Occupiers and Legislators: A Snapshot of Political Media Coverage

June 1, 2012
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Occupiers and Legislators: A Snapshot of Political Media Coverage
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Introduction: Occupiers and Legislators

It is a small proportion of Canadians who sit daily in Question Period or travel across the country to spend time on Parliament Hill. Instead, much of the information and context Canadians receive about politics comes from what they see on the evening news or read in newspapers, in print or online.

The news media help to shape citizens’ perceptions of their political leaders and the political system. However, the performance of the news media is often criticized, with politicians, citizens, and media themselves charging that the media too often portrays politics in an argumentative, personality-driven way, focussing on the political horse-race and political games at the expense of providing the Canadian public with information on the issues that matter to them. As one former Member of Parliament said, “I find the media are very selective and very critical of politicians and that has only led to a lot of apathy in the public.”

Rather than engaging citizens in the issues of the day, some argue, poor media coverage may serve to alienate Canadians from important public debates, leading to declining levels of trust and confidence in government and other political leaders. In an era of declining voter turnout and decreasing participation in political parties, it is worth investigating whether these charges are accurate.

Samara, a charitable organization that works to improve political and civic engagement in Canada, prepared this study to assess the validity of common criticisms of the media and especially to answer these three questions:

  1. Is the tone of political news coverage overtly or routinely negative?
  2. Does the news media fail to provide the public with enough information about issues that affect their daily lives?
  3. Do stories overly focus on political games or government processes at the expense of issues?

Social media is increasingly part of how people source their news, so we also conducted an initial look at political conversations on Twitter. The goal was to see what was discussed online, and how newspaper and television news stories were incorporated into online political conversations.

What We Did

To explore these questions, we analyzed coverage of two major political stories in the fall of 2011.

The first story was the federal government’s legislative agenda; specifically, three bills introduced in the House of Commons in the fall of 2011: the omnibus crime bill (Bill C-10), the end of the long-gun registry (Bill C-19), and the termination of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly (Bill C-18). The second was the Occupy protest that began in the United States and spread to cities around the world, including Canada. In contrast to government legislation, this story originated from outside government. These two different stories allowed us to compare media coverage of institutional politics with coverage of grassroots politics in Canada.

Using data collected by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University, we examined 7,594 stories from 42 major daily newspapers and six national television programs in both French and English. Many of these stories also appeared online, which allowed us to analyze a significant amount of coverage to which Canadians are exposed, whether in print, on television, or through the Internet. Using this sizeable database of news content, we address the three questions outlined above as follows:

We first looked at the tone of political news coverage, which can influence how audiences feel about a political event. For each article or broadcast transcript, we assigned a score indicating the tone of a news story. This score was calculated using an automated computer algorithm, comparing the share of positive language contained in an article or newscast to the share of negative language. Positive scores, indicating a positive story, contained words like “hopeful” or “bold,” “support” or “agreement.” Negative scores, indicating a negative story, were dominated by descriptors like “blunder,” “harmful,” “anger” or “resistance.” Neutral stories contained an equal share of positive and negative language.

From these scores, it is possible get a sense of whether the overall tone of political news coverage was routinely or overwhelmingly negative. What we found is that there were notable differences in how newspapers and television journalists reported on the same story.

Secondly, we examined how much information about politics the Canadian political news actually provides. To do this, human coders at McGill University read and categorized a representative sub-sample of 587 newspaper articles and 139 television stories about the government bills, and 399 newspaper articles and 127 television stories on Occupy.

For each news story, we analyzed the amount of information by the presence and amount of facts, context, and analyses that advances a reader’s understanding of the issues. From this analysis, we can tell how much news Canadians must sift through before finding the information they require.

Thirdly, we tested to see if the focus of the news coverage of Parliament actually did emphasize political games and the horse-race. To do so, we looked at the sub-sample of government legislation coverage and classified the primary focus of the government-focussed stories into one of three categories: political games; government process, including technical discussions about Parliamentary process; or issues, including discussion of policy implications, background or options.

We also examined the coverage of these two political issues on the Twitter social media platform. We examined nearly one million tweets tagged with the dominant Canadian politics hashtag (#cdnpoli) or hashtags related to Occupy (#occupy and related tags) to see where these tweets were linking. It is thought that social media gives non-traditional news sources influence and exposure. We wanted to test that assumption for these two news stories.

For Your Consideration

This project is one of a few that systematically analyzes the media coverage of Canadian politics outside of election periods using such a large database of content. Although we examine only two political issues, the wealth of evidence our database provides can supply new information that journalists, politicians, and the Canadian public can use to better understand the complexities of political news coverage.

Through this study Samara hopes to provoke discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of political reporting in Canada today, and encourage a larger conversation on how to measure the state of public affairs journalism into the future. Specifically: What information, routinely collected, would assist journalists and the public in understanding the media’s coverage of political affairs? How helpful is the information in this report? What else would contribute to a healthy discussion of the political media in Canada? What matters to Canadians when it comes to gathering information on politics?

Feedback from journalists, news producers, media outlets, and the public, together with the findings of this research, will be used to design the media portion of the Samara Democracy Index, an annual measurement of the health of Canada’s democracy. Slated for first publication in 2013, and released annually, this index will measure democratic performance in Canada between elections, with a focus on political leadership, public engagement with politics and public affairs journalism.

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