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Volume 6, Number 9

ELECTION '93: What role did television play in the outcome?

PRIOR TO THE 1993 CANADIAN FEDERAL ELECTION campaign, the Liberal and New Democratic parties complained that the media had been biased in favour of Kim Campbell and the Conservative party by covering her summer events almost to the exclusion of all else. But during the campaign, it was the Conservatives who complained of media bias against them and their leader. Throughout the campaign Campbell was often heard complaining that the media were not faithfully conveying her message to the public. For example, on 24 September, CBC's Denise Harrington reported: "Campbell also complained that the media travelling with her reported unfairly what she said." Similarly, on the same day, CTV's Leslie Jones said: "Campbell was clearly frustrated with the media's focus. She says the Liberal refusal to tackle the deficit is guaranteed to result in the destruction of Canada's social programs. That, she says, is what the media should be concentrating on."

The issue of balanced coverage of the parties typically arises during election campaigns. In light of the devastating losses the Conservative and New Democratic parties received at the polls it has never been more important. What role did television news play in these losses, and equally important, how did television attention to the Liberal and Reform party campaigns reflect in their huge gains in the election returns?

This issue of On Balance assesses national television coverage of the 1993 federal election campaign. It examines the amount of attention all the parties received; the proportion of positive, negative and factual coverage, as well as the amount of attention the networks allocated to examining the issues.

Conservatives Most Frequently Discussed Party

ON BOTH NETWORKS THE PROGRESSIVE Conservatives were the most frequently mentioned party; they received 32 percent of CBC and 31 percent of CTV attention to the political parties. The Liberals received 26 percent of both networks' attention (figure A).

Click here to view Figure A: Assessments of the Parties

Traditional parties covered in traditional ways

The Progressive Conservatives and the Liberal parties were essentially covered in the same ways that they had been in past elections. These two parties were portrayed as old, traditional parties. Coverage of the PCs and Liberals focused extensively on campaign strategies, the horse-race and following the leaders.

The campaign strategies of the Conservatives under the leadership of Kim Campbell received the most negative assessments. Almost three-quarters of the assessments of the Conservative campaign were unfavourable. Assessments of the Liberal party's campaign performance were balanced.

Television treated Chretien better than Campbell

Early on, it appeared that the Conservative party would be judged on how it presented its message, rather than on the message itself. In the first week of the campaign, reporters commented on how they themselves were being treated by the two main parties. For example, on 12 September Keith Boag reported: "Courting the media has always been part of the game, but in this campaign the Liberals are taking that game to a higher level. Take their media bus: it has seduced reporters. They're in love with it. Not only is it roomy and comfortable, with televisions, and so on, but each reporter also has a work space with a table, a lamp and a telephone. And there's a fax machine in the back. For print and radio reporters that means deadlines are suddenly easier to meet. They can file stories straight off the bus. On the Tory bus, organizers are aware that reporters covering them feel they're not treated as well as reporters covering the Liberals. The party is trying harder: last night the Tories offered reporters and technical crews tickets to the Montreal Expos game. The Liberals insist their service to the media is not an attempt to jolly reporters into sympathetic coverage. They're just trying to help."

The differences in the campaign styles of Chretien and Campbell underscored the relationship each had with the press during the campaign. Chretien was accessible, funny, and best of all, portrayed himself as the elder statesman with clever tales from campaigns gone by. In contrast, Campbell was not as readily available to the national press corps. As a result, her youth worked against her--she was not portrayed as a seasoned leader. In fact, her inexperience aided the media in their relentless pursuit of "the gaffe."

Campbell portrayed as confused

What is even more significant about the way in which the media treated Kim Campbell and Jean Chretien was that Campbell was portrayed as confused, and often having to explain and re-explain her statements, especially in French. For example on 9 September Denise Harrington concluded her story stating: "But Campbell left confusion behind at the end of what was planned as a picture-perfect day."

In contrast, Jean Chretien was rarely asked to clarify his statements.

Campbell and Chretien judged by different standards

Various media personnel have described Kim Campbell's September 23 remarks that social programs could not be completely overhauled in 47 days as "the defining moment of the campaign." Probably no other incident best illustrates the power of the media. After all, it was the media who dubbed Campbell's statement as "defining" and it was the media who emphasized those remarks throughout the remainder of the campaign to ensure that they in fact did define the campaign. The role of the media in identifying these "defining moments" and in ignoring others is best illustrated in the comparison of Kim Campbell's 47 day remark to one Jean Chretien uttered a few weeks later.

