[UPDATED 10-23-10] Decisions Journalists Make: Comprehensive vs. Comprehensible

On CBC Ottawa Morning today, Kathleen Petty and her guests were mulling over the idea of including and excluding municipal candidates from debates and press coverage.

Petty was recently involved in the Jane Scharf incident at the So You Think You Can Mayor debate last week. The debate was held up while uninvited mayoral candidate Scharf was escorted off the stage. Petty, who moderated the event, quiped “no comment.”

Below I have some links about the debate about debates: comprehensiveness vs. comprehensibility. Journalists, for the most part, do not want to exclude candidates, but they do have to separate viable contenders from also-rans, for the voting public’s consideration.

I believe that all 20 mayoral candidates should be invited to any public debates because the voters deserve to hear their policies and decide for themselves.

Margo Duchesney, a reader in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen.

Anyone who wants to participate [in a debate] should be asked to list the names and phone number of five people who donate a significant amount of time, either on a paid or volunteer basis

Mark Brownlee (via Dave Reevely)

Dave Reevely has the single best summary of the decisions journalist need to make during an election. He has obviously heard the criticism and thought it through. As far as he’s concerned, just because your have a right to run for mayor doesn’t mean you have a right to be covered. He has a very honest takes on how journalists decide who gets ink:

Something else I think isn’t well understood is that for candidates to draw news attention, they have to (1) do things, and (2) tell us they’re doing them.

Reevely’s post is very much worth your time, especially if you are ever thinking of contemplating la vita poltica.

Finally, I return to my Toronto-based alma mater, EYE WEEKLY. Chris Bilton has a thoughtful critical opinion of how media cover dark horse candidates. He has highlighted Toronto’s two all-star “fringe” candidates, Himy Syed and Rocco Achampong. The word “fringe” hasn’t come up in the Ottawa debate in my (unrepresentative) sample. Bilton writes about inclusiveness in a mayoral campaign that has twice as many candidates as in Ottawa, but also simmered for a year.

Still the trade-off comes between comprehensiveness and comprehensibility. When does covering that one additional candidate become a detriment to the voter you, as a journalist or debate moderator, are serving?

[UPDATE: The Toronto Star‘s public editor, Kathy English, weighs in on how the Star selected which candidates to include in its main mayoral coverage – it doesn’t include the Sarah Thomson anecdote that Bilton mentions in his piece. Still an interesting piece that should be included in this debate.]

[UPDATE 2: Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication head-honcho Chris Waddell – not his formal title – and Carleton student and Ottawa mayoral candidate Charlie Taylor also speak out on the debate for the Ottawa Citizen in an article that actually uses the word “fringe”]


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