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Web of mystery

Posted by padams under Election 2008, Election 2008 Media commentary

Paul Adams

Bill Fox, who was once Brian Mulroney’s communications advisor, has had some of the sharpest insights into the media’s role in this campaign in his contributions to the Globe and Mail.

In today’s column in the Globe he talks about the role that the satirical video by Michel Rivard about the Harper culture cuts has played in the cratering Tory campaign in Quebec. (Now available on You Tube, by the way, with English subtitles.)

Fox notes quite rightly that the Rivard video exploded virally into the election campaign in Quebec before the mainstream media could react. Nonetheless, its full impact was not felt until traditional media picked up the story and ran with it — spreading the news of the video to a much wider public. If the Conservatives fail to get a majority in this election, it may well be because they don’t get their coveted breakthrough in Quebec, and that the Rivard video will be viewed in retrospect as the pivotal event in that failure. But the mainstream media echo chamber was crucial to disseminating the story.

CBC Montreal reporter and current Carleton grad student, Amanda Pfeffer, has pointed out to me, that despite all the attention that the English mainstream media have lavished on the internet in this campaign, they were slower than the francophone media to recognize the impact of the Rivard video, despite its national implications — but that’s another story. In general, in English Canada we have seen the same pattern as in Quebec of the internet having its full impact only by reverberating through the mainstream media. Most of us learned about the puffin pooping on Dion and the NDP candidate with the mouth full of reefers not directly from the net, but from TV and newspaper coverage of those stories.

In a survey we did at EKOS, released earlier this week, we found that television remains the most important source of election information for Canadians, followed by newspapers, radio, and only then online sources. More people cited the leaders’ debates as an important source of election information than cited the web.

It is reporters, of course — and people like me who are personally or professionally pre-occupied with election news — who are most deeply embedded in the online world. We are the ones who obsessively sweep through the net looking for information, stories, gaffes and good ideas. Of course it is journalists (and journalism students and professors) who also obsess about whether the new media will displace the old, distort professional principles, and maybe most importantly, change or eliminate jobs.

But as Fox points out, this history has been that new media elbow their way to a place at the table without actually displacing the old. This is what happened with newspapers after the advent of radio and television.  (Though, admittedly, it has been a while since I have seen a movie newsreel, or heard a traveling minstrel singing about wars in the Holy Land.)

The internet is a new and important element in election campaigns, but it is not quite as instantaneously transformative as we may sometimes be tempted to think.

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.