Friday, November 14, 2008

The Conservative-Centric Media

In the 2004 and 2006 elections,, the Conservatives received more favorable coverage than the Liberals, based on an analysis done by McGill University. I've used that information to support my view of media bias. Well, the 2008 analysis is out, and Olaf cites the findings to demonstrate that essentially my criticisms amount to "tedious" and "predictable" partisan musings, with no basis in fact. Never mind the past two elections, let's focus on what 2008 brought, to see if Olaf is correct, or if I have further grounds to cling to my partisan delusions.

When you look at the tone of coverage, Olaf is correct to conclude that no media bias is perceivable:
Overall, net tone was as negative for Harper as it was for Dion. Combining all six weeks, Harper’s net tone was 6.3 points below the average, compared with -6.4 for Dion, +2.3 for Layton and +10.3 for May… The most interesting trend over the campaign is the absence of any considerable gap between the Conservative and Liberal parties. Indeed, in the final week of this campaign the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper received the worst coverage in the major newspapers.

The charts:

Hard to quibble with that data, it clearly shows consistent treatment of both of the main parties, the NDP faired better, the Greens a media darling, lacking any real scrutiny. So, in terms of sheer coverage, 2008 was different from the past two elections, essentially a wash. You can argue circumstance, but let's just leave it be, and confess I'm wrong.

However, am I really wrong? Olaf presents the evidence, with one glaring and frankly seismic omission. While the negative/favorable ratings were essentially the same, the Conservatives and Harper received a massive 3-1 advantage in terms of coverage. The article, unlike Olaf, gives ample focus to this unprecedented "peculiarity":
The sheer volume of Conservative coverage overwhelmed the other parties in a way that certainly has not been evident for any party in the past two elections. One challenge ahead for all parties and leaders may be how to respond to and prepare for this peculiarly Conservative- and Harper-focused media environment.

The declining prominence
of the Liberal Party’s leader is
quite remarkable. In 2004, almost
half of the news stories in the
Canadian press about leaders mentioned
the Liberal Party leader first.
In 2008, Dion was the first leader
mentioned in articles only about 15
percent of the time. This marginalization
by mainstream newspapers
occurred in spite of his position as
leader of the opposition and of the
second-largest party in the country.
Most of the articles concerning
party leaders were led by coverage of
Conservative leader Stephen Harper. In
fact, articles that began with Harper outnumberedall articles beginning with the other party leaders combined headlines were concerned, the gap was
even larger. That is, for Canadians skimming headlines, in both local and
national newspapers, Harper was even
more predominant. Strictly in terms of
the proportion of coverage, Harper was
mentioned three times as often as Dion
by the end of the campaign.

The "marginalization" of the Liberals is a very relevant point in this discussion, one that any fair representation should mention ;)

Back to the graphs:

What is really intriguing, the 2006 and 2008 elections are essentially the same in reverse, meaning you can compare the "incumbent" advantage, which is assumed. A Liberal minority, essentially the same as the Conservative minority, so it's a fair measure. Note the parties received the same coverage in 2006, Harper virtually the same as Martin, despite the supposed power party advantage. Then look at the ridiculous gap in 2008, where Harper received 3 times the coverage. Also, as the article notes, while the Liberal coverage "marginalized", the Conservatives stayed consistent, so on both scores something is amiss. A further point for my NDP friends, how is that Layton runs a flawless campaign, and yet the coverage wanes to almost meaningless mention? If you have a conservative bias, it stands to reason that the farther left you go, the less traction you'll receive, no matter campaign prowess.

Here's the deal. The picture for 2008 is more muddled than the previous two. Those arguing against bias have found something to cling to, even though we still have two example of pre-disposition, one a draw. Taken in totality, you can still argue my point, but let's not split hairs. That said, you don't stop with the fav/unfav raw analysis, because the findings go further. If you asked any party strategist if they would prefer 3 times the coverage of their opponent, with the full knowledge that said coverage would be balanced, relative to your opponent, would they favor that scenario? The answer is a resounding YES, because simple logic assumes that no party has a chance in hell of forming government, if they are ignored in such overwhelming fashion. We aren't taking about 20% more coverage for Harper, we are talking about a staggering 3 times advantage, which is eye catching, no matter your political persuasion. Coverage even, coupled with sheer mass of coverage, that denotes a decided Conservative-centric media, equals advantage Cons no matter how you slice it. Again, confer with a pro, lay out this scenario, when they smile, you have your unbiased judgement.

Olaf calls me out, but for some odd reason, when I take the analysis in totality, I still see a bias, in fact it's quite striking.


olaf said...


First of all, you're a good sport. Kudos.

Second of all, I think we've hashed out our disagreements pretty thoroughly, so I won't restate them here.

But what I will do, in the interests of shamelessly biasing your commentors opinions in my direction, is frame a question thusly: Is it reasonable to state that "the media" is strikingly biased in favour of one candidate and party, if the coverage which that supposedly favoured candidate received from that same "biased" media was equally or more NEGATIVE when compared to its nearest rival (and far more negative coverage than other contenders)?

Anyways, fun sparring with you Steve, as always. :)

WesternGrit said...

I'd take neg pub over no pub any day. I think lack of mention in the media is tantamount to failure.

Who is responsible for the failure? Is it the press/media? Is it our party? Harper had an ingenious strategy in 2006, with the daily platform release. They did it again this year - and no matter how it was bungled at times - the media was there to report it...

Constant Vigilance said...

I believe there was a comment thread on one of your election posts about this subject so it is interesting to see some data, however qualitative.

I noticed this in a general sense throughout the campaign. I couldn't believe it when CBC radio would have Harper and Layton on for Canada At 5 and The World At 6 with rarely a bit on the Liberals. Even on a "good news" day for the Liberals. It caused my wife to facetiously ask if the Liberals were running at all.

I wrote The House twice to complain about their obvious Conservative bias.

And as for Rex Murphy.......

My conclusion is that our servants in the media decided that we needed to be guided away from Dion and towards the Strong Leader. Much as they are likely to try and guide us towards Ignatieff now that they are tiring of Mr. Ordinary.

Kudos to the Canadian people for resisting this as well as they did.

Steve V said...

It's a pretty valid question, why the huge gap? I remember a few times, and I conferred with others, wondering aloud why Dion was being ignored. Part of the gap could be attributed to Dion's relative stature, not exactly a popular figure, but that only takes it so far, because the discrepancy is so out of whack.