Election 2011: What did journalists bring to the table?

Interesting conversation on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition on the media’s coverage of the election. What got me thinking was one of the panelists’ contention that the skills reporters bring to the table may not be useful to voters deciding what to do on election day.

Reporters are rewarded for reporting novel facts – scoops – not providing information. For example, as one of the panelists pointed out, journalists and citizens look at leaders’ debates in different ways. Journalists report on them like a horse race – who won, who lost – while voters weigh the performance of the leaders and what they actually said. Facts and motion versus useable information.

So what does journalism contribute to a voter’s decision? If you want to know where the parties stand on an issue, you can read their platforms online. If you want a feel for the leaders, you can watch the televised leaders’ debates. If you want to know where the parties stand in the polls, well, there are quite a few websites you can hunt down, including those of the pollsters themselves. Meanwhile, journalists are reporting on the same stuff that your average web-surfer can find in under two minutes.

We already have a one big piece of evidence that the media matter less in an election than one might think. The media as a whole only started covering the NDP in depth once it started rising in the polls. In other words, Canadians massively changed their opinions about the NDP largely absent substantial media coverage of the party.

Discussions about the future of journalism take for granted that journalists play an indispensable role in engaging citizens in the political process. The CBC conversation had me wondering if that’s not a bit wrong – that we as voters get only drabs of information as an unintended byproduct of reporters’ search for the novel and (often) trivial. Balance is of the “he said, she said” variety, often lacking historical and factual context – I’m thinking of the shameful lack of pushback on Stephen Harper’s patently false vilification of a possible Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition as unconstitutional in 2008. In other words, journalism as it is currently practiced in Canada may serve the democratic process not directly, but in spite of itself.

It’s at this point where most critics would call on the media to reform itself, to stop treating elections like a sporting event and start providing Canadians with more information. I’m not sure that such a change is possible. Maybe journalists are, by definition, fact chasers: pack animals, trained as generalists, hardwired to suss out novel facts no matter how trivial or irrelevant (I’m not going to bother linking to the latest media-perpetuated smear campaign against Jack Layton). If they can’t change their spots (and, given that these complaints recur every time there’s an election, I’m betting they can’t), maybe we should stop expecting them to behave otherwise and focus on getting our information from other outlets.

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