Television's Frames in the 1988 Canadian Election

Matthew Mendelsohn (Université de Montréal)

Abstract: This paper identifies the frames television news used to interpret the 1988 Canadian election. Leadership and the horserace dominated. The question newsworkers set out to answer was a strategic one: "Who will win and why?" The Conservatives' assumptions about the Free Trade Agreement were embedded into news coverage.

Résumé: Cet article s'attarde à identifier les différentes grilles utilisées par les médias télévisés en vue d'interpréter les enjeux de l'élection générale tenue au Canada en 1988. Les thèmes du "leadership" et de la "course" ont dominé la scène télévisuelle. La question centrale qui a dominé l'actualité télévisuelle a consisté à tenter de déterminer qui gagnera et pourquoi. De surcroît, les propositions conservatrices sur le libre échange furent incorporées à la couverture médiatique.

This paper will identify the frames of interpretation television news applied to the 1988 Canadian election campaign. It is hypothesized that leadership and horserace aspects of the campaign were highlighted and provided the frame of understanding used by television news. It is further hypothesized that when issues were discussed, particularly the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), they were interpreted through these same frames. On the other hand, values, ideology, vision and competing interests were downplayed. The conventions that television uses in the selection and contextualization of news are contingent on dominant ideology and, hence, avoid ideological debate. By implication, it is suggested that these frames have an effect on political discourse and viewers' political understanding of the campaign, making it difficult for viewers of television news to understand issues and making it more likely that their vote decisions will be based on leadership and the horserace.


How issues are framed on television helps determine what viewers eventually understand about these issues. Frames can be understood as those "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse" (Gitlin, 1980, p. 7). Frames are thus the assumptions used to structure discourse. The selection of a news "angle" or "storyline" which transforms an occurrence into a news event, and that, in turn, into a news report, is a frame. For example, newsworkers can either view an election campaign as a competition between competing interests and values, as a dialogue between citizens engaged in collective deliberation about the future, or as a partisan game played for personal advantage and power. Depending on the assumptions used, newsworkers will seek out different aspects of the campaign and structure their reports accordingly. These frames become an implicit part of discourse and animate the communication process.

Nonetheless, frames are necessary. Goffman (1974) explained that we frame reality in order to comprehend it. There must always be certain principles of organization that govern events and underlie definitions of situations. Assumptions about situations are always present in order to make events comprehensible and dialogue possible (pp. 9-13). Goffman was also concerned with "strips." Strips are arbitrary slices cut from the stream of ongoing activity (p. 9). Thus, strips are those bits of information selected from the infinite information available; frames are those understandings and assumptions which make the information comprehensible, and, in fact, often govern the selection of strips. Through reference to strips, frame analysis is able to identify what assumptions and "definitions of situations" are applied, in this case, to an election campaign.

As a social psychologist, Goffman was concerned with how individuals were able to make sense of the world using frames. Others have applied the term to the public and political world. Gitlin addressed the question of what frames the media use to structure the political world. He focussed on how the state uses the media to ensure that its frames are accepted by citizens. He argued that the media accept the state's assumptions, and thus, when political debate takes place, certain outcomes are precluded because these outcomes are inconsistent with the assumptions used to interpret the question. Gitlin suggests that viewers' conceptions of public events, organizations, and activities are contingent on the frames set by the state and used by the media.

Recent scholarship has become more interested in the concept of framing. Iyengar (1991) found that television regularly treated issues in an episodic/individual manner, rather than a systematic/thematic manner. He demonstrated in controlled experiments that when episodic framing is used, that is, "the portrayal of recurring issues as unrelated events" (p. 143), as just "happening," viewers were more likely to attribute responsibility to the character of individuals rather than social conditions or social or political forces. When thematic framing was used, that is, "focussing on collective outcomes, public policy debates, or historical trends" (p. 18), viewers avoided personalizing complex problems. Iyengar demonstrated that the episodic frame was by far the more prevalent of the two on television news.

Marlier (1989) also demonstrated how the framing of a political issue affects public opinion. He identified three phases of coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings. During the second phase, when Oliver North testified, support for North's actions went up because the issue was now framed in terms of the character, persona, and motivation of North, framing that was absent during the first and third phases. Though individuals may be responding to the same set of facts, their responses change because of the media's framing of these facts. Both Marlier and Iyengar empirically demonstrated that the alteration of the frames affects public opinion.

