On the Road to Democratic Journalism - New Canadian Media

On the Road to Democratic Journalism

This has been an historic election – one which journalists, academics and party strategists will be decoding for years to come. As New Canadian Media’s…

This has been an historic election – one which journalists, academics and party strategists will be decoding for years to come.

As New Canadian Media’s (NCM) ombudsperson, I was privileged to have a ringside seat on monitoring election coverage.

I did not receive any complaint from a single NCM reader; NCM’s election desk moved confidently into uncharted waters.

A changing division of labour

Given its length, and the palpable sense a lot hung on it, this election generated significantly more coverage for voters.

It also appears to have led to a changing division of labour between legacy and social media, ethnic and mainstream media and editorial and news coverage, which will continue to be investigated by researchers in the ensuing days.

While polls, poll aggregators and strategic voting apps remained centre stage, the typical horse race preoccupation widened.

Canada’s history of colonial racial oppression has not necessarily been laid bare in legacy media, but at least it has been acknowledged.

There was more in-depth coverage of platform issues to do with proposed policy impacts on the middle class, reality check journalism which tested truth behind leader assertions, and at times, anguished assessments of the cultural politics of racial conflict and immigration.

Canada’s history of colonial racial oppression has not necessarily been laid bare in legacy media, but at least it has been acknowledged.

New interpretation on evaluating immigration policy emerged. Failures in intercultural understanding continued.

Polls on the views of Canadian “majorities” favouring the ban on the niqab were published with little journalistic assessment of poll question design (which may have skewed the results), poll methodology or intercultural differences.

The quality and volume of investigative journalism into swing ridings and the dynamics of the ethnic vote in campaigning improved.

While there were some instrumental, exploitive tricks, attack and wedge politics did not work overall.

A raft of new journalists of colour moved in to cover and comment on the election – matching the rise of diversity among party insiders – and occasionally even being included on CBC’s “The National” At Issue panel.

A raft of new journalists of colour moved in to cover and comment on the election – matching the rise of diversity among party insiders.

Analyzing the election run

Political journalism is always a tricky business, as Knowlton Nash, the late CBC journalist, news anchor and predecessor to Peter Mansbridge, reminded us of in his 1984 book History on the Run.

One story not yet released is the impact of the unprecedented increase in spending on advertising in ethnic media across parties, signalling a redistribution between mainstream and ethnic media, which may help stabilize the income of more ethnic media players in the larger media landscape.

The abandonment of the broadcast consortium for the debate led to fragmentation of English media sponsors (Munk, MacLeans, Globe and Mail and so on), each with limited audience reach, but it did not include an ethnic media partner.

This election also saw many respected mainstream journalists drawn into disputes over interpretation of ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ and internal editorial policy.

Andrew Coyne resigned as an editor of the National Post, and Michael Enright was found by the CBC Ombudsman found to have “crossed the line” in an editorial on xenophobia, ad hominem attack and racial slurs in political speech for “The Sunday Edition” because he called for a specific course of action in his discussion.

These cases will become central to debate in future journalism ethics courses amidst shifting practices in an era of takedown Internet trolls and the sensational Twitterverse.

Storytelling across marginalized Canadians groups has the potential to effect change.

Road to better democratic journalism

This election posed more frequent challenge for rules in achieving fairness and balance in coverage.

Conservative candidates more often refused to appear locally in debates or conduct media interviews. All parties except the Green appeared to pull back their use of free access time in electronic media, in favour of paid partisan ads.

The balance between “earned media” from attack ads and news was hard to achieve and momentum grew for the establishment of a fairness in political advertising code similar to that for commercial advertisers at the Advertising Standards Council.

In my initial watch list, I flagged how the reduced mandate for Elections Canada under the Harper Fair Elections Act required special attention to citizen awareness of where to vote in new ridings, and party conduct during getting out the vote on e-day.

While some concerns about dirty tricks emerged, they were not as widely reported as they were in 2011. And parties learned their lesson from 2011 on using media quotations without permission in attack ads.

The next four years will see much dialogue about democratic reform.

Initiatives like Democracy Watch’s honesty in politics campaign may add a ‘civility’ element. The politics of hope are back.

Ethnic media editors and journalists should continue to be involved. Ethnic media must become more transparent and included in the self-regulation of standards of election reporting, introduce more awards for excellence in election coverage and share more about best practices.

Storytelling across marginalized Canadians groups has the potential to effect change.

The Canadians who voted against Harper throughout this past decade know something about the experience of being invisible and marginalized by the party in power. But for the first time in recent political history, things have changed.

Trading places between majority and minority identity status disciplines compassion and intercultural understanding wonderfully.

It can also produce better democratic journalism.


Catherine Murray, New Canadian Media’s Ombudsperson, is a professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She has researched and written on B.C. ethnic media, self-regulation and the politics of cultural diversity in Canada. Write to her at ombudsperson@newcanadianmedia.ca.