Leaders’ Debate 2015: turning point in Canadian journalism or predictable dud?

2015-debate

The Globe and Mail likely squeezed every bit of coverage from the Leader’s Debate it hosted last week, so let’s discuss why this political event may have long-term impact, or not.

The Globe heroically managed to distill not just Debate Highlights from the 90 minutes show between national party leaders Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau. Editors also treated its audience to Memorable Moments and Best Exchanges. Moreover, the newspaper made available an indispensable series of News Videos to highlight newsworthy items such as Harper’s ‘old stock’ comment (which we were all shocked to learn, no doubt, caused hype on social media). Numerous columns and stories provided further analysis and summaries in print and online.

Meantime, on debate night Sept. 17th, CBC The National broadcast a debate about the debate. (Correction: viewers were treated to an analysis by the country’s most-watched national political panel.) Host Peter Mansbridge, presumably in a moment of weakness, couldn’t resist pointing out that an event hosted in Calgary used a backdrop showing parliament buildings halfway across the country in Ottawa. Broadcast amateurs they all are, those folks at the Globe and Mail, right?

Rather than news coverage generated or voters’ response, what seems rather  revolutionary about the event is this. A stately print publication broadcast one of Canada’s largest national election events. All this while Green Party’s Elizabeth May, excluded from the debate, creatively managed to comment from the sidelines with a series of Tweets.

As online news platforms mature, the lines between broadcast and print continue to blur. This  Leaders’ Debate demonstrates just how far media outlets have ventured into their competitors’ traditional territories. Will this Globe broadcast come to be seen as a turning point in Canadian journalism when print, broadcast, social media and online news gathering inescapably merged into one joint news stream?

The jury may be out if this fluid media landscape will make professional, unbiased political journalism more or less accessible to average Canadians in the long run.
In terms of ratings, the new format seems to be a bit of a (predictable) dud.

One news outlet reports that 300,000 watched at least part of the political showdown on YouTube. News 1130 further reports that this compares to Maclean’s Debate earlier this summer which gained total viewership of 4.3 million. In contrast, 10.6 million viewers tuned into the 2011 English debate on national TV when in April CBC-TV/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global Television and TVA worked together to orchestrate the political showdown.

Why Trudeau’s pics help cement relationships with young voters

TrudeauGlobe and Mail’s Daniel Leblanc recently asked photo editor Michael Davis to evaluate pics distributed by  PM Stephen Harper, and party leaders Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair.  His feature A Snapshot of How Federal Leaders Frame their Image deserves a second look now Canada Day officially kicked off the political BBQ season.

In evaluating the politicians’ images, Davis declares Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau the winner when it comes to building a positive brand image with his official pics. (Remarkably, Mr. Davis sifted through an estimated one million pictures while working as the lead photo editor in the George W. Bush White House. He can’t be accused of political bias).

Mr. Trudeau “is willing to be openly perceived as he is, not as he is crafted,” observes Mr. Davis. He adds, “It suggests he is much more open to being photographed. As a consequence, he comes across as a much more sincere, caring candidate and human.”

And, I suggest, this is yet another reason why Mr. Trudeau seems to appeal to younger voters. They have been surrounded by an unprecedented stream of social media images since their early teens.  Younger voters can spot a fake pic from a mile distance. Photo ops of smiling men in dark suits holding babies? The Snapchat, Instagram and Flickr crowd won’t buy the message.

Fretting about vote splitting in this 3-way race? Worry about boosting voter turnout instead

Green Party’s Elizabeth May continues to urge voters to stop fretting about vote splitting and instead start a “buddy system” (a.k.a “refer-a-friend” strategy).

Bravo! If every voter in the last federal election recruits one other person to vote in the next federal election, Harper’s Conservatives will be toast this fall, argues May.

Fair enough. Why not try a grassroots campaign? Why not drag our kids, their friends and young colleagues into the voting booth?

The refer-a-friend strategy may indeed boost voter turnout. However, I fear my generation has probably squandered our credibility when it comes to promoting democracy among youth.

Take Michael Ignatieff. In his latest book, the former Liberal Leader provides his insights into political life. In Fire and Ashes he outlines his own political trials and tribulations with significant writing skill. The book is conveniently subtitled Success and Failure in Politics (Random House Canada, 2013).

Ignatieff explains his relationship with the media. “Obviously, a straight answer to a straight question is a good idea, and when citizens put a question to you, such candour becomes an obligation. They elect you after all. The rules are different with the press. … You try never to lie, but you don’t have to answer the question you’re asked, only the question you want to answer.”

I’m into PR. I think I understand spin. Actually, I’ll admit I enjoy spin. Also, I don’t want to underestimate the unrelenting pressures our politicians experience every day with a news cycle on social media steroids. We demand from our politicians instant responses and offer little forgiveness.

Nevertheless, it seems disturbing that a respected intellectual such as Ignatieff, a former journalist himself, feels politicians don’t have to answer questions from the media if not convenient.

“You try never to lie,” says a man who aspired to lead Canada. May this be one of the primary reasons younger voters often feel politicians can’t be trusted and don’t have anything to offer?

Can a refer-a-friend strategy get voters to the polls when our political leaders openly admit that it’s OK to avoid answering valid questions from the media (say, about the current refugee and migrant crisis unfolding in Europe?).

Ironically, social media platforms, even though they may threaten the long-term survival of mainstream media, may yet save our democracy by forcing politicians to try brutal honesty or burn (like toast).

Ignatieff says it well when he observes outsiders like Barack Obama can win elections by mobilizing youth by using the power of social media to draw them into a political campaign.

Buddy system sounds so baby boomer, Ms. May. Let’s share, re-tweet, re-post, recycle and re-purpose a very neutral message: Dude, go vote, now!