Much of the research on news reporting has set out to explain why and how "news" differs from "reality." Researchers have concluded that certain consistent directions in selecting, covering, and reformulating events can be identified. Some suggest that these reformulations are related to organizational needs (Epstein, 1973). What becomes "news" is not dictated by idiosyncratic and daily choices made by newsworkers. Rather, stories are the result of the specific ways newswork is organized. Reports that deal with the manifest actions of well-known people are reported because newsworkers know where to find these stories. Breaking events are reported because they ensure the creation of an audience who will come back the next day to find out more. Altheide (1976) described "the news perspective" (p. 73), by which every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. While the news perspective began as a practical way to separate one event from another and then make plausible statements about them within a given amount of time, it has now come to set the criteria for importance and coverage. Events become news when they can be told simply through an easily developed angle, not because of their objective characteristics.

Tuchman (1978) agrees that the organizational needs of news outlets play a role in the strips reported and their framing: "Newsworkers use typifications to transform the idiosyncratic occurrences of the everyday world into raw materials that can be subjected to routine processing and dissemination" (p. 50). Tuchman points out, however, that it is not only organizational needs which define newsworthiness. Those events which conform to the expectations of legitimized institutions and dominant ideology are also more likely to be deemed newsworthy. Parenti (1986) makes the point more emphatically. The fact that the press favours personality over issues, events over content, official positions over popular grievances, the atypical and sensational over the modal and systemic, is a conscious choice made by news organizations to withhold from citizens the informational and ideological tools which they need to question elite consensus. The bounds of debate, the bounds of the expressible, are limited by elites, and these limits are accepted by the news media because they are dependent on this elite consensus and the institutions of capitalism for their existence.

Regardless of one's theoretical position on why these conventions exist, a certain consensus has developed about how these conventions structure election coverage. Winning and losing are the frames which glue together stories (Robinson & Sheehan, 1983). Campaigns are interpreted as a game played for personal advantage and simply a choice of leadership (Weaver, 1981, p. 67). The language and culture of television encourages campaigns to be portrayed as war, as a game, as drama, but rarely as a competition between alternate visions (Fiske, 1987).

One recurring finding is that television news interprets election campaigns as horseraces (Brady & Johnston, 1987; Patterson, 1980; Arterton, 1984; Robinson & Sheehan, 1983; Wagenberg et al., 1988). "Horserace coverage," as the label implies, is concerned with "who is ahead, who is behind, who is gaining, who is losing, what campaign strategy is being followed, and what the impact of campaign activities is on the candidate's chances of winning" (Joslyn, 1984, p. 133). Our use of the term implies three things: first, a concern with polls, standing, momentum, and the prediction of winners; second, questions of strategy, insider information, backroom disputes, and hidden tactical motivations; and third, campaign events--the "show"--and judgments about whether these events and performances were successful. Horserace coverage therefore downplays four elements: the character of leaders, policy issues and disputes, cleavages between competing social groups, and ideological divisions between parties.

Previous analyses have also found an increasing focus on leaders in campaign stories (Fletcher, 1987; Keeter, 1987; Hart, 1987; Wattenberg, 1991). Keeter found that television has facilitated and encouraged vote choices based upon the personal qualities of candidates, while both Hart and Wattenberg argue that television increasingly focusses on personalities rather than parties or ideas. In Canada, Carty (1987) labels the period beginning in 1963 as one dominated by electronic and personal politics.

These studies have their limits. Though quantitative analyses provided an invaluable service by alerting us to the phenomenon of horserace coverage, by its nature, quantitative analysis neglects a great deal. It neglects the frames which animate stories and which fuel coverage. It fails to identify television's assumptions which govern selection and fails to identify the dominant questions which television news tries to answer, and which, by implication, may be the questions that viewers come to see as important in their vote decision. Likewise, the research on leaders does not give us an idea in what manner leaders dominate coverage. For instance, coverage could be dominated by serious discussion of personal qualities based on past performance and present behaviour that helps voters judge character, or coverage could be merely superficial personal journalistic assessments of leader performance and popularity.

The present paper borrows from many of these studies. The paper begins with an awareness of those television news conventions which make certain strips and frames much more likely. We know that the horserace and leaders are likely to be the foci, but how these foci are framed is not yet clear. Our frame analysis borrows from Gitlin's work, which identified the assumptions of news stories and the questions that are implicitly being asked (and sometimes answered) during reports. We suggest that the frames used will be negotiated between parties and the media, but will never be allowed to challenge elite consensus and dominant ideology.


