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

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NDP leader Tom Mulcair is also Opposition Leader. (Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP leader Tom Mulcair is also Opposition Leader. (Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Public Editor: Does the coverage of politicians have to be equal? Add to ...

Being in the news is clearly a mixed blessing for politicians.

They attract attention for issues they promote, of course, but also for controversial legislation (like Quebec Premier Pauline Marois) and personal behaviour (see Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s admission of smoking dope as an MP).

Worse, however, may be not having enough presence in the press – as readers recently pointed out to me with regard to federal Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair.

First was a question respecting his title: “You refer to Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, but refer to the Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair simply as the federal NDP leader. Is this practice in keeping with the editorial policy of The Globe and Mail? You would think from The Globe’s coverage that Justin Trudeau was opposition leader.”

Another reader noticed that, over a number of years, there have been fewer references on globeandmail.com to Mr. Mulcair than to Mr. Harper – but also to Mr. Trudeau. “Now, I know that Tom Mulcair hasn’t been in the public eye for very long,” the reader says, “so I didn’t expect to see any sort of parity among [the leaders] in The Globe’s coverage. But orders of magnitude differences?”

I researched The Globe’s database to reality-check these questions.

Mr. Mulcair became Opposition Leader in March of last year, so I checked references to him as party leader versus Opposition Leader. To see if there was any NDP bias, I also did the same for a one-year period when Michael Ignatieff was opposition leader. What I found: There were five times as many references to Mr. Mulcair as NDP leader than as Opposition Leader; there were six times as many references to Mr. Ignatieff as Liberal leader than as opposition leader. So, no obvious political bias.

To check on the overall coverage gap, the past year is most telling. Mr. Harper was the lead newsmaker, with 3,686 references. Mr. Mulcair was referred to 531 times. Mr. Trudeau had 971 references.

The PM is clearly going to be a central figure – but why the disparity between the other leaders? Was it the Liberal leadership race? The pot issue?

I compared the month before and after the April Liberal leadership race: Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair were almost tied – with 87 and 84 references respectively.

But since then, particularly in the past six weeks, when marijuana became a talking point, Mr. Trudeau has taken the lead; he was mentioned 88 times compared with 47 for Mr. Mulcair.

Opinion polls show Mr. Mulcair and the NDP now in third place, at a time when some New Democrats have privately questioned their leader’s ability to sell their brand (and compete with what is seen as Mr. Trudeau’s charisma).

So is the coverage balanced – and does it need to be?

First and foremost, news editors have to give readers what is interesting, newsworthy and controversial.

The Globe’s managing editor, Elena Cherney, echoes that, but she also says that “some of the coverage does reflect a heightened interest in Mr. Trudeau as a personality. When we write about Mr. Mulcair, we should take greater care to reflect his role accurately.”

True. But for all the attention to titles, and who generates the greatest number of references, perhaps the most important question is not about whether the coverage is equal but whether it fairly explains each party’s platform.

As we move closer to a 2015 federal election, that will become even more important.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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