The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

The Players, the Game, and Election Narratives: Media and the 2020 SK Election

By Ms. MERELDA FIDDLER-POTTER, Vanier Scholar, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina
 @MereldaFiddler | Merelda Fiddler | Merelda Fiddler | |

It’s become the norm to blame “The Media” for society’s problems and people’s inability to understand them. Sometimes this is attributed to a single journalist or media outlet. But more often, “The Media” is a nameless, faceless, entity; it’s a catch-all for everything from mainstream radio, television, and print outlets, to websites, social media channels, and all manner of blogs and podcasts. Elections exacerbate this. Controversial issues, scandals, and tight races occupy headlines, while complex public policy discussions that affect every aspect of our daily lives are relegated to long-format, magazine-style pieces. As budgets and newsrooms shrink, these long-format spaces have largely vanished. This leaves voters with big picture stories about the game and its players, which seem to differ very little from outlet to outlet.

This election, it was almost a herculean effort for journalists to get political leaders off message tracks. Everyone knew Ryan Meili and the NDP were going to put “People First” and Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party wanted “Strong Communities.” A daily breakdown of the travels and promises of both leaders appeared on all platforms. Early in the campaign, Scott Moe’s driving record made headlines. A previous drunk-driving conviction, a collision that left a woman dead, and additional charges of drunk driving and leaving the scene (which were later withdrawn) all dominated headlines. Many stories then featured Scott Moe asking, “Who do you trust?” It was confusing given the context. But, it was a subtle message many journalists seemed to think made good clips, and voters answered by electing Scott Moe. Not long after, masking replaced driving records after photos of Scott Moe shopping without a mask were shared by journalists. Pro- and anti-maskers took to social channels to debate whether he should wear a mask, and that then became a story. Meili also suffered a blow when he replaced long-time veteran politician Sandra Morin as the NDP candidate in Regina Walsh Acres. It’s a bit of drama that, even though it was never fully explained, cost the NDP a seat. Daily stories of sparring leaders arguing who would create the most debt, who might increase taxes, and who really cared about Saskatchewan people filled in the space between the usual policy trackers, informal polls, and stories about parties without seats in the legislature. Finally, and quite predictably, almost every outlet ran a story listing close races. But, in-depth analysis of why these races were so tight was generally lacking.

The pursuit to cover the race is fraught with challenges. I know; I’ve been there. Journalists are trained to look for original stories, points of tension, and seek out good talkers. But overworked journalists rarely have time to dissect complex public policies, place them in historical context, and then challenge candidates effectively. As a result, media reward fast thinkers—people who can hear a question and start to speak immediately. Then, there is the pressure to be first. At each press conference, reporters need to throw out one or two questions, get a sense of areas other journalists are tackling, and then quickly run off to file. One reporter can be filing several stories for television, online services, doing live hits on radio, going live on social channels, and being asked to sit as an analyst on a panel. At the same time, we expect the leaders of political parties to also effectively answer myriad of questions from dozens of reporters without taking the time to look at statistics or reference current government policy— policy that is generally constructed by civil servants. Only the most seasoned journalists, and politicians for that matter, can do this effectively. Truly understanding these policies honestly requires one to stop, think, research, and then respond.

Media analyst Pierre Bourdieu questions the real ability of fast thinkers. Very few of us have photographic, computer-like minds, capable of inputting and assessing dozens of policies on the spot. Bourdieu argues this means journalists often share ‘received ideas’, things people already know, understand, and believe to be true. In each story, the ideas are uncomplicated, the problem is simple, and one or more potential solutions are presented. Then, a little scene-setting colour is added along with a variety of reactions. The viewer can agree or disagree and share the reporter’s story (with their own position) on social media where the viewer will mostly speak to others who agree with them. Focusing on the game, the players, and easily found opinions, leaves the audience starved for one piece that truly matters at election time—a deeper understanding of the public policies that impact every aspect of our daily lives and should affect how we vote. 

But this is where my critique of “The Media” ends. In this election, perhaps moreso than any I’ve seen, journalists and outlets expanded the conversation and created new long-format spaces. Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk, with an institutional memory many politicians may not appreciate, really put claims and platforms into context in his column and podcast Campaigniacs. Others, such as CBC’s Provincial Affairs Reporter Adam Hunter and Global TV’s Allison Bamford, fought every day to have leaders answer tough questions and get around the rhetoric and message tracks. I had the honour of joining CTV W5’s Molly Thomas, as well as Murray, Adam, and Allison, for a debate night panel that began with a land acknowledgement and forced a tough conversation with leaders about Indigenous issues, with questions posed by an Indigenous person. This was possible, because the media consortium, the leaders of Saskatchewan’s major outlets, decided it was important to include more women and more diverse journalists. At the same time, I heard from many on my social channels about their desire to hear more about policies and how it will affect them, and less about party antics and perceived conflicts. As media consumers, we bear some responsibility here. If we want more than a description of the game and its players, with discussions that include diverse groups and ideas and analysis that really informs us about public policy, we must be willing to invest our time, energy, and money. Democracies need strong and independent media. To do what we are asking, journalists need many colleagues from many backgrounds, some new and some with institutional memory, because election journalism is neither a young person’s game nor a seasoned veteran’s position alone. Election journalism, like all journalism, requires thoughtful, dedicated, people with different worldviews AND time to tell important stories. It also requires all of us to support it by consuming and sharing it. This is how journalism can set the agenda and shape the political landscape people claim they want.