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How we covered U.S. vote

Canadians appear to have developed sharp views on today's U.S. election despite what they've been reading in their newspapers.

A recent spate of polls has indicated a profound distaste among Canadians for the re-election of President George W. Bush and widespread support for Democratic challenger John Kerry. These results are a marked departure from U.S. polls, where the two are running neck and neck.

Previous studies have shown that popular opinion is sensitive to media coverage, so it would be reasonable to expect that anti-Bush sentiment in Canada is reflected in (or a reflection of) newspaper coverage. But that is not the case.

A study by the McGill Observatory on Media and Public Policy indicates that Canada's major English-language newspapers have been running increasingly negative coverage of Mr. Kerry over the past two months. Indeed, coverage of Mr. Kerry is currently no more positive -- or rather, just as negative -- as coverage of the President.

The results are based on a content analysis of more than 200 articles over the past six months in The Globe and Mail, National Post and Toronto Star. The sample includes all news stories, editorials and opinion pieces mentioning Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry and dealing directly with the U.S. presidential election campaign or televised debates. Along with length and policy subjects, the study records whether an article mentions Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry, and whether the article is generally positive or negative about the candidate(s).

It is unlikely that Canadian coverage has any effect on the U.S. vote. But international opinion of the candidates has become an issue in U.S. campaign coverage. Given that Canadians have strong views, it is worth probing whether media have played a role.

In the early weeks of the campaign, it appeared as though Canadian media and popular opinion were in lockstep. Buoyed by the Democratic National Convention, the stories we analyzed were generally positive about Mr. Kerry and negative about Mr. Bush. While this trend was in line with Canadians' preferences, it was also consistent with U.S. polls. Mr. Kerry got a strong convention bounce.

Subsequently, Mr. Kerry's fortunes sagged in U.S. polls. His coverage in Canadian newspapers also took a dramatic turn for the worse. It appears that Canadian news coverage was reflecting the problems in the Kerry campaign and his slide in the polls. The Canadian public, however, was unmoved. Regardless of their newspapers and U.S. polls, Canadians have continued to overwhelmingly support Mr. Kerry.

This is a stark contrast to Canada's own recent election, where public opinion and media coverage proved quite sensitive to one another. If coverage of a candidate was turning positive, it was likely that his poll numbers were improving. We wondered if the media might be doing something different in this U.S. campaign, but that does not seem to be the case.

In coverage of the Canadian campaign, there was a predominance of negative stories about all candidates from all parties. Bad news made headlines. The longer the campaign ran, the more negative the stories.

Canadian coverage of the U.S. election has been no different.

Coverage of the U.S. election shows the same partisan trends across newspapers evident in the Canadian campaign. The Globe gives relatively negative coverage to both sides. Taking an average of all articles, where -1 is negative, +1 is positive, and 0 is neutral, The Globe's net coverage for Mr. Kerry was -.25, and net coverage for Mr. Bush was -.36. The Post's coverage shows more tolerance for Republican than Democratic politics, with Mr. Kerry at -.23 and Mr. Bush at -.07. And the Star, most in line with Canadians' preferences, had Mr. Kerry at +.17 and Mr. Bush at -.51.

Overall, the analysis indicates that Canada's media are roughly representative of the state of affairs in the U.S. -- there are arguments for both Democrats and Republicans -- and the tone of coverage is not very different from what we see in the U.S. What's different is the staunchly independent outlook of the Canadian public.

Antonia Maioni and Stuart Soroka teach political science at McGill University. Ken Whyte, former editor of the National Post, is a visiting fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

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