Quebec voters who selected their election season newspapers based on the expectation that their paper’s news coverage would be tilted toward favoured candidates were disappointed, according to a cam- paign news analysis conducted by McGill University’s Observatory of Media and Public Policy.
Readers of Le Devoir across Quebec, The Gazette and La Presse in the greater Montreal area, and Le Soleil in Quebec City and the eastern part of the province received coverage that was remarkably similar in volume and tone during the election period. This similarity of coverage exists even though past surveys have shown distinct patterns in media use with Parti Libéral du Québecs (PLQ) supporter favouring La Presse and The Gazette, and Le Devoir readers more inclined to support the Parti Québécois (PQ). Le Soleil, meanwhile, remains the main daily for readers in Quebec City as well as regions south and east of la capitale nationale, areas that became lightning rods for the Action démocra- tique du Québec (ADQ).
The very similar treatment of the month-long cam- paign by the four daily papers suggests a positive evolution of the leading provincial media in the direction of greater fairness in the news columns and away from the more interpretive and ideologically charged news content that some- times marks newspaper coverage of Quebec elections. As the once-intense pressure of separatism in the province has eased in recent years (the last referendum on Quebec’s future in Canada took place in 1995), reporters in both the English and French press were able to cover the 2007 con- test more as a campaign rather than as a proxy referendum on independence. In addition, the rise of the ADQ and its consistently strong showing in polls throughout the cam- paign period also suggested that the existing spectrum of partisan cleavages between sovereignty and federalism, and between the left and the right, that marked politics in the province for three decades may be changing.
The newspapers also framed their coverage of the election in a similar way. Voters reading any one of the four papers throughout March learned a lot more about the polls than they did about where any of the candidates wanted to take Quebec if they won the election. Vital issues like educa- tion, immigration, the environment and national unity were all given short shrift in favour of an overemphasis on daily poll standings. Overall, the newspapers paid far more attention to the ”œhorse race” between parties and leaders ”” who is gaining ground, and who is los- ing it ”” than they did to the issues.
In this article we will look at the amount of horse-race and issue cover- age, the coverage of specific key cam- paign issues and the overall trends in the amount and tone of coverage of each of the three leading candidates during the 2007 campaign. We then turn to an analysis of how each of the three main parties and their leaders were treated in the four daily papers included in this study. (There were too few mentions of the smaller-party can- didates in these papers to permit reliable analysis.)
Our findings are based on content analysis of election stories in the main news sections of the four newspapers. A team of graduate and undergraduate student coders were trained to examine the papers, and they did so normally within a day or two of when the news reports appeared. The study tracked both the volume and the tone of cover- age for the main parties, leaders and issues. We also recorded the general focus of the articles: primarily cam- paign-focused (”œhorse race”) or primari- ly issue-focused. Our findings include all news content in the four papers between February 22, the day after Premier Jean Charest called a spring election, and March 26, the day of the election. (Detailed description of the methodology used here is available at ompp.mcgill.ca)
In the first week of the 2007 Quebec election campaign, newspapers devoted roughly half their coverage to news of issues and news of the cam- paign. This provided readers both with a sense of the candidates’ policy posi- tions and a sense of who was ahead or behind in the race. As shown in figure 1, after the first week horse-race cover- age surged ahead of issue coverage and remained the dominant frame of cover- age for nearly all of March. Issues out- paced horse-race coverage by a significant margin only once during the campaign, when the candidates debat- ed whether Quebec could be partitioned if it left Canada, in the middle of week two. Issue coverage also modestly exceeded horse-race news briefly with the release of the federal budget and all that fiscal imbalance money, a week before the election.
Most of the time horse-race cover- age dominated issue coverage by a sub- stantial margin. During one period ”” around the time of the March 13 party leaders’ debate ”” horse-race coverage exceeded 80 percent of campaign news content in the four papers. Reporters could have used the debate to trigger an extended period of issue discussion in the press. Instead press coverage immediately before and after the debate contained almost no discussion of existing public policy or pending political promises. The dominance of horse-race coverage in this election mirrored news reports of the 2004 fed- eral election, where substantive news coverage took a back seat to reports on the latest polls. It stands in contrast to the 2006 federal campaign, however, where issues received considerably more attention than the race between parties and leaders.
