stocks, we seem to leave it to a relatively small percentage of the population to decide what turns and twists our collective fortunes will take. The best we can hope is that the traders’ decisions are guided by rationality.

But CBC TV’s morning show business reporter, Marivel Taruc, appeared to think otherwise. She commented that bear markets are driven by fear and bull markets by greed.

Are the stock exchanges, and by extension the economy, primarily driven by raw emotions? It would seem that we are leaving too much to how a few unelected individuals may feel on a particular day.

So far in the election campaign, none of the political parties has presented much of an economic strategy responding to the current financial upheaval. They appear to act as if we are going to be sheltered from the havoc taking place south of the border.

The parallel drops and rises in the New York and Toronto exchanges last week were clear indications that we are not immune to the financial blowouts in our largest trading partner.

It may be too much to ask if anyone is thinking about how to protect the economy from the whims of stock traders, but does anyone at least have a made-in-Canada plan to minimize the ill-effects of the widely-expected downturn?

Perhaps the idea is to react with rescue packages worth billions of dollars after the damage has already occurred, just like Washington is doing now.

Add sloth to the list of economic fundamentals.

Karim H. Karim is the director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He formerly was a Canadian correspondent for Compass News Features (Luxembourg) and Inter Press Service (Rome).


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.


Positive thoughts about negative ads

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Susan Krashinsky

Conventional wisdom has it that Canadians have a low tolerance for negative campaign tactics. While negative ad campaigns are commonplace for our neighbours to the south, it’s often said Canadians are quicker to cry foul at such attacks.

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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?

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What Stephane Dion hears

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Amanda Truscott

Stéphane Dion’s trouble with English is not the result of a hearing problem, according to a prominent Toronto audiologist – though some other experts are not so sure.

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