Toward a New Way of Covering Elections

All Citizens Meeting (photo by Yvonne Hollandy)
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Watching the coverage of the Ontario election has been a bit depressing. It’s not just the content of the news—all the sniping and ugly back-and-forths and bizarre drama of party politics—but it’s the coverage itself. Let me ask you: why is so much of the coverage centred around sniping, ugly back-and-forths, and bizarre drama of party politics?

An election is a beautiful thing. It’s when all the people have a chance to have real, substantive discussions of the kind of future they want to build, to discuss what’s important to our society and how we get there. But an election is also an awful thing, a fierce and often ugly competition on a very public stage with a very big prize at the end. It’s a reality show full of drama and intrigue, and, when covering an election, too often high drama wins out over high-minded discussion.

This is a shame, and it’s also bad for our democracy. There are few times when people are more engaged and more willing to have these real conversations than during an election cycle. People who are content to sit back and let the politicians handle it most of the time will get into passionate arguments about budget shortfalls and education policy during election season.

So how do we harness that engagement, that passion, and keep the focus on what really matters?

That’s the goal of Electric City Decides, our coverage of the 2018 Peterborough municipal election, which starts this issue (pages 9 to 12 of the print issue, and online in our Politics section) and continues until after the election on October 22.

This process actually started last month, on May 12, when we held our first All Citizens Meeting at the Mount Community Centre. Scheduled less than two weeks after the kickoff of election season, the goal was to help set the agenda of the election around the issues that matter to the citizens of Peterborough. During the event, citizens and politicians had a chance to engage in real discussion about the issues, and what they want to talk about for the rest of the election cycle.



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The cover image for this issue (and for this article) is part of the result of that—a massive tableau of topics, not that were chosen by the candidates as something they’d like to campaign on or by the media as ‘important,’ but by the citizens, in an act of direct and engaged democracy.

Making election coverage more focused on the issues also means putting less focus on the candidates. Indeed, as much as possible we’re going to avoid reporting on what candidates say and do, and getting into the muck of election drama.

We’re also not going to be endorsing (or condemning) specific candidates. We believe the people of Peterborough can make their own decisions. We also know that, by pushing one candidate over another, we simply build the walls higher between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and make that reality show all the worse. Instead, we want to provide a space for everyone to come together and collectively works towards solutions.

In putting together our election strategy, we chose three main goals for our coverage and our events. In the interest of transparency, and to give you a sense of where we want to take this thing, I’ll list them now:

  1. To inform the citizens of Peterborough about what’s happening in the city and in the election.
  2. To highlight specific issues that have been identified by citizens as important to them (and/or that we believe are important), to encourage candidates to speak to those issues, and thereby to shift the conversation this election towards what really matters.
  3. To encourage and empower the citizens of Peterborough to engage with local politics by learning about the issues; by encouraging candidates, media, and fellow citizens to address the issues that matter to them; and by making their own informed decisions about who to vote for.

Our first Electric City Decides is (we hope) an illustration of these goals. Dylan Radcliffe writes about Harper Park, an issue that was brought up several times at the All Citizens Meeting, and that serves as a microcosm of the ongoing tension between environmentalism and development that will continue in this city as it grows. Michelle Strutzenberger profiles Bill Templeman and his podcast Pints & Politics, another example of dialogue around the local election, and another great resource to find out what’s happening. David Tough provides a warning about misleading statistics, and encourages people to make their own decisions this election season. And Elisha May Rubacha kicks off a series that we’ve titled ‘Municipal Politics 101’ that aims to get people up to speed on the process of municipal politics and elections.

It’s also no accident that this section lands at the direct centre of the magazine. We’re hoping people will pull these out and keep them for the next few months, referring back to them as October 22 approaches and the conversation really heats up. Remember the issues brought up here as you engage with your candidates and your fellow citizens. And, in the end, make up your own mind about who to vote for. Together, we can build the kind of Peterborough we all want to see.

 

Photo by Yvonne Hollandy.

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