We did frame analysis of the CBC national news (The National ) every night during the Fall 1988 Canadian federal election campaign. This paper provides examples of typical news coverage. Frame analysis cannot serve as a convenient tool to buttress otherwise weakly supported hypotheses. Analyzing frames cannot simply be the extraction of unrepresentative passages from news coverage. It must be remembered throughout the reading of the frame analysis that the examples we provide are examples of the frames used, not simply random sentences uttered. Four guidelines were used to ensure that this happened.

First, we used examples that were the opening or closing passages of the reports, the words which "frame" the stories. Second, identification was made of the causal relationships that are assumed: what subjective explanations do newsworkers offer for why things happen? Third, we identify the questions that newsworkers were trying to answer in their reports? And fourth, we identify the theme which recurs during the report, the understanding that held reports together.

Framing the Campaign: The Horserace

Throughout the campaign, the frame of strategy is used as an interpretive device. On the first day of the campaign, the CBC reports that the "Liberals know they must look prepared, look as if they've hit the ground running," and that Mulroney is "hoping that failures and scandals are behind him, that Canadians will be swayed by the theme he repeated so often today" (October 1). Right from the beginning the campaign is interpreted through the frames of the strategies and hidden tactical motivations of the parties. How the parties must "look," what the leaders are "hoping," and what they plan to do frame the first day's reports. They set the stage for the rest of the campaign. Television news sets out to answer the question: "What are leaders trying to convince voters to believe?" and "what are the strategic and tactical motivations of leaders' statements?" These frames continue the next day, with Mulroney "trying to convince Canadians that on integrity, his next government would be different," the NDP "working hard to create the impression that they want to form the government" and the Liberals being "determined to show everyone that they're in high spirits for the election...[and claiming] that they won the battle of TV images [the day before]" (October 2).

The questions of strategy and tactical motivations must be examined together, for on television in 1988, strategy equals motivation: why a leader does something is based solely on strategy. "Mulroney is drawing unflattering pictures of the other two leaders to get his numbers up" (November 1). The reason he criticizes other leaders is to "get his numbers up," not because he has serious ideological differences with the other two parties; ideological differences do not frame stories, the horserace does.

In addition to strategy, poll results frame stories. Polls provide the frames of standing and momentum that glue stories together. "He's back on top of the polls, determined to stay there, and seems to think that avoiding the media will help him stay there." Later the same day it is reported that there is "no gloom in the NDP ranks" despite being "third in the polls," and that "Broadbent is in Alberta because he thinks there are cracks in Conservative support" (October 3). The reason for actions is tactical--to "take advantage of cracks"--and the frame which allows such an interpretation is the frame of support and popularity.

"Leaping Liberals--and a new poll suggests the gap is widening....The further we get into election '88, the more politicians have to share the spotlight with pollsters. It happened again today....The poll was the engine that drove today's campaigns. All the party leaders talked about it" (November 7). The day's activities are consequently interpreted through the frame of the new polls and leaders' statements are understood as a reaction to them.

A good poll changes the tone of the coverage, positive or negative, but the frames continue to remain momentum and standing: "Liberal euphoria. A new poll says they're tied with the Conservatives. Taking off the gloves--Mulroney says he's coming out to fight. What a difference a poll makes. The whole complexion of the election campaign has changed....Most people still think the Tories will win, even if the figures now point to a photo finish" (October 29). Even when the story is about a poll and reactions to a poll, television still goes beyond this and predicts what might happen beyond the poll. The independent frame of the horserace is thus not only applied to stories about leaders and issues, but also stories about the horserace. And though it is reported that "the whole complexion of the election campaign has changed," in fact, the issues, groups, parties, interests, leaders, and values of the election were still the same. What had changed was the parties' chances of winning. And when parties' chances of victory changed, the frames being used dictated that "the whole thing had changed."

Reference to polls allows stories to be held together through the frame of momentum: "As the election day gets closer, the tone of the Liberal campaign seems to be changing. There are questions to Turner about whether it's run out of steam. Turner says `no.' He says there's always only ever been one speed for the campaign: full throttle straight ahead. He say that won't change" (November 16). Reasonable questions to ask would be: "seems" to whom, "changing" to what and from what, and who is asking "questions?" But there are of course no answers. The understanding that the campaign had run out of steam was then used to frame stories. It became an assumption which animated reports. As the campaign neared its end, television retained its interest in answering the horserace questions. With four days remaining until the vote, newsworkers felt the most important elements of the campaign were "whether the tone of the Liberal campaign had changed and whether it had run out of steam."

