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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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One reader complained recently that there have been too many stories about Mayor Rob Ford. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
One reader complained recently that there have been too many stories about Mayor Rob Ford. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

Public editor: Why Rob Ford makes balanced coverage difficult Add to ...

In a normal election campaign of a few weeks duration, The Globe and Mail and other media do their best to level the playing field in terms of news coverage. Editors monitor the number and relative prominence of stories and photos on the major party leaders and the Prime Minister or Premiers. News media have a responsibility to inform the public about their voting choices but also to present a balanced picture.

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There is nothing normal, though, about the endless Toronto municipal election campaign, and readers have strong views about what they have seen and still want to see in The Globe’s coverage.

One reader complained recently that there have been too many stories about Mayor Rob Ford. “I have been increasingly astonished by the lack of balance in your coverage of the election, as the photographs of Rob Ford dominate every issue. [One day at the end of July], I began counting the number of photographs of Rob Ford and stopped when I got to 10. The issue contains not a single photograph of either Olivia Chow or John Tory. How in heaven’s name do you justify this? Surely even basic principles of fairness ought to kick in at some point. Count this as another chapter in the Ford fiasco that is quite simply unbelievable: that, at this crucial turning point in the election, The Globe and Mail appears determined to make sure that Rob Ford will win.”

It is true that there was one day in late July when The Globe ran a number of selfies people had taken with Mr. Ford and posted online. That was why the count was so high that day.

Earlier this year, in the midst of the second Ford crack video story, another reader called to castigate The Globe for not writing enough about the mayor’s personal issues prior to the last election. “Why didn’t I know?” he asked. I pointed him to a number of stories that had detailed allegations of those personal issues in the weeks before the 2010 vote. Those stories ran along with many others that compared the policies and platforms of the candidates.

It is true, though, that over the summer, many more stories and photos have been published about Mr. Ford than the other candidates, in part because of his return from rehab and ongoing investigations. In July and August (up to Aug. 27), there were 26 stories and six columns focused on Mr. Ford, as well as 18 photos in the paper, plus more online. The other candidates were the focus in a total of six stories, three columns and three photos.

But while the reader is right that coverage has been weighted to Mr. Ford, I believe it’s wrong to assume that a higher volume is helpful to him.

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman said there is no clear correlation between amount of coverage and someone’s popularity. “If that were true, Mike Duffy would be a popular guy.”

Prof. Wiseman said there has been a lot of coverage of the other candidates – especially of Ms. Chow and Mr. Tory – and he appreciates the media are trying to be balanced. But he says it’s not reasonable to expect to be perfectly even-handed in an election campaign with so many candidates, and when Mr. Ford is an “outsize personality.”

Then there is the question of when the campaign began: in January, when some candidates, including Mr. Ford, filed their nomination papers at City Hall? Or now, after the last council meeting prior to the Oct. 27 election?

My view is the real campaign starts in September and, despite the earlier coverage, people will pay closer attention in the next eight weeks leading to election day. The Globe and Mail must provide its most extensive reporting now, especially of the leading candidates. While every story should be considered for its newsworthiness, during the final weeks of a campaign, news organizations have a responsibility to offer voters everything they need to make an informed decision.

That will mean challenging the policies and leadership styles of all the major candidates while continuing to follow the ongoing news about Mr. Ford’s personal issues, if and when they arise. As Prof. Wiseman says, Mr. Ford has become an international newsmaker and the media can’t be expected to set that aside. I agree there needs to be more coverage of the other major candidates and their policies, but that should not stop The Globe in its ongoing reporting of Mr. Ford and the many issues that seem to constantly hound him. That is much more important than trying to balance the count of stories and photos.

 

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