CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

MediaSpin II
By Ira Basen

June 23, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

How significant is the press in an election campaign? Perhaps the best way of answering that question is to try to think of another single element in the modern campaign that eclipses the press in importance.

Take campaign advertising for example. It is considered to play such a critical role in elections today, that the press treats the release of new campaign ads as a major news story. But what has the greater impact on the voter, the ads themselves or the coverage of the ads? What would happen if the media stopped talking about campaign ads and simply allowed them to stand or fall on their own merit, the way that all other advertising does?

The fact is that most people don't believe what the see in advertisements. A recent poll of Americans and Europeans found that only 12% considered advertising to be credible. Does anyone really believe any of the claims and counter-claims made in any TV ad by any party in this campaign? Not likely! Which is why marketing experts will tell you that the way to sell your product is not through "paid media" (advertising), but through "earned media" (publicity). Getting a reporter to talk about Liberal corruption is a far more effective way of getting that issue in front of the voter than any ad the opposition parties could hope to create. And a lot cheaper too!

In general, the media has been slow to acknowledge the fact that it has become the central player in the modern campaign. We often hear reporters talk about issues that do or do not have "traction," as if somehow "traction" can be achieved independently of the press. It is the press that decides which issues are important in the campaign by virtue of the amount of coverage it decides to bestow.

This is all part of the "master narrative" of the campaign, which is written primarily by the press. Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for the Washington Post, had an interesting way of describing this process.

"Political stories don't just 'happen' the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct. They are components of a journalistic master narrative built around two principal story lines: the search for the candidates' character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horserace, full of ploys and surprises, tenacity and treachery, rising action and falling action, winners and losers."

Part of the curious master narrative in this campaign, at least early on, was that the search for Paul Martin's character flaws was considered fair game, but the effort to identify potential flaws in Stephen Harper was not. On the first day of the campaign, reporters concluded Mr. Harper was "not scary." Subsequent Liberal efforts to attack his record were thus somehow considered illegitimate. They were accused of trying to "demonize" Mr. Harper. Mr. Martin, who over the course of the campaign has been accused of killing homeless people and supporting child pornography, is apparently beyond demonization.

Perhaps reporters were hyper-sensitive over the role they played during the last campaign in reducing Stockwell Day to a bumbling caricature, and they were determined not to let it happen again. In any event, all this formed an important part of the master narrative of the campaign in its early days.

At the same time, as Paul Taylor suggested, horserace coverage continued to dominate the media. The survey of seven major Canadian newspapers being conducted by the McGill University Observatory on Media and Public Policy shows "horserace" stories now lead "issues" stories by 53% to 42%, with the gap widening as we head down the "home stretch" (see the Globe's banner headline on Tuesday, "Liberals take six-point lead", and the Post's on the same day, "Harper widens seat lead").

The central role played by the press in the modern campaign will not soon change, and there is a compelling case to be made that it should not change. For all its flaws, it is still far better for the media to be writing the campaign narrative rather than the party spin doctors. The press can at least root out issues that the parties would prefer not to discuss. But it would be useful if the press at least acknowledged what has happened.

In an article written last spring in the Columbia Journalism Review called "Players: Towards a More Honest Job Description for the Political Press," journalism professor Jay Rosen tried to reflect these changes by looking at how the jobs of political reporters have changed. The old job description, according to Rosen, might look like this:

  • Cover what the candidates are doing and saying as they compete for support;
  • Dig into their backgrounds and explain where they come from, where they stand;
  • Track the progress of the race and factors that go into winning it, like fundraising;
  • Examine the major issues in the campaign, showing where the candidates stand;
  • Pose tough questions that illuminate the issues and hold actors to account;
  • Offer analysis and commentary for additional background and context;
  • Sometimes feature voters and their views as they make up their minds.

Political reporters still perform all of these functions during a campaign, but now, Rosen argues, the job description needs to also include the following elements.

  • Establishing the figure of the "frontrunner" and its rituals of scrutiny;
  • Previewing the get-elected strategy of candidates and reviewing it as performance;
  • Conducting polls, by formulating the questions to be asked, paying for the research, and publicizing the results as news;
  • Moderating and sometimes sponsoring candidate debates, which means selecting who belongs in them;
  • Creating a class of "authorized knowers" who are repeatedly quoted and asked to comment on the campaign;
  • Enlarging some unexpected or dramatic moment (or gaffe) with a flood of news attention and repetition of the event.

The contrast between these two job descriptions is dramatic. The first leads directly to "issues" coverage, the second takes us inevitably towards the horserace. Bill Kovach, who chairs an American group called The Committee of Concerned Journalists, has written that "the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing." The first job description helps fulfill that mandate, the second clearly doesn't.

Past Spin Cycles

Ira Basen has been with CBC Radio since 1984 as a documentary maker, senior producer and executive producer. He has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and has taught a course titled "Spin: PR, Journalism and the Search for Truth" at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Ira's book on public relations and the media will be published by Penguin Books in 2005.

You can subscribe to Ira's column and have each new edition e-mailed to you.

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