There is healthy discussion in U.S. journalism circles right now on what went wrong in their coverage of the 2016 presidential contest and how they can do better next year.
Among the ideas: less coverage of the horse race through polls and less attention to entertaining but meaningless stories, such as on Senator Elizabeth Warren drinking beer on camera. And, on the flip side, more time spent on real issues and more thought given to how to be fair without fussing about equivalency of time spent or number of articles on each candidate.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni astutely observed in a recent piece: “We interpreted fairness as a similarly apportioned mix of complimentary and derogatory stories about each contender, no matter how different one contender’s qualifications, accomplishments and liabilities were from another’s. If we were going to pile on Trump, we had to pile on Clinton – or, rather, keep piling on her.”
Now, with a federal election expected on or before October 21, it’s time to take an unvarnished look at how we cover elections at The Globe and Mail.
I agree with most of the ideas bubbling up in the United States, including more issues coverage, less spectacle and a fair examination of the strengths and weaknesses of party leaders. Another media responsibility: to fact check everything candidates say, for the benefit of readers and voters.
Unlike some in the United States, I am pro polls, as long as they don’t hog the main stage. People are interested in knowing who is ahead, where and why; they may decide to vote strategically against what might look like a big majority. For some voters, their main barometer of who is leading comes from talking to friends and scrolling through their Facebook feeds. But a more accurate and science-based picture comes from pollsters who interview thousands of Canadians across the country and mathematically balance the results to fit the voting population. All poll coverage should also include the question participants were asked and the margin of error. The results may miss somewhat for a variety of reasons, but they are far superior to just listening to your bubble.
But over-reliance on polls can lead to journalists being more critical of the front-runner, when they should be equally critical and questioning of all the candidates.
We saw this in the last U.S. election, when reporters assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win and turned more critical attention to everything she said and promised while failing to do the same for her opponent.
And what use is knowing who is ahead without knowing the answer to the far more important question: Who should you vote for? Voters need more in-depth, well-curated information on key issues, the platforms behind every party’s spin and the background of the candidates, which might predict their future actions. We need investigative reporting into their records, potential conflicts of interest and past behaviour they may want to cover up.
If the leaders are muddled, unaware or too inflexible or too accommodating, voters need to know that too. These traits can lead to problems when it comes to a future leader making key decisions or acting for the public in sensitive international situations.
Maybe I’m too serious, but I’m not big on inordinate space spent on profiles of spouses or a candidate’s preference in music or movies – unless it reveals something important. I also want to see less attention paid to the programmed, daily issue speech made by the leaders. These are heavily scripted nuggets providing no real insight.
Then there’s our apparent fascination with the inevitable minor gaffes that occur. Let’s spend more time instead on the candidates platforms. What voters really need to know is: Do these platforms make sense? What do the experts say?
A vital part of election coverage, which must be maintained and, in fact, increased, is fact checking. The experience in the United States underscores the importance of this in every story. Every statement made by a person who wants the privilege of representing us must be challenged and verified.
This brings me back to Mr. Bruni’s earlier quote. He’s right: Journalists must hold all politicians to the same standard, whether they are newcomers or already active in politics, whether they are ahead or behind in the polls.
Fortunately, we live in a different country with the benefit of a parliamentary tradition that gives both opposition politicians and journalists a chance to hold leaders to account on a daily basis. But we’re not perfect, and we too can do a better job of focusing on what matters.
Ultimately election coverage is a service to you, the voter, and I would like to hear your views. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share your thoughts with the news team.