The success of events frame was also prevalent. The October 10 CBC report on Turner's tour is framed:

Stormy launch. The Liberal campaign gets off to an embarrassing start in Quebec....Turner may be thankful that the day is over. Yesterday the Conservatives kicked off their Quebec campaign with a show of enthusiasm and confidence. Today, the Liberals moved into Montreal to try and do the same thing. They could not....Liberals may want to tackle Conservatives, but they spent a lot of time fighting each other.

The next night the same frames animate the report:

The Liberal campaign, which sputtered badly last night in Quebec, roared back to life tonight in Nova Scotia. It started with a promise for more money for regional development, and it ended with a fired-up John Turner lashing out at the Free Trade Deal. Most observers said it was Turner's best campaign performance yet. Turner was warmly welcomed, and in return, he threw away his prepared speech....Liberals here gave him five standing ovations. (October 11)

Whether campaign events go well or not acts as a frame because it provides a simple, though questionable, metaphor: how well a leader can run the campaign indicates how well he will be able to run the government.

The choice has been made by television news to focus primarily on campaign events. These are the main strips selected. Campaign events, and how successful they are, are seen by television news as the central activity and issue of election campaigns. On a night when the first line of the CBC news was: "It [the FTA] is an issue most Canadians say they don't understand," the coverage of Turner's speech against the FTA was ignored. Rather, the CBC decided that it was more newsworthy that Turner had scheduling trouble: "For John Turner, a day that didn't go as it was supposed to. His travel plans were ruined by weather. And though he wanted to talk about free trade, there were distractions" (November 2). However, the distractions, such as the presence of hecklers is partially an artifact of media coverage and only a distraction if the media choose to make them so.

Though we have distinguished between the frames of strategy, motivation, polls, and events, they usually come together in the same report in an attempt to answer the question: How will what happened today affect who will win?

Today's numbers aren't enough to guarantee a majority for either the Liberals or the Conservatives. But for Liberals, it was a great way to end the week. More and more Canadians seem to be embracing Turner's fight against free trade. So it was no surprise when Turner again made that his central theme. The enthusiasm was unmistakable. Hours after the release of polls showing the Liberals gathering speed...[it was seen as a] triumph for his supporters...[and] the boost they needed....They squeezed into this meeting room to hear Turner. His candidates clustered around him, even those who have disagreed with him in the past. Turner rose to the occasion....As Turner's fortunes appear to rise, his party seems more solid, his arguments appear more confident. (October 29)

Standing is thus used as an interpretive device for the events. Assessments of the success of the events and the reaction of the crowds are interpreted through the frame of standing. The coverage of events, which is of questionable political and pedagogic value to begin with, is done through the frame of the horserace.

On November 10, the CBC leads its news with "Too close to call." The words underscore what is perceived as the central goal of television coverage of a political campaign: "calling" the election. It is this frame that could be defined as the "metaframe" since it holds together all election reports. A focus on strategy, tactical motivations, and polls are the frames which enable this to take place. This metaframe may suffice in the coverage of foreign campaigns because viewers have no possible influence on the eventual outcome. "Who is going to be President of the United States?" may be an acceptable question for Canadian news, but "Who is going to be Prime Minister?" is somewhat limited. Viewers are provided with information about who is winning, not provided with information to help determine who will win. Citizens are treated as mere spectators, not participants in the activities being covered. "Who will win?" is one possible frame. "What do parties stand for, what would they do, how would life be different?" could be another. Only the former was used to structure the 1988 campaign.

Framing the Leaders

Through what frames does television discuss leadership? We have identified three recurrent themes: a concern with tactical motivations, a focus on performance, and assessments of leaders' moods.

The question of leaders' moods and emotional states is central to news frames. As television news devotes more time to "insider" stories and polls, the information newsworkers gain from pursuing these stories can be used to assess the general level of confidence, comfort, or happiness, that the leader is demonstrating: "With 9 days gone and 42 to go, the PM smells victory. He was radiating unlimited optimism. There seems to be no doubt in his mind that he is heading for another smashing success on election night" (October 9). The day after the CBC story on the Liberals' alleged arrested coup, the veracity of the report took second place to a story assessing how leaders "felt" about it: "Broadbent says he has great sympathy for Turner...because the senior leadership of the Liberal Party is disintegrating....Back in Ottawa, Turner seemed completely relaxed." The emotional states and moods of leaders as judged by newsworkers is regularly a central frame. When leaders are treated in this way, the appearance of confidence or optimism becomes the yardstick by which success is measured.

