Every election, sans faute, much ink is spilled trying to declare the “ballot box question.” What is the burning issue that will decide how all Canadian voters make their choice?

I was part of this quest to pursue and identify the ballot box question in elections I covered from 1997 to 2015. During the last one, the Syrian refugee crisis, Canadian citizenship/identity and ethics were three of the issues that we pressed repeatedly during news conferences with the leaders.

How do journalists determine what to ask during those media availabilities? Let me cut to the chase and tell you it is not based on evidence carefully collected about what citizens care about most. To my knowledge, media companies do not invest in polling or focus groups or meaningful citizen outreach during campaigns to direct their coverage. Coverage is not mapped out based on the public’s top policy or political issues. (What gets the most clicks is not the same thing, or we’d be having an election about whether Drake called Bianca Andreescu.)

No, the campaign questions are largely based on what happens to be in the domestic or international headlines that day, what the political opponents are saying, or what the polls suggest. For example, the death of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey trying to flee the war, dominated the early part of the 2015 election.  The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh got a question about the polls on Day 1 of the 2019 campaign.

Already, columns and articles have declared the 2019 election’s “sleeper issue” to be religion, or Quebec’s Bill 21, or the SNC Lavalin affair.

But who exactly establishes the ballot box question, or the sleeper issue? Is it the political parties, is it journalists, or is it the public? This is not an insignificant question, at a point where traditional media organizations are struggling to appear relevant and maintain viewers, listeners and readers.

On Day 2 of this campaign, at least three media outlets reported that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer “was forced” to address his stance on abortion – as if Zeus had sent the questions down from Mount Olympus in a bolt of lightning. No, reporters asked him the questions, after Liberal candidate Carolyn Bennett tweeted a video of a Conservative candidate expressing views on the issue.

Doubtless, the parties have done extensive polling and mined online data to determine what nudges might influence voters in an overarching targeting strategy. That is not the same thing as identifying the public’s top election issues. The risks of manipulation for journalists are particularly high today, where misinformation can be shared by normally trustworthy official sources – Scheer’s sharing of an erroneous story that a child murderer was coming to Canada is a case in point.

There is another way, however, to approach coverage. The Boston radio station WBUR, for example, is polling people in its region to find out what issues they want the 2020 presidential candidates to address; these results will direct their coverage. The Dublin Inquirer took the same tack in its coverage of the local city election, boiling down its focus to 10 key issues; increasing the supply of social and affordable housing was number 1.

The approach is referred to as the “citizens agenda” by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of the most influential media critics in North America. He has excoriated the horse-race journalism that characterizes US media coverage (and, it should be said, Canadian coverage).

“A demonstrable public service, the citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power. That is the road not taken,” Rosen wrote last year.

The Stanford University Center for Deliberative Democracy, meanwhile, is behind America in One Room, a “nationwide Deliberative Poll,” where 500 citizen delegates are brought together to engage in a nonpartisan forum with presidential candidates.

Of course, journalism has an important watchdog role that plays out during campaigns. The main argument for having reporters on the campaign planes is so that they can dog the leaders with difficult, uncomfortable questions when necessary. That’s certainly what I told myself. But accountability questions are only one part of what gets asked of the leaders, and very little seems to be linked to feedback on what voters want to learn about.

It’s 2019, and so little has changed since we all wrung our hands over the 2016 US election, which seemed to read the public’s desires and key issues so poorly. Perhaps some Canadian media trailblazers will separate from the pack this campaign.

This article is part of The media and Canadian elections special feature.

Photo: Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer responds to questions next to his wife Jill in Ottawa on September 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Jennifer Ditchburn est prĂ©sidente et chef de la direction de l’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques. Entre 2016-2021, elle Ă©tait rĂ©dactrice en chef d’Options politiques, l’influent magazine numĂ©rique de l’IRPP. Jennifer a travaillĂ© pendant plus de 20 ans comme reporter nationale Ă  La Presse canadienne ainsi qu’à SRC/CBC. Elle a codirigĂ©, avec Graham Fox, l’ouvrage paru en 2016 The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy (McGill-Queen’s).

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