A five-week campaign shortens the window for achieving balance in news coverage and the immediacy of digital platforms adds to the challenge. Candidates and their supporters are quick to notice deficiencies, both real and perceived.

By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News ombudswoman

Last week I mentioned that elections bring special challenges to newsrooms. A five-week campaign shortens the window for achieving balance in news coverage and the immediacy of digital platforms adds to the challenge. Candidates and their supporters are quick to notice deficiencies, both real and perceived.

Brunswick News has adopted guidelines for its print and online election coverage that apply to what and how content is presented. You can view them on the Ombudsman homepage on your newspaper’s website.

The guidelines note that the first priority “is to keep the needs of the voters paramount”. I asked BNI editor-in-chief Patrick Brethour what he hopes to accomplish with the papers’ election coverage.

“The goal is to focus on issues in order to provide voters with the information they need to cast an informed ballot,” he says, adding, “Timely coverage of the campaigns is of equal importance and merit.”

Brethour favours in-depth, issue-based reportage over “horse-race” stories. “Polls have become less dependable, and electorates across Canada have become more fluid,” he says. “Who’s up and who’s down can make for political drama of a sort, but it has little bearing on the significant and important choice that voters must make.”

Before the writ was issued, Brunswick News reporters produced several in-depth series, including features on major issues in the campaign, the position of leaders on those issues (including video, on telegraphjournal.com) and profiles of ridings throughout the province. All part, Brethour says, of ensuring that “the issues and choices facing New Brunswick voters are fully explored ahead of the vote.”

Provincial editor Adam Huras, who played a key role in planning the election coverage, says maintaining balance is one of the trickiest challenges covering a campaign. For the first time, he points out, the NDP, like the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, has a bus touring the province. Five parties have platforms. The Green Party has promised a full slate of candidates and the People’s Alliance has set the same goal, although there is some doubt it can attain it for this election.

Some parties have more resources to get their message out, and Huras rightly wants readers to have all the options. I support this goal, because no reader should be short-changed, but it doesn’t mean all five parties will necessarily get equal coverage. Here’s the guideline:

Throughout the campaign, editors at each publication are responsible for ensuring balanced coverage on all platforms of the major parties and reasonable coverage of other parties. The governing party and the official opposition deserve roughly equal attention. Any other party that is capturing significant voter intention requires significant coverage. Minor parties deserve to be covered within reason; as noted in the Election Reporting Handbook of the International Federation of Journalists, coverage of minor parties should not be disproportionate to their role in the election.

You can see that there is room for a good deal of subjectivity, and the task facing Huras and the editors is not an easy one.

Huras says quality is another crucial factor in election coverage. “We have to be capable of covering the parties the best we can,” he says. “We have to do everything we can to ensure that we provide balance in terms of quality of content”.

In the Western world politics is highly adversarial, and election campaigns are extreme competitions. You need to score points, sometimes off the backs of your opponents or of third party “enemies” you set up to appeal to your constituency. You also need to try to get the news media to spread the word for you.

Promises fly, policies are introduced that sound wonderful but are often short on detail, and rhetoric and criticisms abound. Reporters have a duty to cover events as they unfold, while at the same time ensuring that they do not become pawns in the game.

Province-wide bus tours are a staple of many party leaders’ election campaigns and reporters traditionally travel on the parties’ buses, with their food and accommodation costs covered by their employer. Huras describes bus tours as a “rite of passage” for journalists, and a tough slog: 32 days on the road, with rarely more than 12 hours’ notice of where you’ll be travelling to and sleeping next.

The stories you get may not be the greatest, either. Some days there will be a substantial announcement; others, only a “photo op”. But I like Huras’s take on it:  “I entered [journalism] as a service to the public; when you get the opportunity to be a part of this, it’s a privilege as a journalist.” Well said.

Brunswick News’ election guidelines cover other things beside balance: information to include when writing about polls, the preferred use of photos, how to refer to sitting politicians on the campaign trail and so on. The thing about guidelines is that they’re there to be followed, so if we slip up, let us know. I can be reached at ombudsman@brunswicknews.com.