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A Cloud of Gas

It is utterly infuriating when those same journalists write or speak as though they don't even understand the basics of our electoral system. A story on the Calgary Centre by-election reported, to cite a representative example, that Liberal hopeful Harvey Locke "took a slim lead" over Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt but that the "Tory MP moved ahead soon afterward" and never again relinquished the victory margin.

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A Cloud of Gas November 28, 2012  |  By Peter Stockland
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It is annoying enough that journalists must insist on pretending to know the enduring significance of political events they know nothing about.

It is utterly infuriating when those same journalists write or speak as though they don't even understand the basics of our electoral system.

In the reportorial aftermath of Monday's three federal by-elections across the country—in Victoria, Calgary, and Durham, Ont.—we were repeatedly told how the "lead changed hands" as the results came in.

A story on the Calgary Centre by-election reported, to cite a representative example, that Liberal hopeful Harvey Locke "took a slim lead" over Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt but that the "Tory MP moved ahead soon afterward" and never again relinquished the victory margin.

Not only is this untrue, it is impossible. The lead never changed hands. Harvey Locke did not have any kind of lead—slim, fat, or otherwise—over Joan Crockatt. Crockatt (who could not yet properly be called the Tory MP, if we're going to get picky) did not "move ahead" at any time during the evening.

This was not a horse race. It was not a sporting event. It was a sealed ballot election.

Crockatt's win was an incontrovertible fact the moment the polls closed. So were the wins of the NDP candidate in Victoria and the Conservative candidate in Durham.

In each by-election, all the ballots that could be cast, had been cast. There was no possibility of the outcome changing short of someone setting fire to a polling station—or at least launching a legal challenge to contest the results of the vote counting.

The only variable was the quickness or slowness of the counting at individual polls. In other words, it was a matter of the relative arrival times of results. That is how our electoral system works. All in. All done. Hurry up and wait.

Unlike other jurisdictions, we don't have run-off votes or knock-out elections staggered over several weeks.

Yet the very political reporters who either don't understand that system—or lack the imagination to communicate its workings without resorting to erroneous sports clichés—immediately began to opine about the meaning of it all, whatever "it" might be.

We were told that the NDP victory in Victoria proves the party is now truly a national force. We were told the reduction in popular support for the Conservatives in Calgary Centre spells good fortune for Liberal renewal and casts dark shadows over the governing Tories.

We were not told how anyone could possibly know either of these things to be true. We were not told why they even merited attention as worthy speculation. We, in fact, could not be told that because every such utterance was simply a cloud of gas borne upward by equal parts journalistic ego and the media industry need to fill time or space.

It is fairly said that people living in democracies ultimately get the politicians they deserve. One wonders, though, what Canadians have done to deserve our current state of annoying, infuriating, and outright wrong political reporting that besets us at every turn.

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