No single issue dominated the news coverage throughout the Quebec campaign, in contrast to more sover- eignty-focused provincial campaigns of the past. While the national question remained the most prominent issue, never did it exceed even one-quarter of the daily news campaign coverage. The issue also ranked as the main topic of discussion ”” not counting the horse race ”” of news reports during more days than any other issue, including the final weekend of the campaign, when André Boisclair spoke of the possibility of proposing a referendum question, even in a minority legislature where the Liberals and the ADQ would join forces to defeat it.
Early on, from the first to the third week, coverage of the question of Quebec’s future dominated other issues. The first spike on national ques- tion coverage occurred when the PQ stood ahead of the ADQ in the polls and within a few points of the Liberals. The second spike occurred during the partition controversy, when politicians debated over whether parts of Quebec could separate from the province if the province someday voted to separate from Canada.
Both the Liberals and the PQ sought to portray ADQ leader Mario Dumont in ways that would advantage their own party. Premier Charest argued that the ADQ leader, who campaigned in favour of the 1995 referen- dum, remained a ”œcloset separatist.” PQ chief André Boisclair also claimed that Dumont would help the PQ pur- sue Quebec’s independence. But Dumont positioned himself as an autonomist, supportive of greater flex- ibility for Quebec within Canada. After that exchange in early March, and as the ADQ poll numbers remained much stronger than they had been in the run-up to the 2003 provincial election, the national question faded as a news story as it became clear that the PQ had no prospect of forming a majority government.
Education remained the second- most covered issue throughout much of the campaign, as candidates mainly reacted to the ADQ proposal to abolish school boards and have education management taken over by municipal- ities. As the PQ pushed forward with its campaign emphasis on post-sec- ondary education, the incumbent PLQ also faced a backlash among younger voters over plans to increase college and university tuition. The education issue hit the 10 percent coverage threshold the first week of March, when news reports on the possible elimination of school boards peaked.
Immigration occasionally made head- lines during this campaign. News on this topic was marked by Dumont’s dis- missal of an ADQ candidate who said that francophone Quebecers needed to increase their birth rate to counter rising immigration, and by long-running ”œrea- sonable accommodation” controversies. There was also limited coverage of the candidates’ reaction to a municipal dec- laration by Hérouxville that purported to establish cultural standards for would-be immigrants, and of the request of sever- al Muslims for a space to pray at an out- ing to a traditional Quebec sugar shack.
Overall, the three parties and their leaders received similar amounts of news coverage during the campaign, though there were brief periods when one party’s coverage surged above that of competing parties. As shown in fig- ure 2, the PQ and their leader at first received far more coverage than their rivals, as the official opposition party was seen as the main alternative to the governing Liberals. Boisclair was com- peting in his first provincial election as a party leader, making him far less well known than Charest, the sitting pre- mier and a long-time party leader in provincial and national politics. Second-place candidates often receive what is known as ”œcompensatory cov- erage” in the early stages of the cam- paign, as an incumbent gets less attention than a lesser-known rival.
Indeed, the Liberals were in second or third place in the amount of coverage during nearly every day of the cam- paign. This may have reflected both the party’s front-runner status in nearly all the campaign polls and the less-than- aggressive campaign style of its party chief. When the party briefly received more coverage than its rivals it was not during a period of good news. Around March 15, for example, when Charest and his party briefly were the subject of more stories than the other two parties, the Liberal leader was defending himself against Dumont’s attack that the gov- ernment had not done enough to pre- vent the collapse of a highway overpass in Laval that killed five people last fall.
The ADQ and Dumont began with the least coverage of the three leaders and their parties. Yet, for a small party that held only a handful of seats (5 of 125) before the campaign, the amount of coverage devoted to the ADQ by the press was remarkable ”” even during the early phase of this campaign. Reporters began to take the party and its leader even more serious- ly as it rose in voter surveys, a sharp contrast with the ADQ’s precipitous fall in pledged voter support during the final weeks of the 2003 provincial elec- tion. At two points in the 2007 cam- paign ”” around March 9 and again around March 17 ”” coverage of the ADQ and its leader soared above that of the PQ and the Liberals.
