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Report: Analysis of BC's media coverage on electoral reform

By Fair Vote Canada

BC citizens are being asked to pronounce themselves on the subject of electoral reform in this fall’s upcoming referendum. This is an issue of significant importance and interest to all of us and if citizens are to vote wisely, they need to be as well informed as possible.

“Many citizens place a great deal of trust in print media to help them make an informed decision. We applaud those newspapers who are making an effort to engage voters, but are concerned that the discussion has become divided along partisan lines”, says Fair Vote Canada's BC Media Analyst, Sjeng Derkx. We are equally concerned that the more important implications of electoral reform for voters are being ignored, in favour of constant rehashing of criticisms of David Eby and the process."

An analysis of opinion columns about the electoral reform referendum in BC’s mainstream print media in May, June and July shows that more balanced coverage, in-depth investigation and evidence-based analysis is needed in the coming months to help engage voters in the issues at stake.

We reviewed 53 opinion columns in Postmedia (Vancouver Sun, the Province and National Post), the Globe and Mail, Glacier Press and Black Press (which together cover almost every major and community newspaper in the province). Here is what we found:

  • The media has been overwhelmingly negative towards the referendum and proportional representation.

  • Postmedia and Glacier media accounted for 44 of the 53 articles we reviewed.

  • Postmedia papers were highly unbalanced, running 86% negative opinion columns and only 10% positive.

  • Glacier media was more balanced, with 48% negative, 22% positive, 30% balanced.

  • Running only four opinion pieces each in our sample, the Globe and Mail and Black Media respectively included 3 and 2 negative pieces (75% and 50%).

  • Overall, 66% of the opinion columns printed so far opposed the referendum process, proportional representation or both, only 17% were positive and 17% were balanced.

  • Furthermore, the negative columns were associated with papers with much larger circulation or were carried in dozens of papers, whereas the positive articles were more often limited to one small local paper.

  • There has been an excessive focus on how David Eby determined the question, and a tendency to focus on the partisan politics surrounding the referendum.

  • There has been little effort to ensure opinions are supported by overall research or to provide critical analysis of what a change to proportional representation will mean for voters.

Decades of research is available on the implications of proportional systems on representation for voters, the quality of democracy, the effects of cooperative (multi-party) decision making on over time, and Canadian electoral reform experts willing to provide insight on these issues.

“Fair Vote’s excellent research confirms a disturbing trend amongst Canadian media of not merely opposing democratic reform but of being generally unwilling to host a fair and balanced discussion of the issue. This is a damning indictment of the media's failure to perform its self-proclaimed role, i.e. act as a forum for debate and investigator of false claims. BC’s media owners and editors should take note of these biases and act now to correct before the fall referendum campaign really gets into gear”, says York University Associate Professor and electoral reform expert Dennis Pilon.

We encourage BC’s mainstream media to honour the trust most voters place in it and raise the level of debate by providing balanced, fact-based, in-depth coverage of the core issues in this referendum.