guest post: the real worry about election 2012.

By: Richard Liebrecht

Going into the election, the two-person caucus of Brian Mason and Rachel Notley was well known among media insiders and observers for punching above their weight in earning coverage. Having served as communications officer for the caucus, I like to think I also played a small part in that excellent coverage. You get it by being relevant and timely.

Brian Mason Alberta NDP leader 2012 Election

Brian Mason

But relevancy and timeliness weren’t required this past election. New Democrats got solid coverage everyday. As did the Liberals, PCs and Wildrose. When I say solid, as a professional public relations practitioner (read: flack), I mean uncritical, straight-up recording of events and releases. I know that some press releases were literally re-written into stories and published.

Early in the campaign, the New Democrats sent Mason into a sports store to buy an Oilers jersey. Five cameras showed up just to get tape. It was way too easy.

Had it not been for a blogger talking about conscience rights and the Wildrose, and a P.C.-connected tweeter highlighting gay-damning comments from a Wildrose candidate, the election may have been nothing but a bunch of rehashed press releases and horserace stories.

I’m not here to slam reporters, however. I count many as friends, and I formerly worked for the Edmonton Sun.

Perhaps that’s why the slack coverage of the election is in my mind easily explained – this election was the product of a dwindling media presence in this province. It’s a national and international trend that’s seeing the reporting industry shrink while economies and populations are at historically large sizes.

Danielle Smith Wildrose Party Alberta Election 2012

Danielle Smith

Firstly, newsrooms were under resourced this election. The Wildrose at times had only one reporter aboard their mammary motor coach, despite their surge in the polls. The reporters who may have been assigned to it were instead covering multiple campaigns in a day because there just weren’t enough bodies to put someone full time with each campaign.

I know that reporters had found Hunsperber’s blog, but didn’t have time to look through it extensively enough to find the trouble posting.

Secondly, editors are desperate to cover every bit of news available. Sounds good, but thanks to short staffing, they’ve been forced to choose: do original work and let some news slip by, or throw all your resources into making sure you have all the news that’s everyone else is doing. Their choice is evident when several cameras showing up for a guy buying a hockey jersey. Every station was worried they may not have the shot. And God help that editor if they tweet a picture of it 30 minutes later than another outlet. This is the blowfish act of outlets too proud to show that there’s little meat left on the bones.

Allan Hunsperger Wildrose Party Edmonton South West

Allan Hunsperger

It’s scary to think that Hunsperger’s blog may not have come to light before Election Day. Premier Smith would have had damage control to do, no doubt – but also no one to answer to for four years. The tidal wave of strategic voting may never have been triggered. Who knows what else media missed?

While a shrivelled press corps makes getting out my story as a PR flack easier, as a citizen I know that’s a dangerous state. While truth can be relative, it is relatively objective. I hope and expect media will be out there wading through the facts and opinions with genuine, untainted curiosity to expose lies and half-truths. Media, at its best, is a bulwark of accountability. When that accountability dwindles, then so too does the warning of punishment for spinning half-truths and even lies, as some dishonourable members of my profession do. Corruption and confusion come unheralded and unstoppable.

None of this is inevitable in a growth society. As news consumers, we have two important choices to make. We can decide to reward enterprising journalism with our readership, or continue to loyally follow a shrunken media into irrelevance. We can decide to pay for subscriptions to good journalism, or we can continue to live under the illusion that news is free.

Demand news with insightful analysis, interesting human perspectives, exploration of new angles and lots of background research. And pay for it.

While handfuls of journalists will continue to lose their jobs if media continues to whither, it’s you who next election may unwittingly vote for someone or something you didn’t even know you were voting for.

Richard Liebrecht (@wardofcanada) is a public relations specialist. He’s formerly communications officer for Alberta’s NDP opposition, where he consulted on communication strategy. He’s also a former staff reporter at the Edmonton Sun. He blogs at wardofcanada.blogspot.com.

24 thoughts on “guest post: the real worry about election 2012.

  1. Jason van Rassel

    Hi Richard: Yours is a thoughtful post and the perspective is one of a political and PR veteran, no doubt. I have NO quibble with an argument for more newsroom resources, either.

    It’s important to note, however, not all newsrooms have the same kind of resources and at the risk of turning this into chest-thumping for the Calgary Herald, my own outlet, let me say our own coverage was robust.

    I was not on the election team, but nearly every day of the campaign, we had AT LEAST two reporters on the election — usually it was three, plus columnist Don Braid. In addition to those two or three dedicated political reporters, beat reporters on health, education and justice/social issues (my beat) were regularly tapped to contribute. I personally wrote two 700-800 word articles framing the issues for our readers. We had at least two full pages of news coverage a day, supplemented in part by stuff from our sister paper, the Edmonton Journal. On top of that there were several daily blog posts, columns on the oped pages, etc.

    Elections are important, and ensuring readers have a thorough understanding of the issues is one of the most fundamental roles the media has. With respect, I think the Herald (and the Journal, for that matter) performed better than what you’re describing above.

