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Adventures in media accuracy

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The pressure journalists face to produce constant content during an election can sometimes threaten the accuracy of their reporting. I encountered a good example of this while doing research for an article this week.

I was following with some interest the big media gang-up on Elections Canada last week, over the law which states that it’s illegal to release election results from one time zone while voting is still happening in another. Setting aside the fact that it’s the Harper government the media should be going after for failing to change this law when it had the chance (and not Elections Canada, which is only able to enforce the laws the government makes), it’s worth looking at the wave of media outrage more closely. “Ban on Twitter, Facebook election-night posts draconian” proclaimed the Montreal Gazette. CBS News had an even more dramatic account, which struck even me as a bit hard to believe:

“In anticipation for the Canadian elections which will be held on May 2, Elections Canada — the official institution in charge of federal elections and referendums in Canada — posted a warning to tweeters and other social media users on its website.”

That’s sort of like me taking a quote from the Bible and passing it off as something the Pope said last week.

In actual fact, Elections Canada did nothing of the sort. What they did do was the same thing they do every election: two weeks before voting, they circulated a reminder that media should familiarize themselves with Canada’s election laws. One of those laws, of course, is the one stating it’s illegal to publicly publish results from one district while another district is voting (in a way that can be easily accessed by the district of ongoing voting).

The article then went on to provide a quote, which appeared to come from Elections Canada. Actually, it didn’t. The “quote” was actually taken from the several years-old law itself. That’s sort of like me taking a quote from the Bible and passing it off as something the Pope said last week.

The article then quoted three random Tweets opposing the law, followed by one random Tweet supporting the law. Supporters of the law were “a minority,” the reporter confidently proclaimed.

O-kay.

Then the article clued up with a bizarre and self-congratulatory note of triumph: “Within hours of the furor over the warning issued by Elections Canada the agency has pulled back. They still insist that tweeting election results is a no-no — but only if someone points out you did it.”

While I suppose the reporter wanted to convey the impression that not even Elections Canada dares hold its own against the mobilized wrath of the Twitter world (or the outraged media), once again the reporter’s statement is, according to an Elections Canada spokesperson I talked with, “completely false.” The agency never “pulled back”; all it did was explain the rule to reporters who phoned asking.

A side of salt

The story makes for a nice little adventure tale with a moral that Tweets will rise invincible, but based on Elections Canada’s response to it when I read it to them, most of its facts are either false or misleading. This example is worth remembering when reading election coverage: take what you read with a serious grain of salt.

As for the Facebook/Twitter law, is it something for us to be concerned about? Well, obviously the spokespersons couldn’t say on the record that they would not charge people for breaking the law, but they did emphasize that times have changed since the only set of Internet-based charges were laid back in the 1990s (long before the appearance of Facebook), and that charges would not automatically be laid for posting results: they would be laid if and only if the Chief Elections Officer felt that laying charges would “serve a public interest”.

The implication seemed to be that it’d be hard to argue that charging Facebook users would serve the public interest. As for the basic principle of infringing on our rights to Tweet whatever we want, spokespeople also noted that since it takes a certain amount of time after polls close before the first results are ready, the longest our right-to-Tweet would be constrained would probably be 45 minutes (I know, I know, some of us just can’t wait that long between Tweets).

Some media editorialists argued Elections Canada should stagger poll closures in order to ensure results start coming back at more or less the same time across the country. Well, they might be surprised to know that’s exactly what Elections Canada has been doing: over the past several elections they’ve gradually been adjusting polling times and have reduced the voting time lag across the country by 3 hours. But they’re doing it slowly, so as to study the impact on voter turnout and make sure they’re not negatively affecting turnout. Either way, a non-sensationalist discussion with Elections Canada suggests they might not be the quasi-fascist, Twitter-hating monsters last week’s media made them out to be.

But then, that’d hardly make for exciting news, would it.

Hans Rollmann’s regular column hits the Internet tomorrow. It further explores the media and its obsession with election coverage.

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