The increased volume of coverage for the third party was not necessarily good news for Dumont. The first spike in ADQ coverage occurred when Dumont had to deal with an ADQ can- didate north of Montreal who made anti-gay and anti-feminist statements. (Dumont replaced the radio ”œshock jock” on March 8, but the story was kept alive for a few days by Dumont’s attacks on what he called a ”œwitch hunt” being conducted against the upstart party’s candidates.) The second period of intense ADQ coverage came when polls suggested Dumont’s strong perform- ance in the party leader’s debate had pushed the ADQ into a tie with the PQ for sec- ond place in voter surveys.
Overall, the ADQ was treated most favourably by the Quebec press. During most of the campaign, particularly during the first two weeks of March and again around March 16, the tone of the news reports on the party and its chief was markedly more positive than that of stories about the other candi- dates and their parties. Dumont’s aggressive performance in the debate, and the ADQ’s subsequent rise in the polls, helped boost the party’s fortunes to the highest level of coverage enjoyed by any party throughout the cam- paign, which occurred about two weeks before voting day.
Given the expectation that the Liberals would finish first in the elec- tion, much of the news coverage of the campaign focused on the race for sec- ond place in the National Assembly, a contest the ADQ eventually won. The tone of news coverage consistently favoured the ADQ over the PQ. The PQ received more positive coverage than the Conservatives for only a few days during the campaign, in the wake of Boisclair’s better-than-expected per- formance in the leaders’ debate. Rarely was ADQ in third place in the compe- tition for most positive coverage. Only during the final days of the campaign, when Charest and Boisclair both claimed credit for the very Quebec- friendly federal budget, did the ADQ get the most negative media reviews.
The PQ suffered the single most neg- ative period of news coverage of any party during the first week of the campaign, when the party and its leader were treated far more negatively than the ADQ or the Liberals. As the campaign began, the PQ’s 40-year-old leader was attacked for his relative inex- perience, and was forced to respond to a radio host’s claim that voters should abandon the PQ because Boisclair is gay. In addition, news reports during that period took note of the consider- able dissent within the party over the choice of Boisclair as leader.
Coverage of Charest and the Liberal Party was particularly negative following the party leaders’ debate. This was partly due to strong perform- ances by his rivals in the debate, and because he had to respond to Dumont’s attacks that the Liberals ignored warnings about the dangerous highway overpass in Laval. The Liberals enjoyed a brief burst of posi- tive press shortly after the election was called, and as the PQ stumbled. It also received a substantial boost in positive press following the release of the feder- al budget. But, for most of the cam- paign, coverage was more negative than positive for Charest and his party. The party once again seemed to suffer from ”œcompensatory coverage,” where the main rivals to the front-runner get both more news coverage and more positive news coverage than the best- known candidate and party.
An examination of the tone of cov- erage in the four newspapers reveals several similarities. As shown in figure 3, the four papers treated each of the three main parties in much the same way, with mostly neutral cov- erage for all leaders and parties. When coverage did turn either positive or negative, the differences among the media outlets were slight. The Gazette, the paper of choice for the anglophone community both on and off the island of Montreal, which tends to vote over- whelmingly Liberal, was slightly more positive in tone in its news columns toward the PLQ than was Le Devoir, editorially the most anti-Liberal paper of the four in this study. La Presse and Le Soleil (owned by the same media conglomerate) offered similar tones in their news coverage of Charest and the Liberals. (By comparing percentages, these results allow for a more effective comparison of tone than would a raw count of stories, particularly since Le Devoir is the smallest paper of the four and offered roughly half as much elec- tion news as the other three papers.) Over 6 stories out of every 10 were neutral in tone for Charest and his party in all four papers.