On October 7 Jean Chretien stated to reporters: "Let me win the election and after that you come and ask me questions about how I run the government." While Kim Campbell tried to emphasize the statement, not only did the media fail to emphasize Chretien's comments as they had Campbell's earlier remarks on revamping social welfare, but they only provided scant information on the statement Campbell was attempting to highlight: For example, on the CTV News that night Sandie Rinaldo stated: "Prime Minister Kim Campbell accused Chretien today of ducking tough questions about what he would actually do in office. The Tory leader said Chretien wants people to elect him first and ask questions later. And she added this description of the Liberal leader's campaign.

Kim Campbell: Mr. Chretien is running what I've referred to as the closed casket campaign. Viewing from three to five every afternoon, please speak in hushed tones and at all costs do not ask a question.

On CBC, while Campbell's quip was mentioned, more attention was made to a supposed contradiction in her remarks on the deficit projections.

Paul Adams: Later, with the national press corps, she insisted she was being misunderstood.

Q: I'm just wondering. Do you have doubts that you can get to zero by 1999?

Kim Campbell: No, I think that it's realistic. I think it's tough but I think it's realistic.

Paul Adams: . . . The mix-up over Campbell's deficit plans illustrate once again a problem that's plagued her campaign: her off-the-cuff remarks have often distract from the message she'd like to deliver. Even when the Tories go on the offense, it seems, they spend some of their time playing defence.

Reform only party judged on issues rather than on campaign

While television reporters were judging the merits of the Conservative and Liberal parties on the basis of their campaign, the Reform party was being judged on its policies. Being judged on policy rather than on the campaign gave Reformers a clear advantage over the other parties. Claims made by Preston Manning that Reform was different was supported by the different reporting style that television offered them. While Kim Campbell was consistently being questioned on campaign strategies, or explaining a current gaffe, Preston Manning was presenting the Reform party's vision for a new Canada.

This ability to present concrete policy alternatives to those put forward by the traditional parties also helped increase national television. By the second week of the campaign, they received more attention than the traditional Canadian third party, the NDP. By the leaders' debate, media attention to the Reform party had intensified. On October 12, CBC Prime Time devoted most of its magazine to the Reform party. Not only was Reform's rise in the public opinion polls highlighted, but Preston Manning gave an interview which examined many of the party's policies.

The increased scrutiny did not come without some costs. In the early weeks of the campaign, assessments of Reform were three times as likely to be favourable as unfavourable. As the media spotlight shone more brightly on Reform, the proportion of assessments began shift. Despite this increased attention, Reform remained the only party that was able to withstand the increased scrutiny. In previous weeks, whenever any other party became the major focus of television news, their negative attention surpassed their positive attention. The Reform party went from where favourable assessments of them outnumbered unfavourable assessments of them three to one, to balanced assessments of their policies.

NDP fail to attract national television attention

In all, the NDP received 10 percent of both CBC and CTV attention to the parties. During the fourth week of the campaign, New Democrats received less attention on CTV than did the National party.

The inability of the NDP to attract national attention became a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the media. At the onset of the campaign, the NDP were low in the polls and had difficulty in getting visible support at public meetings. The media reported this lack of popularity. As the campaign progressed, this inability to persuade the media that the NDP were a significant factor in turn amplified the swing in popular support away from that party.

CTV provided negative assessments of the NDP campaign more frequently than they did positive assessments. Assessments of New Democrats on CBC were slightly more positive than negative. The feeling that New Democrats were given an easier ride than the PC party was highlighted in a 22 September Globe and Mail story by Murray Campbell: "Campaign reporters agree that some days they are softer on Ms. McLaughlin than they would be on Progressive Conservative Leader Kim Campbell because the NDP seems so out of the race."

Bloc able to begin dialogue with English Canada

In Lucien Bouchard's first election speech in English Canada he indicated that the reason for the engagement was that he wanted to promote understanding of his cause in English Canada: "I'm here today because I strongly believe in the possibility of a dialogue. In my view, this is imperative when one considers the events which are more likely, more than likely to unfold in the coming months and years." Essentially, this wish was fulfilled by national television news. The Bloc received more attention than the NDP and on CTV rivalled the attention payed to the Western-based Reform party.