The moods of leaders are usually framed within the context of the horserace: "The polls came up blue today....They...suggest the Tories could be headed toward another majority government. The news coming just two days before we vote put some Tories in the mood to celebrate. Nothing rallies the troops like good numbers....Polls suggest...that the fortunes of Brian Mulroney's Conservatives [are rising]." The next item began: "Mulroney's confidence level never seemed higher than it was today....The Tory surge in the polls and a bright sunny day in Montreal had Mulroney in an upbeat mood" (November 17). And: "Ed Broadbent campaigns now against a background of third place poll results. But the NDP leader seems not the least bit discouraged: he still talks about winning the election" (November 9). How leaders "seem" frames stories.

We have also described how the tactical motivations of party leaders were central to coverage. A discussion of motivation may help structure the political world, providing a "mediated political reality" for many viewers. What is understood about whose interests are at stake, what politicians really intend to do, and how life may be different depending on which party wins is partially shaped for viewers if a consistent conceptual framework is applied to politicians' motivations. Television denigrates all political leadership through its focus on tactical and partisan motivations. Policy positions are treated as mere campaign devices to attract votes. "The Conservatives have decided that selling free trade as hard as they can is good strategy" (November 2). "Broadbent made some promises today designed to bolster his claim that the NDP is the party of ordinary Canadians" (November 10). On November 8, the CBC began its story: "John Turner tried to keep his momentum going the same way he got it started--by talking about free trade." In the above reports on policy issues, leaders are framed as hucksters, doing and saying things for the sole objective of looking good and attracting votes.

Providing viewers with more background on politicians' motivations can be grouped into two broad categories: tactical or ideological. Most statements by leaders of federal parties have tactical as well as ideological motivations. Parties hope to do well, but they also have some vision of "The Good Community" and some idea about the mechanisms to arrive there. Most recent political research has found that there are real differences between Canadian parties, and during the 1988 election the parties had very different attitudes towards fundamental questions like the role of the state and the role of the market. The media is thus presented with a choice: the focus can be on the partisan, tactical, and vote oriented motivations, or the ideological, theoretical, and goal oriented motivations. Television's choice in the 1988 election was the former.

We have also described how the campaign was framed in terms of campaign events. Because television differs from print in that what is done is more important than what is said, the performance of leaders, rather than the philosophy of the leaders, becomes the focus of news reports. Leaders' performances, as assessed by journalists, thus become central to citizens' relationship to politics.

The requisite qualities for political leadership are always a reflection of the times and a reflection of the qualities which citizens value. It is a popular refrain that with the advent of television it became necessary for politicians to become performers because of their new visibility. However, what is often missed is that the choice to focus on performance magnifies the trend. We are thus making a distinction between the effect of the medium and the effect of those working within the medium: the presence of television of course requires politicians that understand the technology, but the choice to frame stories in terms of performance, as opposed to, say, philosophy, accentuates the difference between the print based and television based epistemology. Those who work in the news industry are influenced by the same social trends that influence everyone else. But the decision to have this trend, an increased focus on "image," dictate the choice of frames accentuates the trend. How well the leader performs, does, speaks, and looks are questions that television sets out to answer.

It is instructive to examine briefly how the debates were interpreted in terms of leadership. Examining this isolated event provides us with an opportunity to more clearly test the hypothesis. Were the debates seen as the key events where Turner explained and articulated his opposition to the FTA, or were they simply seen as good performances?

In the discussion following the report, the CBC cautioned against "picking winners" but then did just that:

We must be careful to make instant judgments about winners and losers, but you're quite right that one of the big surprises of tonight's French debate was the performance of John Turner, especially compared with his performance in '84 in French. This was an immeasurably improved John Turner, his pacing was good. He was loose, he was relaxed. He got in the good one line sound bites that we'll probably see on the television news tomorrow. It was an unusually good performance by John Turner.

Who won? Who lost? There are no sure answers, but it's safe to say Turner came out looking pretty good on most scorecards. Most newspapers gave it to Turner....Liberals are confidently predicting that Turner's performance in both the French and English debates will put them ahead of the NDP again and in a position to narrow the gap with the Conservatives. But it'll take another round of opinion polls to prove that, and to prove that Turner had any real impact on the voters. (October 26)

Reports on the debates were invariably framed in terms of performance and polls.

