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Canada Public Editor: Critical, not equal, coverage most important in Ontario election reporting

In less than two weeks, Ontario will vote in what looks to be a close race.

During election campaigns, each political party attempts to appeal to voters through sloganeering, speeches to the faithful, glowing ads focused on a smiling leader or negative ones attacking the other leaders.

And while parties will draw attention to any controversy or flaws in their opponent’s plans, to really understand your choices, you need the independent daily news coverage and investigative work of journalists.

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Partisans complain to me that campaign coverage is too soft or too harsh, but some of them will be unhappy with anything not completely complimentary of their leader. Our job is to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire.

If there are questions about a candidate’s character or background, questionable practices within a party or the true costs of their promises, then voters need to know now before the political scene is set for four years. Just like any job interview, we need to do our due diligence.

It’s a lesson learned from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when some media twisted themselves into knots offering equal time and treatment to the candidates, when they should have just followed the news, asked tough questions, found out more information and not tried to give equal weight to every scandal and controversy.

A study by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy titled How the Press Failed the Voters found both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received massive amounts of negative coverage, which was also “extremely light on policy.”

The study found that civility was overtaken “by those who are skilled in the art of destruction. The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel.”

Author Thomas Patterson said, on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” Prof. Patterson asks. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”

It’s a good question to ask in any campaign: Is the media coverage trying too hard to draw equivalencies between scandals of differing severities? Not all wrongdoings are created equal.

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In the case of the Progressive Conservatives, questions remain about the leadership nominations controversy, but there are also important questions to raise about the other leading party, the NDP, as it rises in the polls, no longer the third party. And then there is the question of how much it will cost each party to fulfill its election promises.

Keeping the focus on what you need to know should mean the spectacle of the big partisan speeches can be largely ignored and that the horse race of who’s ahead should not take too much space.

Besides the partisans, the only complaints I have had come from one reader who wants more coverage and another who felt a headline was credulous in showing a leader’s promise without the healthy dose of skepticism. Ford vows to fire Hydro One CEO, board as first act, as a headline wasn’t wrong, but it should have included the key point that he could not say how he would fire the head of a partly privatized company. Many headlines have been much more critical, such as this one a few days later: Ford, Horwath vague on respective plans for lower gas prices, child care.

I have also heard from Green party supporters who wonder why their party is not included in the daily coverage. This is part of the same point that journalists need to tell voters what their government could look like and warn them of the potential pitfalls. While there should be some reporting on the Greens’ platform, the polling would indicate they are well out of the top three contenders.

Above all else, journalists must ask questions, investigate and follow the news and not get too tied up with a sense of equivalency. This, of course, means being fair to the same standard for our political leaders.

As with the coming campaigns in New Brunswick and Quebec, I am keeping an eye on any questions or complaints about the fairness and equity of the coverage. And I would be happy to hear from you.

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publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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