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Public editor: Media need to be aware of campaign coverage’s impact

This picture of Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne leaping off a tractor while wearing white clothing stands out for University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

How much does media coverage affect you as a voter during election campaigns? Are you influenced by positive or negative coverage, or by offbeat photos of the leaders? One political science professor thinks that news coverage is definitely a factor – and even more influential than partisan advertising.

The University of Toronto's Nelson Wiseman says partisan ads "tend to be directed at the less engaged voter, while news stories, columns and editorials are generally read by engaged voters who are more likely to cast a ballot. News is seen as more objective, and that's why the tone and content of news coverage is more effective [at changing minds] than advertisements."

This isn't news to anyone working in a newsroom or on a political campaign. The daily news reports during a vote are critical elements in shaping the outcome. The media's responsibility is to be as balanced as possible and to remain aware of the impact they can have.

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For the current Ontario election campaign, I've been keeping track of the articles and photos in The Globe and Mail and on I've found that news articles have been balanced, with most stories including references to all three major parties and a fair weighting of stories focused on each party.

As for photos, there is a slight preference for images of the two women party leaders – the Liberals' Kathleen Wynne and the NDP's Andrea Horvath – over Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. The same was true in last year's B.C. election, when the paper ran more photos of Christy Clark (Liberal) than Adrian Dix (NDP). I don't doubt there is a subtle (but not organized at all) preference for running pictures of female faces.

But does the number of photos of each leader make a difference?

"The photo in this campaign that stands out for me is Kathleen Wynne wearing white jumping off a tractor," Prof. Wiseman says. "Rural people will say no one wears white on a farm, but that photo looks like an ad and is appealing to people in urban areas."

I think readers are influenced more by the power of a single image (such as then-Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield fumbling a football catch in 1974) than the balance and number of photos taken.

In general, Prof. Wiseman notes that while media make an effort to offer fair and balanced reporting, it is more of an art than a science. I agree that elections can be influenced by a big story. And I expect that when The Globe decides which party to endorse (likely next weekend), it will no doubt cause controversy.

But endorsements are an important part of the process of informing voters. The value is not so much in the endorsement but in the analysis of all the parties' platforms. It's always worth reminding the readers that the editorial board operates independently from the newsroom, and its preference for a party in no way affects the news coverage.

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So far during the Ontario campaign, I've had two formal complaints from readers. This week, there were several stories and a column questioning Mr. Hudak's million-jobs plan, with economists saying the number has been inflated. One of the complainants felt the online coverage has been anti-Conservative and sensationalized. The reader noted that The Globe's stated principle is to provide all legitimate sides of a story and let readers make up their own minds.

I couldn't agree more with that principle, and The Globe has lived up to it. Being balanced doesn't mean media won't cover criticism of various platforms. Surely that's the responsibility of the media during a campaign: to raise tough questions.

But ultimately you will decide whom to vote for and why.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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