Debates, by their nature, highlight the competing leaders. However, news coverage of such events has many options: the character of the leaders, policy differences, competing philosophies, performance. The reports following the debates made almost no mention of policy differences, and even less of arguments to support competing policy alternatives. The reports focussed almost exclusively on the assessment of performance, and performance interpreted through the frame of the horserace: how will these performances help the candidates' standing? And though coverage of the debates highlights this trend, it is merely an extreme example of a recurring theme: leaders are best assessed by how well they perform (according to some unknown standard) rather than on the basis of what they say and why.

The focus on leadership is highlighted by the way in which the Liberal turnaround is treated following the debates. Turner's performance is treated as the sole reason for opinion movement even though opinion was moving against the FTA throughout the pre-debate period and against the Conservatives starting about 10 days before the debates (Johnston et al., 1992). The focus on "Turner's performance" delegitimizes opposition to the FTA, making it an opposition based solely on Turner's credibility.

On October 27, CBC concludes:

Meanwhile, it's pretty much the conventional wisdom that Turner won the TV debates. The challenge for the Liberals is to get as much bounce as they can from that judgment. In Quebec, where the party seemed to have hit rock bottom last week, Liberals say they are now roaring back....Turner the loser has become Turner the leader....Even those MPs who tried to get rid of Turner...are still talking about the leader, his performance, and how much it helped....The Liberals would [still] need a miracle to climb above Mulroney.

There is no assessment of why he has improved, other than his "performance."

Our analysis suggests that the information provided to viewers about leadership is preoccupied with tactical motivation, performance, and mood. Leaders and the horserace become interchangeable. Leaders are judged on the basis of the criteria established by the horserace. The need to "perform well," the need to "be strong," "relaxed," "confident," "pleased," etc., as opposed to "weak," "nervous," "troubled," "beleaguered," etc., become television's litmus tests for good leadership.

Framing the Issues, Values, and Ideology

In order to demonstrate that the campaign was framed in terms of the horserace and leadership, and leadership in terms of the horserace, it is necessary to examine the way issues and ideology were treated. It could be suggested that the preceding analysis has only looked at one side of the question, and inevitably, when we examine reports dealing with the horserace and leadership, it is hardly surprising that these are the frames. However, many of the reports we examined were ostensibly about issues. Nonetheless, to be complete, a critical examination should be undertaken of how the FTA and ideology were treated.

The report of November 7 states that "polls indicate a decline in support for free trade, and Turner is making the most of it." Once again, the use of "making the most of it" suggests that his opposition is tactical and a mere device. That same day, the report from Broadbent's tour underlines the frame even more dramatically: "Broadbent has been accused of scaring seniors on free trade, but he's not about to back down. The NDP isn't about to let up on the issue that they still feel can win them seats." Why is Broadbent "not about to back down?" Because he thinks he's right? No. Because he feels the issue can win him seats. It is these tactical motivations that fuel coverage and reveal the way newsworkers organize their work and the assumptions that are brought to all coverage. The tactical and strategic reason for making arguments is the engine of the story, not the arguments themselves. This is important evidence for the thesis: even when discussions of policy are featured, they are covered through the frame of the horserace and the battle of leaders. The arguments are not presented as rooted in any values or ideology.

Though a division had developed within Canadian society over the FTA, television's frames were still those of the horserace.

The pressure was on John Turner tonight. His mission was to fire up Ontario Liberals, inspire them in the face of some discouraging polls....Turner was strong, the speech was strong, but there is still some doubt that he accomplished his mission....At times he sounded like he was pleading with members of his own party not to desert him....He finished with an almost defiant gesture: walking away from the podium without waiting for applause....There was a standing ovation from the centre of the hall, but elsewhere, many just sat quietly.

The leader was framed within the context of the success of the event and the reaction of the crowd. The report closed:

Turner acknowledged that he had alienated some parts of the party with his anti-free trade stand....Making a tough speech against free trade here was a risky thing for Turner to do. As he himself said, there were many who disagreed strongly with his position on that issue. But he and his party have appeared to fall behind in this election, so clearly, this was no time to play it safe. (October 12)

Turner's motivations for taking his position on the FTA are tactical: because he had fallen behind in the polls, he could not "play it safe," and the focus is the "dissension" surrounding the event. However, an equally plausible frame (and more representative of what was really going on) would be treating the dissension as symbolic of divisions within the country, with roots in alternate conceptions of the future, competing interests, and different values. Television continued to ignore this very real aspect of the campaign. The rhetoric of television news obscures differences because newsworkers assume that such differences do not really exist; differences are tactical, electoralist and strategic. All differences take place within the context of the assumptions of a dominant ideology, and those differences that go beyond these bounds simply do not exist on television.

