Political Media Coverage – Discussion Summary

All of us (well, most of us) love a good political contest. Especially during elections. Maybe we don´t welcome the election itself-especially if we feel like we just had one-but once it gets rolling, we´re sucked in. We´re treated to a solid month, sometimes more, of public spats, embarrassing revelations, and hopefully, some real debate.

Then it´s over. And most of us, except for the wonks, tune out.

Why is that? Are Canadians really so disengaged from the workings of Parliament itself-the day-to-day politics, during which policies they voted for live or die? Maybe. But if so, Samara, a charitable organization concerned with political and civic engagement in this country, wants to know why.

On August 20, WSIC welcomed Samara researcher, Wayne Chu, to explain “Occupiers and Legislators: a snapshot of political media coverage”, their study on the role media plays in creating an informed and engaged Canadian electorate.

Part of Samara´s ongoing mission to research how democratic institutions function in Canada, this study focused on the media´s coverage of two big political stories from last fall: the federal government´s legislative agenda, and the Occupy movement. In analyzing the coverage, Samara researchers considered three questions: What do political journalists focus on?  Is coverage of politics always negative? And, how informative is that coverage?

The report revealed much. Samara found the media´s coverage of the Occupy movement more negative, on average, than its coverage of federal government happenings. Some in the audience wondered aloud if this was evidence of a bias, but Chu resisted that. He pointed out that political parties had access to better communications channels, better visuals, and far more money than the Occupy movement did. Regardless of what the media tries to report, these parties are likely to look reasonably good, at least when it comes to imagery and official statements.

But what of the reporting itself? Can we count on a story we watch or read to be thoroughly fact-checked, balanced, and accurate? Not always, according to Samara´s analysis. Once again, the issue was less a perceived bias for one party or cause than a tendency to focus on breaking stories, shocking turns, and personality conflicts. Background information, though vital, was too often cut for space.

The WSIC crowd followed-up with a lot of questions, as usual. Among them: did Samara find any significant difference in the quality, or tone of coverage, provided by public and private media? Not much, replied Chu. Conflict usually makes the story, regardless of who´s telling it.

Why the slippage in fact-checking? Isn´t it part of a journalist´s job to verify facts? Chu suggested that there may be fewer journalists around to do the work than before-and if so, that´s a very bad thing for democracy. An audience member pointed out that journalists are over-worked. Another expressed concern about dwindling competition in the Canadian media, especially in smaller markets.

Are Sun TV viewers as poorly informed as FOX News fans? No.

An audience member asked about positive and negative tone-how did Samara judge these? Chu explained that researchers watched for certain words, indicative of positive or negative judgment, in the coverage they watched, listened to, or read.

Twitter came up. Why do journalists report on Twitter happenings as though they are real news? The question is not simple to answer, especially since politicians and activists now use the social media platform to make announcements or counter their opposition.

This is just a taste of Monday night´s discussion, which remained vigorous right till the end. One gets the sense that, whatever their opinion of politicians or journalists generally, the people feel frustrated. They want to know more, and they want the chance to learn more. So, they wonder, how far must we go to get it?

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1 Comment on "Political Media Coverage – Discussion Summary"

  • Mark Henschel says

    Good programme. Too short by half… but worthwhile.

    Apart from an ongoing battle with the dailies to get their facts straight — I’m taking both the Star and the Globe to journalist court at the Ontario Press Council — I’ve been enjoying re-reading Larsson’s “Girl” trilogy and noting the scenes where he expounds on the failings of journalism today. The first and third books are rich in perceptive quotes, such as:

    “Your job description as a journalist is to question and scrutinize most critically. And never to repeat claims uncritically, no matter how highly placed the sources in the bureaucracy.” (Erica Berger). Erica’s discussion with the board of the newspaper is brilliant too.


    As well, I heard Clay Johnson on CBC a while back. His “Information Diet” book is worth a look. He advocates treating information like we (should) regard food — the fresher and closer to the source the better… and make an effort to temper any “processed” information with raw data.


    Neil Postman — as always — has useful observations particularly in “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century”.

    And I recently attended a talk on electoral reform (which I believe can materially help us regain control of our democracy, economy, environment etc) during which the presenter, political scientist Dennis Pilon, argues that the press is firmly on the side of the 1% and working against us. Well, no news there I guess.


    Also on the Internet I’d recommend taking in the new series by Bill Moyers — shown on PBS but available at:


    particularly see his interview with Marty Kaplan


    I’ll give the final words to Stieg:

    “Dear Government… I’m going to have a serious talk with you if I ever find anyone to talk to.”
    – Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played With Fire

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