As It Happens

Reporters missing election issues voters actually care about, says journalist

Jennifer Ditchburn used to follow party leaders around on campaign buses and churn out daily stories about the election news of the day — but these days, she's re-thinking that whole strategy. 

Jennifer Ditchburn says political reporters aren't tuned into what matters to Canadians

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (CBC News)

Jennifer Ditchburn used to follow party leaders around on campaign buses and churn out daily stories about the election news of the day — but these days, she's re-thinking that whole strategy. 

Ditchburn, the editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Policy Options, says journalists should spend less time focusing on what the parties are talking about, and more time trying to figure out what Canadians actually want to know.

She wrote about it in an article called "What Do Media Know About The Ballot Box Question?" Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What do you mean when you write that we should consider who is framing the conversation in this election campaign?

I wanted to stimulate discussion, I guess, about who's constructing the reality around the election. Are we really listening to what citizens are interested in? Or, as journalists — and I should say that I'm no longer a daily reporter and I don't cover campaigns on the road — but are we covering campaigns based on what the political parties want us to ask about or want us to cover? Is it based on issues that coagulate in the minds of the campaign media as they travel around the country? Or is it really informed by what citizens really want to know about?

I think I probably sound very irritating to my former colleagues, but I used to do all of these things. I used to write all of these process stories. I used to, you know, ask all these questions that basically came from other campaigns and we were, you know, putting to the different leaders.

Now that I've got a little bit of distance, four years of distance, I'm really asking some questions about are we getting what we need out of our election coverage?

Jennifer Ditchburn is the editor-in-chief of Policy Options. (CBC)

When you say "we," you don't mean you as a journalist, you mean the public.

As a member of the public, yes. And I would be the first, Carol, to say that the issues I'm interested in as a person that sits in Ottawa and edits a policy magazine are not going to be what maybe the majority of Canadians are interested in.

But my point — my main point— is journalists do not know what citizens want to know about, because there's not a lot of inquiry that goes on. At least in my personal experience on the Hill, which was about 19 years, I wasn't part of a larger conversation about what is it that people are telling us that they're interested in.

You could correct me, but I don't see individual newsrooms spending money to find out what is it that citizens really deeply care about. I'm going to assume that it's not is Maxime Bernier showing up at the debate, or how many questions a leader takes, or even perhaps when a candidate from a particular campaign had to quit over social media comments.

It's probably a host of other issues, but what they are, I wouldn't claim to know that.

The media entourage pursuing these candidates are on the buses and on the planes. They're trying to not be spun, right? They don't want to be stenographers. They don't want to be just being the conduit for platforms. They want to be questioning. So you've been on the buses. You've been on the planes. How does it get shaped? 

It gets into a lot of areas of journalism theory. Like, what do we value as journalists? It's often: What's new? What's sensational? What, you know, has some relevance to issues that are already in the news? What's in the domestic headlines? 

I think a lot of political people would say, "Oh, journalists all have an agenda." They'd always like to suggest that journalists have a partisan agenda. I would suggest there's more of a deeper psychology that goes on, which is you don't want to be the one person that's not doing this story. 

And so there's this sort of weird coagulating of the narrative that goes on on the campaign trail.

It would be great if there was maybe a little bit more originality, I guess, in the coverage especially since there's just not a lot of money there. So, you know, spend money on different things than maybe the campaign plane or a horse race poll.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier. (CBC News)

Who should be taking the lead on this?

The public broadcaster. Not to put you on the spot, but I would say, you know, the big organizations that have budgets. I think there's room for experimentation and, you know, the CBC is a good example.

I'm having a very idealistic conversation with you, Carol. But we can have those conversations about how we can make coverage better, and we know that listeners and readers are becoming more and more alienated.

We haven't even touched on the whole issue of what the prism of the press, the very white press corp, is on Canada and what impact that has on coverage. But these are all things that we need to talk about so that we can do the best job possible.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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