The indeterminate view of political issues, whereby nothing can really be resolved, is offered by television news. Television news does not pretend to be able to resolve issues, but in so doing, television demeans the possibility for philosophical or political argument. Television news communicates the message that it is impossible to determine certain things: "The Conservatives are trying to show that they can play the politics of fear as well as their opposition. Their claims that millions of jobs would be lost are as unsubstantiated as opposition claims that medicare is threatened....Both sides are slinging back and forth `liar' more than ever before" (November 2). Though the conventions of objectivistic reporting prevent journalists from resolving issues, these conventions do not preclude the possibility that journalists can frame issues so that viewers are provided with the tools and cues to resolve the issues for themselves. But such frames are not used. The frame was not: "Differing interpretations of the consequences of the FTA are linked to different values and different interests," but rather: "It is impossible to make a judgment on the consequences of the FTA, so we can only assume that politicians' arguments are mere rhetoric designed for electoral appeal." Thus, leadership and the horserace remain, and television news chose to focus its attention on these questions.

The Question of Trust and the Framing of the FTA

In order for any subject to be reported, discussed, and understood, certain assumptions must be present. We will use frame analysis to reveal the assumptions used to cover the FTA. We will also examine whether the frames used by television encouraged voters to focus on which leader they could trust.

"Mulroney said Turner and Broadbent were spreading fear and lies on free trade. The word `lie' isn't usually spoken so boldly. But Mulroney wasn't the only Conservative speaking that way, there was his Finance Minister, Michael Wilson" (October 31). The next night, viewers of the CBC heard Mulroney saying: "You can be against the agreement, but tell the truth about it." Mulroney said that the time had come "to nail the lies down, and to pin them right on the forehead of Turner" (November 4). This frame of trustworthiness was established by the Conservatives. Political parties led the media in this respect. However, it would not be accurate to say that the media simply followed the agenda established by the parties. It is not accurate to suggest that the parties framed the issue in terms of trust and that television news simply faithfully adopted this frame. Television news played a role in this process by accepting the Conservatives' frame that someone was lying. The opposition frame was completely different. They explicitly argued that there were two competing visions of the future in conflict. This frame, however, is consistent with fewer of television news conventions and is thus ignored.

The coverage of Emmett Hall's announcement that medicare was not threatened by the FTA on November 3 exemplified television's participation in the trustworthiness frame:

Some opponents of the deal say it could kill our medicare system. Supporters of the deal say that's nonsense. Today that side got an important boost. Emmett Hall came on board. You can't talk about the beginnings of medicare without talking about Emmett Hall....Today Hall says free trade doesn't threaten medicare....Why are Broadbent and Turner doing this? (Hall): "Because they want to win the election." (Journalist): And that's why Hall says Broadbent and Turner are not telling the truth. (Hall): "They said it so loud and often. I began to wonder: `Is there any merit to what's being said?' Search as I did, I could find nothing in this agreement to support the arguments being made." (Journalist): Hall says medicare is not a subsidy and thus cannot be attacked by the Americans. But it's not the logic of Hall's argument that will carry the weight, but the fact that he's speaking out. He's respected on medicare, even by Turner.

The frame assesses the likely effect of the announcement, and claims that whether the argument has any logic is less important than the fact that it was made at all: that in the contest for credibility and trustworthiness, Hall's announcement is an important tactical device, and its accuracy is of secondary importance. The frame of trustworthiness is not merely a creation of the parties, it is a function of the way newsworkers organize their reports: objectivistic, an indeterminate view of political issues, a focus on controversy, and a focus on electoral implications.

As the campaign neared its end, it had become clear that the journalistic establishment had accepted the Conservatives' frames: Turner's opposition was tactical and those citizens opposed to the FTA were opposed because they did not understand it well enough. On November 8, the CBC reported:

In a radio interview, Mulroney was asked if the drop in free trade wasn't his fault because he didn't explain it properly from the start. "Maybe," said Mulroney, but Turner has gone too far. "It's easy for Turner to come out with a baseball bat," said Mulroney, again accusing Turner of scaring people with falsehoods about their pensions and social programs. And he predicted that the truth, his truth, would win out on election day. But he's not taking anything for granted.