Moreover, the emphasis on the Bloc resulted in Quebec's issues being discussed more frequently than those from other regions. Slightly more than half of CBC and half of CTV attention to the regions examined Quebec. In contrast, Western Canada received less than one-fifth of CBC and one-fifth of CTV attention. Ontario was practically ignored compared to previous elections, receiving slightly more than 10 percent of network coverage.

The Bloc was presented in English national television news as the potential official opposition. Much of the media attention to Bloc reflected the possibility of this outcome as well as the speculation on what role a separatist party would play in a federal parliament.


Results are based on census samples of 237 CBC Prime Time, 17 National (aired on Saturday), and 26 Sunday Report stories as well as 252 CTV News stories from September 8 to October 24, 1993.

All stories appearing during that time were coded, representing a total population rather than a random sample of stories.

Two researchers were employed in coding the news stories. The researchers were selected on the basis of their differing political views. To assess the clarity of the research instrument and measure consistency, tests of inter-coder reliability were conducted throughout the procedure. A random sample of 15 percent of the stories were recoded for the inter-coder reliability quotient. A high level of intercoder reliability (0.87) was obtained. Further information or details on the coding design and methods may be obtained by contacting the National Media Archive.

Networks Fail to Live Up to Campaign Promises

AT THE START OF THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN, CBC and CTV predicted that issues would dominate this campaign. On CTV, Ottawa Bureau Chief Craig Oliver said: "I hope this will be an election in which content will be more important than the contest. And I think voters are gonna force it to be, because there's such a state of high anxiety out there. People are worried about their jobs and their livelihood, and they want to find out who might offer them some answers to meet those concerns. They're gonna want specifics. They're gonna want concrete, they're gonna watch issues, I think, this time around, very closely." Pollster Angus Reid echoed that remark: "Oh I think there's no question that this is gonna be a campaign far more about substance than style." Similarly, CBC suggested that its coverage would be different with this campaign; they would aspire to listen to the people. More importantly, they introduced segments that examinee the issues in more detail. For example, CBC provided a "Reality Watch" segment with Brian Stewart.

CBC increases horse-race coverage; on CTV it decreases from 1988

In terms of the horse-race, i.e., covering the gains and losses in public support, the networks differed from each other and from previous campaigns in their attention. CBC nearly doubled the proportion of its total attention to the horse-race from 1988. Meanwhile, CTV decreased its total proportion of attention to the horse-race from 15 percent in 1988 to 12 percent of the total attention in 1993.

In the end, both networks gave the substantive issues, such as jobs, free trade, or health care, less attention in 1993 than in 1988. In 1988, CBC examined the issues in 38 percent of its attention to the election; in 1993, issue coverage went down slightly to 35 percent of total attention. On CTV, the difference was even more dramatic. In 1988, the private broadcaster examined the issues in 38 percent of the coverage, whereas in 1993 the issues were discussed in only 27 percent of total election coverage.

Free trade ignored in Week 1

Figure B depicts how substantive issues (like the economy or social concerns) compared to campaign process (such as following the leaders) were reported on a weekly basis. During the first week of the campaign economic issues were given only 19 percent of CBC and 28 percent of CTV attention--Jobs were the main focus of discussion.

Click here to view Figure B: Weekly Election Coverage

Free trade, the dominant theme of the 1988 election campaign, was barely mentioned in the first week of coverage. Only two percent of CBC and four percent of CTV overall attention in the first week of the campaign mentioned free trade, despite the fact that during this time side agreements to NAFTA were signed by U.S. president Bill Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell. While the signing ceremony in the U.S. was reported, it was not discussed in reference to the Canadian election. On the other hand, CBC did report that Saskatchewan politicians should avoid election campaigning to farmers until the harvest was completed.

Liberal's "Red Book" shifts CBC's attention to economic issues in Week 2

The announcement of the Liberals' economic platform in the second week of the campaign, which came to be known as the "Red Book" shifted CBC's focus on the campaign to the economy and jobs. Forty three percent of CBC's coverage during the second week of the campaign examined economic issues. In contrast, CTV's overall attention to economic issues decreased to 25 percent in week 2.

Conservative policies fail to attract television attention in Week 3

The prime minister's two major speeches on the Conservative party platform were not given the same amount of attention as the Liberal party platform released a week earlier. Reporters' analysis about Kim Campbell's speeches were more likely to focus on the change in strategy than on discussing what she had to say.

Only 25 percent of CBC's and 18 percent of CTV's attention to the campaign focused on economic issues during week 3, despite the fact that the polls quoted by television news during that same week cited jobs as the most important issue in the election campaign.

