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The “news” of election campaigns

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

Elly Alboim

In 1989, some of the best and the brightest of Canada’s political establishment – politicians, political operatives, pollsters, journalists and academics – gathered at Queen’s University to talk about the election that had just ended.

For two days, in front of television cameras, they discussed what had gone wrong in the experience they had just shared . This was after what has since become idealized as the best and most substantive election campaign in recent Canadian history – the free trade election. Further, it was the first election after the introduction of the GST – the largest change in Canadian tax policy in decades – and conducted in the middle of the disintegrating Meech Lake ratification process.

It is hard to imagine a more complex and important campaign policy agenda. And still, there was a collective feeling of a 56 day (yes, campaigns were eight weeks long then) failure to conduct and report on the campaign and its choices in a way that properly served the public interest.
At the heart of the discussion and the multiple sense of grievance, was a set of dilemmas and questions that persist, and once again was dominant in week two of the current election campaign.

What is “news” in an election campaign? Why is “news” the dominant criterion for journalistic coverage in a process that is by its nature repetitive and at its best, incrementally educative? Why are policy choices “old” if they have been announced just once in a competitive world agenda of events to a disengaged electorate? Are politicians forced to contrive news to win a place on the media platform and how do they prevent “bad” news from framing their daily efforts? Who should set the daily agenda in a national campaign?

In the ultimate test of democratic accountability, what is the responsibility of the largely and defiantly unaccountable media, the main disseminator of information (aside from political advertising) and major arbiter of the hierarchy of importance in a campaign? And in a reality of regional parties, differing regional configurations and highly targeted and largely invisible on the ground political activity does that national campaign, as currently expressed in the daily flying Leaders’ tours, have any real meaning? Is it the only way to provide a locus and event set for Canadians to share a mutual experience during an election campaign?

Journalists report the news every working day of their professional lives. They have systems, practices and values that define what constitutes news, a commodity they sell in a consumer-driven industry. News tends to be defined by urgency, importance, novelty, conflict and drama. Yet every now and again, they are asked to report on a process that at its core has a lot more in common with paint being applied and then drying on a canvas. It is a monumental “ask” to have them apply wholly new standards and definitions to that coverage.

And so, traditional news values superintend. Gaffes, inconsistencies, personal dramas, process controversies, highly charged emotional outbursts and confrontations (real and contrived), candidate and staff difficulties all become the “news” of the campaign. Week two was a week of that kind of news.

To be fair, elections are also about the character and competence of leaders who will be confronted with the unforeseen and the barely manageable in circumstances of extreme pressure. Journalists believe with some justification that the “testing” process of pressurized campaigns helps to measure fitness for office. They also point out, again with justification, that there is a wide diversity of campaign coverage in all media that is divorced from the flying circus and fulfills the educative and explanatory needs of an informed electorate. Opinion columnists and “reality check” specialists examine context and provide critical analysis. The debates are unmediated and available to all in real time and in the virtual perpetuity of cyberspace.

But there is little doubt that the tone and momentum of campaigns are highly influenced by the daily “news” which wins the most prominent display on front pages and the top of newscasts. The influence extends to the world view of the journalists who manufacture and convey the news. And that process is magnified and distorted by the volatile, high speed world of social media as the news’ time horizon shrinks to minutes and reporters and politicians react to the latest “bit.”

Lest this be seen as a one-dimensional critique of political reporting, it is also clear that none of this is a mystery to the people who put together political campaigns. They understand the news imperatives just as well, and perhaps better than the journalists themselves. The news decision making process is predictable and highly vulnerable to manipulation.

Political managers have developed sophisticated tactics to frustrate journalists’ quest for information, to box in their ability to operate freely, to manufacture impression and image, and perhaps worst of all, to cynically leverage journalists’ professional obligations of fairness and balance in reporting even the most obviously distorted statements and allegations. They create the illusion of news and pander to the desire for conflict. They work around and over the heads of media to stymie transparency and access. And they spend millions of dollars to create and disseminate cartoonish and generally misleading advertising to reach voters directly, providing what many admit is their primary source of political information. Week two of the campaign has been rife with these practices as well.

It is, and will always be a complex ritual dance. And there is one more part of it that is noteworthy. No one in the system likes it very much and in virtually every campaign the bitterness and sense of grievance on both sides begins building quite quickly. By the end of week two, that too has become part of the story.

In an ultimate irony, it is entirely unclear whether the people who ultimately make the final choices in all this are paying attention or if they are, care very much. As for those who have checked out of the process altogether, there is the possibility that they have done so in part because they feel excluded or have been repelled.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary Bureau Chief.