    Although I disagree with you, I’m thankful for the discussion, and it’s a good one. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. @Richard r u on crack?

    Richard, don’t kid yourself. The Conservative media heavily favored the ND’s and PC’s in Edmonton and took every chance to marginalize and downplay the Liberals. There was no equitized coverage. The LIberals were treated like garbage by the media and hack political scientists who have to secure funding for their school$. This not so much an election, as it was a propaganda whitewash by so many establish folks who work hand in claw to keep the same dysfunctional governance limping along. There was little or thoughful media coverage. It was mostly favoritism propaganda, the kind you find on a school yard, where band wagon kids favor the cool kid, so they get invited to the party. Don’t kid yourself, democracy is barely existing here in AB.

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  3. lesoteric

    I would like to ask one question – where is the undeniable evidence of a “…tidal wave of strategic voting”?

    Throughout the election I heard a lot about this phenomenon – however it seems to me that (and without actually running the numbers, which I will do in the near future), strategic voting is as hard to prove as it is orchestrate. Perhaps there is some insight you can give on how we can isolate and measure the effect of strategic intent of voters (not just whom the voted for).

    Reply
  4. Martin Levenson

    Richard, I hope you recognize the irony in bemoaning the “dwindling media presence in this province” ON A BLOG!

    I no longer have a subscription to the Edmonton Journal because I got tired of the preponderance of stories coming off the wire that showed NO attempt to localize them, I got tired of the pretense of “objectivity” coming from publishers that ALWAYS defend the status quo, I got tired of really facile and shallow “analysis” on the op-ed pages, and I got tired of having to wade through all the advertising just to find the “go-to” end of items. I also got tired of all the advertising flyers included in the paper, especially from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

    I no longer rely on newspapers to get my information, I’m much happier getting information on the web(including blogs like this one, where a VARIETY of opinions and p.o.v. are expressed) and if there’s advertising, I can ignore it and don’t have to bundle it up for re-cycling. Yes, I no longer have the “benefit” of “gatekeepers” determining what is newsworthy and how to consider it, but I like to think that I’m intelligent enough to be able to figure those things out for myself.

    Reply
  5. Rick Newcombe

    Media coverage of the 2012 Alberta provincial election reminded me of children playing soccer… They swarm as a pack around the ball with no strategy for getting the ball through the goal posts. The over-worked media staff (with a few exceptions, they’re no longer worthy of the term “reporter” or “journalist”) simply logged on to twitter each day to see which way the “ball” was going to go…then they all swarmed in that direction.

    From my perspective as a candidate for the Wildrose in Edmonton-Meadowlark, election 2012 was not about which party had the best policies to help Albertans prosper. It was about acquiescence to the forces of political correctness, which are so prevalent in our media. To me, the evidence shows that although less than 50% of the citizens cast the actual ballots, the media influence their thinking to an unnatural degree. In essence, government in Alberta is formed based on whichever party “plays” the election game best throught the media. That means feeding the media low-brow stories (not facts) that garner the most newspaper sales and Nielsen TV viewer ratings.

    Albertans were played by what is now the longest standing government in the history of Alberta. They have proven beyond doubt, they will resort to ANY measures, to retain their grasp on the levers of power. This even includes what Albertans claimed they despise most in American style personal attack ads.

    The next four years will tell the tale of how their success at winning elections, equates to prosperity for Alberta and its citizens.

    Reply
  6. Barry

    Political news coverage in Alberta is and always has been pathetic and uncritical. That, as much as any reason, is how the PC’s have remained in power in Alberta for over 40 years. Ralph Klein set the modern standard for hand-feeding the media and controlling their message. Marg Delahunty made the point best when she drapped her arm over the premier’s shoulder and was quoted as saying, “Stick with me and you’ll be farting through silk”.

    Reply
  7. John

    Richard gives an account of the real constraints facing newsrooms today. However, I am more concerned about the coverage on a day-to-day basis because, as Jason van Rassel pointed out, the two main local Postmedia papers brought in extra firepower during the election, which is not something that they can afford to do outside of a one-month-in-four-year period.

    Moreover, this is a much more relevant and productive discussion to have than the misguided conspiracy theories about bias in the media. Far too often, members of the left complain about right-wing bias in the media. While it is true that all reporters have opinions, pretty much every single reporter I’ve dealt with during my time in politics is a consummate professional who I will take the side of over impassioned party hacks, ignorant to the constrains of modern-day journalism, who cry foul every time their party fails to excite and is kept off the sheets as a result.

    Reply
  8. Jason van Rassel

    Let me add a little clarity about our political coverage: we did ramp up for the election — but every day, year round, we have at least two reporters and a columnist covering provincial politics.

    If there was any ramping up, it was the involvement of beat reporters like me — but that isn’t confined to election campaigns, either. Our beat reporters are drawn into political coverage on budget day (not unusual for 7-8 Herald writers in the lockup at McDougall Centre), cabinet announcements and other significant developments. Our health reporter, for example, is regularly brought into coverage on queue-jumping and the various inquiries.

