The Daily Exchange: Is the media missing the message?
It finally happened. I’m just surprised it took so long.
At some point in every campaign, the news media start reporting that one of the leaders will no longer take an unlimited number of reporters’ questions. Often it’s the frontrunner who is accused of running a “bubble campaign.” This time, two leaders, Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak, are subjects of the journalists' complaints.
While both sides’ positions have some merit, the journalists’ perspective gets thoroughly communicated (naturally enough) in the media. Allow me, then, to explain the politicians’ perspective.
Most citizens (being busy people and having numerous family, work and community responsibilities beside voting) have easy access to only a limited number of information sources about the candidates and their policies. The two primary sources are paid advertising (what each party says about itself and the others) and news media coverage.
Almost every day of the campaign, a party tries to expose and explain a different part of its platform, and to communicate it to the voters through the news media. Some reporters denigrate these as “re-announcements” but, to the vast majority of voters who don’t know the parties’ platforms cover-to-cover, these are fresh announcements, in the sense that most Ontarians haven’t heard them before.
Obviously the parties have self-interest in communicating their policies clearly and cleanly. But there’s a democratic interest at stake too. If the news media choose not to report a party’s substantive message – and in a free society the media have every right to report (and to ignore) what they please – then the voters lose the opportunity to be better informed, and to make their own choices based on the information.
Some argue for the so-called “scrum” format of media questioning because it prevents candidates from taking time to prepare their answers and fashion responses. So what? Governing is not a closed-book exam. Those whom we elect are allowed to consult experts, stakeholders and other citizens, to consider different options, and to take time making decisions. Surely the substance of their policies (yes, the scripted, prepared, planned, premeditated substance of what they intend to do) matters at least as much as their skill in responding off-the-cuff to “gotcha” questions from the press gallery.
Another argument is that the news media serve the public interest by probing topics that the leaders do not want to address – for example, Liberal cabinet minister Dave Levac's admission that a new carbon tax is actively being reviewed. Certainly the Levac revelation deserves great attention. (As one pundit quipped, the official Liberal explanation for what happened, that Levac “misspoke,” is political language meaning, “unwisely told the truth.”)
Yet for each instance of a Levac-type revelation, there are multiple examples where reporters focus on topics more relevant to them than to voters. The media’s fascination with the conduct of press conferences is typical. Another example is giving provincial (or national) profile to the antics of obscure candidates in ridings their parties will never win.
One academic, herself a well-respected former journalist, makes the case that snubbing reporters is akin to snubbing the public. I’d say that depends in large measure on whether the reporters are pursuing public priorities or their own pet causes.
And the upshot of yesterday’s news media stories about how Mr. Hudak and Mr. McGuinty are handling the very same news media? Those stories supplanted coverage that might have told voters more about their policies and plans, and thereby helped to create a better-informed electorate.
- Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper
Response from Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
As a former journalist, I don't envy the reporters covering the leaders’ tours.
Back when I was reporting, the expectation was that you would file a story a day. Since then, we have seen significant media fragmentation, the rise of the Internet and social media, and newsroom consolidations.
The expectation now is that reporters will file from the second they start their day until the moment their shift ends. They tweet. They take pictures. They blog. They do online chats. They file video. They do radio and TV hits. They file their stories. They do all this while spending 16-hour days whizzing about the province on a bus, eating food of questionable nutritional value. And amid all this they have to do their actual research and reporting.
All this is to say that I understand journalists' frustration with tightly-scripted leaders tours like those or Tim Hudak and Dalton McGuinty. The extreme message control doesn’t make reporters’ jobs easy. Neither does the leaders’ repetition of the same canned talking points. Or the barrage of negative attacks aimed at the other party leaders. Or the complete lack of interaction with ordinary voters.
All this got me thinking: If I were still a reporter, how would I deal with this?
1. I would scale back the attention I pay to the leaders tours. The fact is, party platforms give me all the information I need to report on the substantive choices the parties and leaders are offering voters. I don't need to attend staged photo-ops to do that.
2. I would get out of the campaign bubble and talk to real voters. How? I would go to people's doorsteps, to community centres and coffee shops, and ask folks what issues matter to them, and what they want done about it. Then I would go to the party leaders and ask questions. Elections are about voters and their agenda, not the parties and theirs.
3. I would limit my use of polls to understanding what issues matter to voters. Focusing on the horse race and who's winning takes away from coverage of the issues, so I'd steer clear of that.
4. I would set up my email filter so that correspondence from campaign "war rooms" goes directly to the trash. Covering anything these distraction factories push is a complete waste of time.
5. There is one leaders tour event that I would cover very closely - debates. Put the leaders on a stage, have them exchange ideas on the province's future, get them to tell us where they stand and how they’re different - now that's something worth covering. There’s only one problem with covering debates. You can’t cover debates when some leaders won't show up. That’s a pity.
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
The “bubble campaign” is not a new phenomenon in politics. It’s not new because it is tried, tested and true.
Guy’s points as to why politicians run tight campaigns are dead on. This election is no different – both Mr. Hudak and Mr. McGuinty are using this model. Why both? Because both, depending on what poll you look at, are the “front runners.”
The media access question upsets politicos, but it does not upset the general public. Personally, I was outraged (!) that Prime Minister Harper limited his scrum questions to five during the Federal election. Yet I’m on the Premier’s side when he keeps scrums short in this election. Why? Because it works. It keeps your campaign on track – messages short and in line with the message of the day.
Look, campaigns know what happens when they aren’t in control. Ask John Tory in the last provincial election. Mr. Tory, I’m sure to the chagrin of his handlers, could not say no to answering questions, and even more perplexing, could not limit his answer to less than 3 minutes. The more he said, the more questions. The more questions, the more off message. The more off message, the more troublesome the failed “private school tax credit” became.
Guy is right, in the absence of an exciting campaign with the leaders, media are falling for the “look at that candidate” trick. Whether it be Mr. Levac (who, let me point out is not a cabinet minister as Guy mentions), the NDP’s Anthony Marco (the Niagara candidate with questionable musings on his podcast), or the PC’s Jack McLaren/Randy Hiller (the “landowner duo” who the Liberal party liken to the rising tea party politics in the PC party), parties want media to focus on the other guys to try to knock the other party’s daily message. It worked well for the PC party yesterday with the Liberal campaign having to pivot and unequivocally say, no, we are not considering a carbon tax.
In an election where the ballot question is….well I guess frankly not clear….and the two front-running parties are not dramatically opposed on sexy platforms items, if I were the media I would also be writing stories on the “bubble.” As an observer of the election, do not expect the bubble to change.
But as I have stated in my past posts, make sure to read the platforms and ask yourself the credibility question: Does the party I support have a credible plan? Is it affordable? Is it reasonable? Can they govern with these priorities? I think some scrutiny will show that the Ontario Liberal plan is the only one which will not abruptly shift the economy, and will secure our social services without bankrupting the treasury.