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Public editor: More on political titles during election campaigns

Stephen Harper: Prime Minister, Conservative Leader and Tory Leader.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

There are many passionate advocates for Canadian political parties and some who believe that the news media are biased against their particular party or view.

I wrote this week about the policy of The Globe and Mail and other media during election campaigns of referring to politicians by their party title rather than calling them Premier, Prime Minister or Opposition Leader.

There are two basic reasons for this. One is to reflect the reality that even though they maintain their title of Premier etc. and the job, on the campaign trail they are acting as party leaders. The other is an effort to level the playing field and to not show bias for any particular party.

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One reader asked if The Globe and Mail will follow the same policy for the federal election. The fact is that has been the policy of The Globe for some time. Another reader was dubious and provided a link to one article that did not follow the policy.

I checked The Globe's coverage during the 2011 federal election campaign to see how many stories referred to Stephen Harper as Conservative Leader on first reference rather than Prime Minister. The election was on May 2 so I searched the month of April.

The search found 492 references to Conservative Leader, 118 to Prime Minister and 103 to Tory Leader. The majority of the Prime Minister references were to Mr. Harper's work as PM during that time, including articles on the royal wedding, the death of former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney, Wiki-Leaks and salmon fisheries policies.

There were also some letters to the editor and several columns about election campaigning in which Mr. Harper was referred to as Prime Minister.

So it seems clear to me that the policy was mostly, but not perfectly, followed.

And speaking of not being perfect, several political science professors and other experts have pointed out that my language was not clear or was wrong on basic civics, so back to PoliSci 101 for me.

Here are a few of the points that should be corrected:

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Although common usage is to say an election writ is dropped, it isn't. It is signed.

"It is totally inaccurate to state the writ dissolves the legislature. This is not true. The lieutenant-governor dissolves the legislature by proclamation and calls a new one, which starts an election by naming a date. In addition, writs are addressed to each returning officer as Elections Ontario are conducting 107 simultaneous elections and we do not elect a premier. The lieutenant-governor's website has an excellent explanation of this and I suggest you read it: http://www.lgontario.ca/en/role-and-responsibility/pages/prorogation-and-dissolution.aspx#dissolution," said Richard Berthelsen, a former private secretary to the lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

"[Kathleen] Wynne continues to be Premier and is also Leader of the Liberal Party. She will continue to be Premier after June 12 until she announces that she is resigning. She may choose to meet the assembly after the election and test confidence. It is only the lieutenant-governor accepting her resignation and asking someone else to form a government which will change this," Mr. Berthelsen said, adding that he supports The Globe policy.

I was accused by others of Americanizing and undermining the Canadian political process by incorrectly saying Ontario voters will decide on June 12 who will lead the province. Voters decide who their individual MPPs (or MPs, MLAs, MNAs, MHAs) will be. We do not vote for a premier or prime minister directly.

I appreciate hearing from these experts and understand how important it is to get the terminology right. Any further thoughts on political coverage are always welcome and thanks to those who wrote to me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com.

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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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