Originally published at J-Source.ca on April 24, 2012
By Zoey Duncan
Though bloggers and tweeters dictated much of the coverage of the Alberta provincial election, when it came to mainstream media, amongst all the digital pageantry and Wildrose boosterism, one thing was conspicuously sparse in the coverage: context.
In terms of the daily reporting leading up to the election: “There [was] no message piece or an overall global look sort of piece,” says Jim Cunningham, a journalism instructor at Calgary’s SAIT Polytechnic, who covered elections in Alberta for more than 20 years. “It’s scattered, broken up into little bits and chunks. And the stuff that actually may make it into newspaper print … seems so old compared to what everybody’s accustomed to getting on their phone.”
And, he adds, it’s rare anyone reports anything unique when everyone is so busy chasing and tweeting the same bits and chunks. On top of that, the effect of less money in newsrooms is obvious.
“There’s a lot less in the way of actual reporting manpower being devoted to this now,” Cunningham says. “The assumption seems to be that because everybody has a smartphone, somehow that means the reporter him or herself can be in six places at once.
“In fact, that’s not true. There’s a great deal of thinking and observation and work that a political reporter has to do.”
He cites the 1986 election in which the Calgary Herald’s four legislature reporters attended every Tory nomination contest in the province. They didn’t file stories on each contest, but learning about each candidate meant they were more prepared when on election night, the PCs unexpectedly lost a chunk of the popular vote to the New Democrats and Liberals.
If media had done that at all this year, Cunningham says, we would have learned sooner about Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger. In a now infamous blog post, Hunsperger wrote gay people would suffer eternally in a “lake of fire” and denounced the Edmonton public school board for its policy against bullying gay kids. (That story was reportedly leaked by the PC war room.)
And in such a leader-focused campaign, it was blogger Dave Cournoyer, not a mainstream reporter, who notably wrote about a group of “thorny” Wildrose candidates with very socially conservative views who some Albertans would likely be uncomfortable seeing as cabinet ministers.
Cunningham chalks it up to the people with the money behind news organizations who aren’t giving campaign coverage the attention (or investment) it requires.
“There just aren’t enough [journalists], they haven’t worked at it long enough, they aren’t well enough supported and frankly, given that everybody knew this was going to be a close election—potentially ‘historic’—given that we knew all that, there should have been a hell of a lot more work go into this prior to.”
Gillian Steward, a journalism professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, says The Globe and Mail did a better job of providing context than some local outlets but noted there wasn’t enough emphasis on covering constituency battles from anyone.
“We’ve only ever looked to the big picture,” Steward says, noting constituency stories are regularly overlooked because they don’t appeal to a broad audience. “It makes people feel disengaged that they’re just out there and nobody really cares what’s happening in their particular area.”
Naturally, the big picture is important too. Steward was managing editor of the Calgary Herald during the 1989 election. Before the election, the paper decided what big issues needed to be addressed so parties didn’t dictate coverage.
Fast-forward to 2012 and coverage generally followed polls, party promises and press releases— at least when there isn’t a Wildrose candidate making outrageous statements (see: Ron “as a Caucasian I have an advantage” Leech). Coverage of oilsands issues—that stuff that makes the Alberta economy work—was notably sparse, with neither leading party interested in promising an increase to royalties and risk alienating those in the oil industry.
Bloggers and Twitter users too, dictated much of the news agenda. A photo of the Wildrose tour bus, with its tires located on the chest of a larger-than-life likeness of Smith, was snapped by a CBC reporter and shared without mention of the unfortunate tire placement. It made news when Twitter users circulated it making all manner of jokes.
Wildrose support for conscience rights—which insinuated they’d attempt legislation to allow people such as doctors and marriage commissioners to make decisions in their jobs based on morals rather than professional duties—was originally reported in the mainstream media last year. But it took a blog post from a disenchanted Wildrose supporter before the media covered it in the context of the election. Danielle Smith later, and repeatedly, stated her party would not legislate on contentious moral issues.
And it was a blogger who got abortion and referendums on the news agenda when she asked Wildrose and the other parties for their policy on abortion.
It will be our successors who really decide whether this election was “historic” or not. What we know right now is our communities are full of people with an internet connection who can and will augment our coverage of elections, whether we ask them to or not. And whether or not newsrooms commission political opinion polls, they will continue to be carried out and the public will hear the results. It’s time we asked ourselves, do we want to be followers or leaders?