A comparison of the PQ coverage in the four papers also shows approxi- mately equal treatment for the party. Even though the PQ remains the pri- mary political expression of the sover- eignty movement in Quebec and has represented the key source of cleavage in provincial politics for decades, the party received very similar news cover- age (although, as one might expect, Le Devoir was less negative to the party than the other three papers). Yet Le Devoir was also less positive about the party than the other three papers, per- haps on account of the ostensible unpopularity of Boisclair within seg- ments of PQ partisans.
The ADQ, the main rival for the PQ among francophone voters, was also treated less negatively in Le Devoir than in the other papers. Le Soleil had the smallest amount of positive coverage for the party, even though the ADQ was par- ticularly popular in the paper’s circula- tion area. Once again, the overall treatment of the party by the four papers was more consistent than divergent.
All four papers treated the three parties in similar fashions, with mostly neutral news coverage. Negative cover- age outweighed positive coverage in 10 of the 12 examples: only The Gazette and Le Devoir ”” two papers with diver- gent editorial stands on sovereignty ”” offered more positive than negative coverage for a single party. In both cases the beneficiary was the upstart party, the ADQ, which ended up draw- ing voters from the PQ and especially the PLQ in the March 26 election.
Indeed, when one compares the papers’ treatment, the ADQ had a higher percentage of positive news than the other two parties in all four papers. Although La Presse and Le Soleil offered more negative assessments of the ADQ than positive ones in its news columns, in both cases the margin of negative coverage of Dumont and his party approximated each paper’s treat- ment of the PQ and the PLQ.
Political leaders frequently com- plain about the allegedly unfair treat- ment they receive in the mass media. Those complaints come from politi- cians across the ideological spectrum, as elected officials of proverbial left, right and centre complain that reporters treat their rivals more gently. On balance, our study of four leading Quebec newspapers during the March 2007 provincial elections suggests that the three leading candidates and their parties were treated similarly. While the ADQ was treated a bit more posi- tively overall than the Liberals and the PQ, all three parties received mostly neutral coverage from the four papers. It is also interesting that the ADQ received as much coverage as it did, particularly in the early stages of the campaign.
In addition, each party had a peri- od of ranking first and last in the com- petition for most positive news coverage during the 33-day campaign.
But critics of the mass media may not be entirely off the mark in this case. Our results clearly showed that the emphasis of the press was on horse-race coverage rather than policy coverage. Candidates trying to con- vince the voters to support them on the basis of their plans to improve edu- cation, health care or the environment would have been far better off ”” given the media’s focus ”” to try to sell them- selves and their parties largely on the basis of poll standings. Democracy depends on informed citizens, but even the press ”” where coverage tends to be more substantial than on televi- sion ”” did not do a good job of telling voters what each of these parties would do if elected.
Although we cannot fully test this point empirically, it is important to remember that some of these coverage differences are less a result of reporters’ decisions than of deliberate choices by the candidates and their campaign teams. When a party leader, like Charest, runs a lacklustre campaign, one would expect less news coverage ”” paign, as the PQ did to Boisclair, one and perhaps less positive coverage ”” would expect less positive coverage than reports on a more aggressive can- than of a candidate who leads a party didate, like Dumont. When party elites devoted to its leader, like Dumont. vigorously criticize their party’s standard-bearer in the middle of the cam- How well does media content cap- ture campaign dynamics? Is the picture we get from media content reflective of the larger campaign? Again, this is difficult to test, but we do note a striking relationship between our tone measures and public opinion polling results. For all three parties, the tone of media coverage moves along- side survey results. As shown in figure 4, high polling numbers lead to more positive news coverage in the days that follow. These figures lend support to the idea that reporters find it necessary to write stories that justify the daily gains and losses of the candidates.
But these campaign realities offer only a portion of the explanation of why news coverage took the shape it did. Truly biased news content, if it exists, would be revealed by content analysis despite the activities of the party leaders and their followers. The results of our study suggest that Quebec’s leading newspapers deserve high marks on the fairness of cam- paign news coverage, but far lower marks for their treatment of policy matters.
The authors thank McGill University doctoral student Allison Harell and McGill undergradu- ates Stefan Szpajda and Christina Szuper for assistance with content analysis.