Letting the Press Decide? Party Coverage, Media Tone, and Issue Salience in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election Newsprint

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Political News Friday, December 18, 2015 View Count = 2847

Letting the Press Decide? Party Coverage, Media Tone, and Issue Salience in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election Newsprint

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Letting the Press Decide? Party Coverage, Media Tone, and Issue Salience in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election Newsprint” is written by Denver McNeney from McGill University. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Denver McNeney 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

In many ways, election campaigns are struggles by parties to get their messages across to the electorate through the media. In fact, modern electoral campaigns are largely media-driven affairs with the press serving as a conduit for information about everything from polling information to substantive policy discussions. Especially during elections perceived to be close, the press spends an enormous amount of time and effort focusing on politics. Canadians, for their part, consume this media in large numbers.

This is why we decided to quantify and explore the nature of newsprint coverage of the 2015 election from the time of the writ drop through to the end of the campaign. Data for this analysis comes from an original database of 5,078 newsprint articles concerning the political parties and 6,728 articles about three of the major issues of the 2015 campaign: the niqab, the economy, and the Syrian refugee crisis. Collected between August 4 and October 18, 2015, these data allow for an in-depth and granular analysis of the campaign as seen through the lens of the media.

Figure 1 tracks the percentage of articles per day that first mention a particular party. While simple, the party first mentioned in each article is a powerful proxy for the central focal point of that article. In short, articles about the Liberals will, more often than not, begin by mentioning that party.

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As Figure 1 shows, the Conservative Party enjoyed a substantial advantage in news coverage to begin the campaign, and that coverage slowly eroded through September and October. This advantage is typical for incumbent parties who tend to serve as the reference point for campaigns and who also enjoy the prominence associated with being in government.

Mirroring the dynamics seen in daily polling data, the Liberal Party trailed both the Conservatives and New Democratic Party in news coverage until the late days of the campaign when the Liberal take-off began. As the change vote began to coalesce around the Liberals, they garnered about twice the news coverage in the late days of the campaign as they had received weeks earlier.

While the Conservative Party may have received the lion’s share of news coverage, the question remains whether this coverage was positive or negative in nature. This question is answered by examining media tone, which is a simple count of the number of positive words in each article subtracted by the number of negative words (based on the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary) and divided by the total number of words.

Using this measure, Figure 2 shows the Conservative Party’s advantage in news prominence was largely offset by the negativity of this coverage. In fact, with the exception of the first days of the campaign, Conservatives trailed the Liberals and NDP in average tone in every subsequent day of the campaign.

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Largely mirroring the trends seen in media prominence, the Liberals and NDP appear to be fairly indistinguishable until the late stages of the campaign. However, as Liberal Party coverage became more prominent during their take-off, it also became more positive. 

While some may view these trends in media tone as evidence of media bias or undue influence, it is important to remember that the media react quickly to the shifting moods of the campaigns and to opinion leaders throughout the electorate. In this way, the dynamics seen here may simply be because of journalists effectively sniffing out the underlying trends that were unfolding independent of any media influence.

Finally, it is worthwhile to explore the salience of the various issues that sprung up throughout the campaign (Figure 3). Perhaps unsurprising considering Canadians’ focus on the economy throughout the campaign, the economy held the largest share of the media’s attention with the exception of a period in mid-September when a shocking image of a drowned Syrian toddler elevated coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. Interestingly, the Conservative Party’s use of the niqab as a campaign wedge issue is strikingly clear in the data. The niqab received no substantive coverage until September 10 when it began to steadily rise through to the end of the campaign. Of note, comparing Figures 2 and 3 suggests a corresponding decrease in the tone of Conservative coverage as the niqab debate gained prominence.

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For a campaign that will perhaps best be remembered for a strong change vote that vacillated between opposition parties, the present analysis fits neatly with the post-election narratives offered by pundits and political scientists alike regarding a late-campaign Liberal take-off. Whether this is evidence of a media effect during the campaign or simply an attentive press capturing the natural evolution of the campaign is ultimately up to one’s own interpretation of the role of the media in Canadian democracy.

 1  Articles sourced from Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and Vancouver Sun.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.09.57 PMDenver McNeney is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University. McNeney’s work focuses on political partisanship, political interest, and the role of the media to better understand the processes of democratic accountability. Recent work includes (with J.Scott Matthews), “’We Like This’: The Impact of News Websites’ Consensus Information on Political Attitudes” in Political Communication in Canada (UBC Press, 2014).

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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