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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.