Media's election coverage found to be light on issues

January 12, 2006, vol. 35, no. 1
By Marianne Meadahl

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Media coverage of elections can be heavy on the campaign but light on the issues.

That's what SFU communication PhD student Kathleen Cross found after taking a fine-tooth comb to 28 days of television newscasts from B.C.'s 2001 provincial election coverage. Despite the fact that the race between Liberal leader Gordon Campbell and the NDP's Ujjal Dosanjh was not a close one, TV news media in particular focused most of its attention on the events and strategies of the campaign rather than the issues.

The study is the first in Canada to zero in on provincial election media coverage.

Cross, who also teaches political communication at SFU, studied news broadcasts on four television stations (CBC and what were then VTV, BCTV and Global) and evaluated stories for their campaign, or issue focus. She found only one-quarter of all stories focused on election issues.

“It seems there is more attention given to the horse race rather than the issues of the day,” notes Cross, who defended her thesis, called Elections Without Politics, in December, in the midst of the current federal campaign.

Cross found that the news media emphasized poll standings of the parties, but hardly commented on the poll's accuracy. She also says a rise in the number of voters refusing to answer pollsters' questions could have an impact on poll interpretation, yet is not included in many news reports.

Cross suggests that election reporting tends not to provide voters with the information they want. For example, she found that while news anchors asked mainly campaign-related questions of party leaders in feature interviews, voters were more likely to ask issue-related questions of leaders, when given the opportunity.

“In some ways it's not surprising, TV is about entertainment,” says Cross.

“If you consider that the majority of voters get their information from television, and that more voters are making their decisions during the campaigns, you realize that the impact of media coverage can be significant.

“Thirty years of research has shown that news content influences what citizens think about, and how they evaluate, political parties, yet they are doing so with little real information,” notes Cross.

She adds: “There is no shortage of issues that are of great importance to Canadians, health care being one. The democratic responsibility of media has to take precedence over the marketing of news programs if things are going to change.”

With her dissertation behind her, Cross, an admitted political junkie, can focus on the federal election and how its coverage may impact the Jan. 23 vote.

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