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Every picture tells a story

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

Christopher Waddell

The best television shows viewers the story rather than telling it to them.

That’s why it is difficult to understand the Conservatives’ initial media strategy. Leaving aside the concerns of journalists about the number of questions they get to ask Mr Harper (the public really doesn’t care about reporters’ working conditions), the visual impression left from yesterday’s visit by Mr Harper to a container port reinforces all that his opponents are saying about him every day as they campaign.

Yesterday’s images shouted aloofness and isolation – standing all alone in an empty container port marshaling yard behind a podium with containers in the background appearing to be lecturing a polite crowd sitting a respectful distance away. The TV wide shots give it all away, magnifying that distance in what seems a visual metaphor for the campaign’s early days. It’s the pictures that matter much more than the words and those shots were featured prominently in last night’s television stories about the Conservative campaign.

As the first week of the campaign ends its clear the Liberals have adopted the same strategy that in the first half of the 2006 campaign served the Conservatives so well as an opposition party fighting a government. A Liberal policy pronouncement a day keeps the media preoccupied with the details of Liberal plans and just explaining the policy takes up most of the TV news item. Not much room for questioning. The LIberal campaign is also dropping Mr Ignatieff into lots of visually-attractive scenes with young people at universities and colleges as well as elementary and pre-schoolers- visually it is all about the future.

That’s all predictable – Liberals borrowing the ideas for media management that worked in the recent past for the Conservatives. What is surprising is that the Conservatives have not seemed to anticipate what the Liberals would do and have a response.

At the start of the week in the campaign’s opening days, the Conservatives’ big announcement was income-splitting. Since then the focus has been on re-announcing proposals from the late March budget. The media’s reaction has been predictable as well, as Elly Alboim notes in how they have framed the campaign’s first week.

The challenge the Conservatives face is that the media already view re-announcements of budget plans as old news barely worth reporting – certainly not worth giving the same amount of coverage as Mr Ignatieff’s “new” announcements receive. That frees reporters to look for other Conservative stories – candidates who say dumb things or have questionable histories, the pasts of campaign workers, the lack of time to question Mr Harper – and those stories are always negative.

In the process the Conservatives may have also misread the media. The parliamentary press gallery has been criticized frequently in recent years for being too compliant, too much insiders, not questioning and challenging what Mr Harper and his government state particularly when they frequently try to convince the public to believe black is white simply by repeating endlessly that it is.

That’s the same tactic Mr Harper is using on the coalition issue this week but the media-politician dynamic changes in a campaign when the media become more aggressive for all the reasons Elly notes.

In addition there is absolutely no reservoir of goodwill between Mr Harper and his staff and the media. Given a chance, the media will use the best available images to tell the story it wants to tell about Mr Harper. That job is made much easier when the Conservatives serve up the images on a platter like yesterday in Halifax.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27