    Reply
  9. Kim

    So why didn’t the media flog one of their own … @JasonvanRassel when he made a statement on Alberta Primetime “as a white male is on top of the cultural pyramid” when WRP was flogged for their candidate saying and acknowledging essentially the same thing but taken totally out of context. Media bias is absolutely alive and well regardless of what side of the fence you’re on.

    Reply
  10. Jason van Rassel

    @Kim
    Yes, and why don’t we take THAT comment out of context, too.
    For all who are now wondering what I said and why: we were talking about cases of mothers accused of killing children. I then said there wasn’t a case in the last 20 years in Calgary of a woman who killed her own child being convicted of murder — it was always a finding of manslaughter or not criminally responsible. (Backed up by a 20-year database of homicides I maintain.)
    I compared this with men, who are often convicted of murder under similar circumstances.
    I then said something to the effect that things are historically tilted in favour of men in our society and that this could quite possibly be one of the only examples of laws/institutions favouring women.
    The clip is on Alberta Primetime’s website — everyone can watch it for themselves and decide.
    I thought I was offering a constructive comment to an otherwise civil debate and get rewarded by being lumped in with someone who said something far different and in a far different context.
    The first law of the Internet: anonymity=incivility.

    Reply
  11. Jason van Rassel

    @Kim
    And another thing: while I don’t know Alberta Primetime’s ratings, it’s safe to say thousands of people would have seen/heard me make that comment — and yet I did not receive a single letter, phone call, email or Tweet criticizing me. (I’m going to be in the studio tonight and I’ll ask them if the show received anything, either.)
    No media conspiracy here: people knew what I meant — and they also knew there is a world of difference between what I said and what Ron Leech said.

    Reply
  12. Rural gal

    The huntsberger thing was known before the election by the pc war room – it was just a matter of when they would release to media. As so many cases, the media was biased everywhere during the election. It was facinating to read the same story in two or three newspapers and note the slangy, the bias and the omission of some facts or opinions. It seemed pretty clear which news outlet was batting for each team.

    Reply
  13. Michael Dawe

    I was told (hopefully by a reliable source) that one of the main reasons that Danielle Smith handled the Leach and Hunsperger incidents so awkwardly was that she and her campaign team knew, or suspected, that the P.C. War Room had other incidents ready to be publicized if necessary.So reacting strongly and immediately might have only brought even more cases into the news. I guess that the WRA didn’t realize the extent of the damage that the two incidents has already done.
    One of the ironies – the P.C.’s had lots of skeletons in their closets as well. There just wasn’t anyone (especially the media) willing to dig for them, unless the information was explicitly provided to them in great detail. And the WRA either didn’t have that kind of information or had decided not to try and use it.

    Reply
  14. bartinsky

    Michael, there are still 7 plus minutes of a meltdown on video, of the little miss perky herself, hopefully something of substance happens with these people, but I hold out little hope for bi-polars and rodeo clowns, make Gordon Kessler look worthy these people do.

    Reply
  15. The Spectator

    Its interesting to see that print journalists in Alberta think that attending a budget lock up or reproducing a press release is an example of robust political reporting. Respected journalism requires a little more effort (and digging) than that.

    Reply
  16. Jason van Rassel

    @Spectator:

    Nowhere did I say that those things alone are robust political reporting. The post was about a dwindling media presence and I was simply trying to convey we devote a significant amount of resources to politics outside of the election cycle. That’s it.

    And FTR, I’m not a political reporter: my background is crime and justice — and I’ll put my knowledge and investigative bonafides in those subject areas against anyone else in Alberta, whether they’re in the so-called “mainstream media” (a hopelessly reductionist term, BTW) or less traditional journalistic medium.

    Reply
  17. Rural gal

    There are a lot of really big skeletons in the pc closet. WR did not use them as they actually thought it should be issue based. And there was some wanting dignity after the terrible tweet of the “why Danielle has no children” – she did not want to subject others to that kind of pain. But she did want to do several forensic audits if WR won. There are some really big things lurking, but now we will never know.
    The other was that the media did not report the same for both parties – remember candidate Rasheed said some pretty racist things but was not touched. Tom Olsen counted breasts and white guys and not a word. Cuisines li used the school as an extension of the PC war room – not touched. Etc etc etc
    But we now will see what unfolds for the future. With oil and gas in the toilet, will we see promises kept about not doing stuff until we are in surplus? I doubt it- I see massive debt and deficit coming. But I will wait and see

    Reply
  18. bartinsky

    Oil and gas in the toilet? Get your head out of the father in laws cows ass for awhile Gal, oil only needs to be 34 on conventional and 53 on sands to make money, get some education, or did the country school close.

    Reply
  19. Tom G

    For all the bandying about of “strategic voting” theories, here’s what happened: Wild Rose ran on an unelectable platform. Period. They are forever banished to the sidelines, and it’s their own damn fault.

    Reply
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