Thinking Outside the Box: TV News Broadcasting during the 2015 General Election

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Political News Wednesday, December 16, 2015 View Count = 1964

Thinking Outside the Box: TV News Broadcasting during the 2015 General Election

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Thinking Outside the Box: TV News Broadcasting during the 2015 General Election” is written by Jennifer Ditchburn from The Canadian Press. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Jennifer Ditchburn and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The signals that the 2015 general election would be different for Canadian broadcasters were transmitted from the moment that Parliament was dissolved.

Initially, a single camera operator and producer were sent out to cover the Conservative leader’s tour, the tiniest of technical crews, working for TV networks that had pooled their scant resources. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party announced that it would not participate in “consortium” debates traditionally organized and broadcast by the main national TV networks, choosing to negotiate with new players instead. Throughout the campaign, the legacy broadcasters continued experimenting with new ways to captivate their fragmented audiences while facing an ever-widening field of competitors (journalistic and political) in the digital sphere.

These shifts are all part of an election campaign that saw the broadcast news media in a period of transition and evolution. Innovation is a necessity for an industry that is under incredible economic pressure with dispersed publics and declining ad revenues. The industry is also responding to another kind of pressure linked inextricably to political marketing—a party fixation with news management that places stifling limits on journalists.

The economic reality for broadcasters (for all news media for that matter), manifested itself in how they decided to cover the leaders’ tours, which are normally the centrepiece of the traditional media’s coverage of an election campaign. The total cost of roughly $50,000-$70,000 per person per campaign (before taxes) to join a leader’s tour was staggering. The Conservative Party’s rate of $70,000 was the highest because they began the leaders’ tour in August and because it encompassed the entire 11 weeks; a per-week rate was proportionately higher. The TV pool members—CBC/Radio Canada, CTV, Global, TVA and CPAC—decided to cover the Conservatives with a single camera operator, capturing the “head on” shot of the leader for the first few weeks, expanding to include a second camera and sound operator later. The use of new technology, specifically the portable, Canadian-made Dejero transmitter, enabled networks to further cover the tour without always relying on satellite trucks and their crews. As for journalists, only the CBC/Radio-Canada and CTV sent a national political reporter regularly on the road with the leaders while other networks sent in regional representatives when the campaigns swung within reach of their bureaus.

For decades, media critics have scrutinized the homogenous coverage of the leaders’ tour and how it siphons away attention from issues that are important to voters. The Conservative Party’s particular control of where camera operators can roam and how many questions Stephen Harper would answer in a day (four national, one local), in the name of political message discipline, has caused even more soul searching. Is this truly the best way to tell the story of an election campaign, particularly when parties themselves are live broadcasting events using social media? 

The skeleton TV crews on the leaders’ tour left broadcasters with room to explore other, more citizen-centred options for covering the election campaign. Some of the broadcasters significantly beefed up their online offering, with tools and content specifically designed to help voters sort through party policies. Global ran a regular “Reality Check” segment to test out the claims of leaders and also sent three national reporters across the country to do feature stories on policy issues and on interesting riding battles. CBC’s The National ran a nightly feature on individual voters and their preoccupations. CPAC did a laudable job talking to candidates and voters in 69 ridings. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) featured extensive campaign coverage, including town halls on First Nations issues with the Liberal, NDP, and Green party leaders.

Campaign 2015 also saw the first real forays into election coverage by new digital broadcasters. When the Conservatives pulled out of the consortium debates, YouTube/Google Canada stepped into the vacuum by transmitting debates organized by Maclean’s magazine and The Globe and Mail. This gradual detaching from the tightly scripted and controlled leaders’ tours (even if it was out of financial necessity), plus the input of new broadcast players, is cause for optimism that campaign coverage is breaking out of the old box. 

Still, there’s plenty to reflect on before the next scheduled federal election in 2019. Obsessive reporting on public opinion polls sucked up journalistic resources and broadcast minutes that could have been spent delving deeper into policy issues, informing voters, and holding politicians accountable—important democratic roles that political journalists fulfil. If the broadcasting system is supposed to support the “enhancement of national identity,” as per the Broadcasting Act, an assessment is required of whether the five national debates held during this campaign reached enough Canadians. Finally, broadcasters should consider whether they took enough advantage of the dollars saved by not covering the leaders’ tours (or sending fewer reporters) and adequately cover critical policy issues that Canadians keep saying they care about—health care, for one. Did reporters interact with enough individual citizens, both in person and through social media? The Syrian refugee crisis proved that the broadcast news media can focus squarely on what audiences care about, and force Canadian politicians to respond, rather than the other way around. 

Ditchburn photoJennifer Ditchburn is a Senior Parliamentary Correspondent at The Canadian Press. Ditchburn is the 2015 recipient of the Charles Lynch Award for outstanding coverage of national affairs and a three-time National Newspaper Award winner. She is co-editor (with Graham Fox) of the upcoming book The Harper Factor, to be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2016). Her analysis of the coverage of leaders’ tours during campaigns was recently published: “Reporting on Elections,” The Informed Citizens’ Guide to Elections: Electioneering Based on the Rule of Law, Special Issue, Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law (2015).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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