Social issues were discussed in 17 percent of CBC and 16 percent of CTV's attention to the election. That level of attention was partly a result of CBC's "Town Hall" series, and partly from the prime minister's controversial remarks that discussion of a complete overhaul of Canada's social policies in all their complexities could not be done in the time allotted in a 47-day campaign.

Debate coverage fails to address issues in Week 4

Coverage of the debates focused on the preparations made by the leaders and assessments of their performance rather than on what the leaders had to say. Less than one-third of both CBC and CTV national television news attention to the election for the fourth week of the campaign focused on the issues.

CBC gives more substantive coverage than CTV during Week 5

During the fifth week of the campaign there were some stark differences between the networks in their coverage of the issues. CBC balanced its coverage of the campaign with a discussion of substantive issues. Half of the coverage examined the leaders, the horse-race and campaign strategies. The remainder looked at party platforms and issues. CTV was not as diligent in providing the issues to its viewers: nearly four-fifths of its coverage examined the campaign. Only 22 percent of the private broadcaster's coverage of the fifth week of the campaign examined issues.

CBC outlines policy position in Week 6

The majority of the discussion in the final days of the campaign continued to be strategy and the horse-race. Two-thirds of CBC and four-fifths of CTV attention to the campaign focused on election predictions, following the leaders, and campaign strategy profiles.

Although the proportion of coverage was dominated by campaign strategies of the major parties, CBC had been quite responsible in outlining the major parties' specific policy positions. The best example of this was on the 19 October Prime Time where two economists dissected the economic policies of all the parties. This is how Peter Mansbridge introduced the segment: "It is not all that easy to sort out what the politicians are saying about their own or each other's plans to cut the deficit and create jobs. It may not require a degree in economics to make sense of what the politicians are saying, but a quick lesson in some of the basics just might help. So whether you are completely confused or simply have a few questions lingering, stick with us. We're joined tonight by two economists who are going to help us get past all the political rhetoric."

The segment began with a discussion on the difference between the debt and deficit. It discussed the reality of campaign promises made by the various parties such as job creation and deficit reduction.

The New Television Pundit: The Public

ONE CAMPAIGN PROMISE MADE BY THE networks that they did fulfil was their pledge to allow voters more opportunity to voice their concerns. Since the Referendum campaign there has been a significant amount of discussion about how politicians and media outlets have failed to address the concerns and needs of the so-called "average Canadian." During this election campaign, both CBC and CTV offered ways in which the public could be heard. On CBC there was the "Voter's Voice," whereby a focus group of voters would provide a second-by-second electronic assessment of various clips of the leaders or their advertisements. As well, CBC resurrected its "Town Hall," first featured in the Referendum, in which a group of Canadians were assembled in Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto to ask representatives of the parties questions on issues. On CTV, Sunday nights saw a sampling of opinion from popular radio programs across the country.

These innovations magnified the role of the public for the first time in any election campaign. The "average Canadian" received more attention than any other group or political party. As figure C shows, 23 percent of CBC and 24 percent of CTV sources' statements originated with the public.

Click here to view Figure C: Sources

The difference between CBC's and CTV's use of the public is noteworthy. While CTV went to open-line talk shows to sample public opinion, CBC selected the participants with the aid of a marketing company. While CTV made no assertions that those presenting their opinions were partisan or undecided, CBC specifically indicated when the group was leaning toward a party, was undecided or was firmly committed.

The networks' use of the public differed not only in selection but in content. While CTV's sources were concerned about the issues, they did not convey the same anger those on CBC. For example, at the end of the first Town Hall meeting Peter Mansbridge wondered aloud: "I mean, was there no one in this whole room who liked anything they heard tonight on the part of candidates?" A response from one woman was: "I would like to say this evening that I don't feel that any of the questions were answered appropriately. I think a lot of people side-stepped issues and it's really unfortunate. And actually I have to say personally I was almost offended by the Bloc Quebec-ois and their stance on issues, because they're looking solely at Quebec and when we're trying to get our country back together and have Canadians work together now, I really feel insulted as a Canadian that your issues are only pertaining to Quebec."

Conservatives provide most statements

In terms of access to television, the Conservatives were given access to the greatest number of statements on both networks. One fifth of CBC and CTV sources' statements originated with the Conservative leader, candidates or supporters. The Liberals received 15 percent of CBC and 16 percent of sources' statements. Reformers presented more statements than either the NDP or the Bloc.

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