A PC majority in Alberta: The narrative the media missed

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Surging Wildrose vs. a disenchanted PC dynasty: It was an aggressive narrative the media wanted so badly to be true that we—encouraged by dependable polls—urged it along. As Zoey Duncan reports, it wasn’t until the ballot boxes were counted that we realized how utterly we’d all been swept along by so-called opinion polls.

 

Only in Alberta could an election be called “historic” simply because the government faced some healthy competition.

Election 2012 was a battle waged between the dynastic Progressive Conservatives and the relatively new Wildrose Party, which seemed to attract high numbers of disenchanted PC supporters with their fiscal conservatism. It was an aggressive narrative the media wanted so badly to be true that we—encouraged by dependable polls—urged it along. It wasn’t until the ballot boxes were counted that we realized how utterly we’d all been swept along by so-called opinion polls.

Before the writ was dropped, it seemed clear this would be the most competitive election since 1993 when the Laurence Decore-led Liberals quadrupled their seats against Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservatives.

In week one of the campaign, polls were split; half gave a lead to Wildrose and half had them in a statistical tie with the PCs. By week two, polls showed Wildrose had pulled into a lead that appeared indisputable.

But just an hour after the polls closed on April 23, media outlets were declaring a PC majority—a result that had been exempt from headlines throughout the month-long campaign.

That’s because the polls appeared to leave the tired old PCs playing catch-up. The media happily reported on poll after poll that placed the Wildrose either a strong first or second.

“I think some news organizations have let polls stand in for actual coverage,” says Jim Cunningham, a journalism instructor at Calgary’s SAIT Polytechnic who covered elections in Alberta for more than 20 years. “They’ve been allowed by some organizations to substitute for actual coverage…

“So substituting not only takes out the journalist’s best judgment and contribution part of it, but it also has a way of skewing the process that real journalists might not, but it’s cheap to do and you run a poll, everybody says you’re covering the election.”

Reporters at PC headquarters on election night were understandably startled when the PCs pulled ahead so quickly. We’d all spent weeks speculating on what a Wildrose government—be it a minority or more—would look like. To be fair, the popular vote (unofficially, at least) indicates more Wildrose support than their 17 of 87 seats suggests. However, that’s hardly enough to assuage fears that we’d all essentially skipped reporting on the prospect of yet another PC government.

But to be honest, it’s not as if the PCs did themselves any favours during the election period. Two moments characterize the party’s often-cringe worthy campaign. First, they tried an ad campaign in which they labeled themselves “not your father’s PC Party.” Wildrose’s Danielle Smith jumped on it, saying, “your father’s PC party balanced the budget,” and columnists panned it, both mocking the PC campaign and highlighting the differences between the PCs old and new. Then, a group of concerned young Albertans created “I never thought I’d vote PC,” a video in which they satirized the ills of both the PCs and Wildrose, but painted the PCs as the lesser of two evils. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

For their part, Wildrose stumbled out of the gate in their media relations. Early in the campaign, the party began issuing press releases titled “Just the Facts.” The four releases sent between March 27 and April 3 followed a similar pattern: the reporter’s or columnist’s “claim” was followed by a Wildrose “fact.”

The Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson seemed to end their fact-checking with a blog post in which he not only fact-checked them back, but also made an unsubtle comparison between the Wildrose and the Social Credit government’s Accurate News and Information Act of 1938. That act would have given the government power to force newspapers to publish the government’s rebuttal of criticism.

Wildrose, while it was being treated as the front-running party by media, again drew newsroom ire when they cancelled three Smith interviews one week using the same emailed excuse of “scheduling changes.” Smith later told reporters she needed more sleep as she’s “only human,” and eventually agreed to pre-record some more interviews.

As good a story as a falling dynasty was, the rise of the at-times controversial Wildrose was often more tantalizing to media and so the upstarts regularly dominated headlines.

The campaign was 28 days of mudslinging, fear-mongering, attack ads and Twitter wars. Headlines screamed about boob buses and lakes of fire and conscience rights. Election teams were assembled and technology booted up. There were liveblogs a-plenty, twitpics from the hustings and upwards of 90,000 #abvote tweets sent during the campaign. Nobody wanted to talk about extending the 41-year reign of the Tories.

Read more: A closer look at Alberta election coverage: tweeters, bloggers and mainstream context

Zoey Duncan is the news curator at OpenFile Calgary

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article named The Edmonton Journal columnist as Grant Thompson. In fact, his name is Graham. We apologize for the error. 

Comments

I was going to wait for Elly Alboim to chime in on this and take a swipe at the media for not doing their homework on this story as he so eloquently posited following the surprising NDP sweep of Quebec following the 2011 federal campaign, but I thought I'd add my own two cents here.  I was, like many Canadians pleasantly surprised on Monday not because the PCs won, but because I went to work expecting to follow a tight two way race until the wee hours and instead I got to go home early. It's nice to be surprised in life and being surprised with an election result like I, and so many others, was on Monday night is a bonus. For too many years, we watched to see not who won on election night,  but which pollster was the closest in predicting the  percentage of popular vote. I think  a number of things were at play on Monday, one was that pollsters haven't realized, or maybe they have, that getting access to people's voting intentions and thus and accurate picture of the electorate is very challenging with so many people opting for cell phones over landlines, particularly for those under 35. For some reason political parties in the last federal election knew what was going on in Quebec, and I wonder if political parties in Alberta were also aware of the PCs 10 point lead. The second thing I wanted to mention is that Albertans were in a great political flux in the two weeks leading up to Monday. There were questions about rogue candidates in the Wildrose; Danielle Smith's charisma versus her lack of experience; Alison Redford's standoffishness; damaging scandals in the PC caucus; deficit budgets; a PC party that was no one's dad's PC Party, a booming economy and I think most importantly, there were four parties campaigning on change and no one in Alberta really wanted change.

Dan Fonda

 

Wasn't this inevitable? Media companies have progressively increased budgets for pollsters and well-paid pundits while laying off frontline reporters whose job it is to show, not tell, how election issues impact society. This will not change until there are more eyes and ears actually reporting from the field, and those all-knowing pundits are held to account for the damage they do to the public's perception of journalism. The public is sick of being told in advance that their vote is useless, and have been showing it with declining voter turnout election after election.

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