This report falls into the typical pattern of attempting to answer the strategic questions: whose fault is it that support for the FTA has fallen? rather than the ideological question: what in the FTA has caused the drop of support for the FTA? But more importantly for our discussion of credibility and the Conservatives' success in controlling the framing of the issue is the fact that there is an implicit answer to this second question. The answer is "nothing:" the reason support has fallen for the FTA is that people do not understand it.

The frame which television accepted was that the Conservatives had arguments on their side, while their opponents had fear and ignorance: "Canadians are asking hard questions about the deal, but instead of answers, they're getting campaign rhetoric." The report continues with a focus on Conservative candidate Gerry St. Germain:

He is also up against that grass roots alliance with the opposition, an alliance that's already reached out and alarmed voters....The Liberal in the riding is here (at an all-candidates meeting) to faithfully deliver a scripted version of John Turner's line on free trade, trying to cash in on his popularity....[Her] packaged message gets only polite applause. These people are looking for more. (A citizen): "Where in the agreement is medicare threatened? You're not answering the question." (Journalist): The Conservatives have been painted into a very tight corner. They went into the election with a tremendously complicated issue. People are confused about free trade and the opposition is cashing in on this. (November 8)

Journalists accepted the Conservatives' frame that the opposition was trying to "cash in" on the "fears of alarmed voters." This delegitimized opposition, making it a product of ignorance. Newsworkers accepted the frame that the Conservatives had been "painted into a tight corner" and were merely trying to calmly explain a complicated issue.

A report on November 7 featured the following conversation between a journalist and someone at a Conservative rally: (Businessperson): "Last week the Liberal candidate said we would be put out of business." (Journalist): "That's not true?" (Businessperson): "No, that's not true." (Journalist): "However, polls say Canadians are turning against the deal and the Conservatives." The "however" structures the report to indicate that those opposed have been misled. This frame was introduced by the Conservatives immediately following the debate and was soon accepted by newsworkers: Canadians who are against the deal either do not understand it or have been misled (or, are opposed for purely political reasons).

On November 10, the CBC reports: "It was a day that Mulroney wanted to talk about fiscal responsibility and free trade calmly and reasonably, but as it turned out, that wasn't possible." We see that even when there were bitter exchanges between hecklers and Mulroney, it is stated that all Mulroney seeks is an opportunity to discuss the FTA "calmly and reasonably." We never found this kind of language being used to describe Turner's speeches: "1,400 people came to hear Turner. It was a large crowd, a friendly crowd, and when Turner made his anti-free trade pitch, he played directly to their sense of patriotism" (November 15). We can assume that he also made serious arguments, but this did not fit the narrative television had accepted and constructed. The journalistic community accepted the frame that Mulroney was the "reasonable and calm" one with the facts on his side, while Turner was the "passionate and emotional" one, trying to cash in on the fears of voters.

The Conservatives were able to shape their arguments into a coherent narrative that newsworkers were able to understand and grasp: political demagogue stirring up passion and patriotism to get elected and refusing to accept the realities of the modern world. This is a symbol we all understand, and because a coherent narrative was not offered in its place that was consistent with news conventions, it was this understanding of reality that triumphed. Part of the problem for the opposition parties was that their narrative went beyond the bounds of debate, and thus, beyond the bounds of the assumptions of newsworkers. When Broadbent delivered an unmediated message on the FTA during the debates, he explicitly did so in class and ideological terms, and suggested that the business and financial community were not merely neutral interpreters of our collective well being, but were a self-interested group. But such a vision of ideological conflict goes beyond the state's view of politics, and thus, goes beyond the media understanding of political debate. Because of this, Broadbent was ignored as the campaign neared its end, while Turner's supraclass "Crusade for Canada" received attention.

The Effect of Television Frames

Though the focus of this paper has not been the effect of television coverage on voters, an effect on voting behaviour is suggested. The frames identified encourage voters to link their vote decisions more closely to their ratings of leaders, and less closely to their evaluation of parties and issues. We have provided the empirical evidence to support this contention elsewhere (Mendelsohn, 1991). We believe that there are five reasons why the frames identified here encouraged voters to turn to leadership.

First, the focus on the horserace prevents coverage of more substantial aspects of the campaign. By definition, coverage of the horserace necessarily reduces the amount of time that can be devoted to other questions.

Second, horserace coverage primes the frame of standing, and as pointed out, the standing of parties is explicitly attributed to the performance of leaders. In this way, positive media coverage contributes to a positive total communications environment which may encourage some undecided voters to base their vote decision on momentum:

Turner and his supporters were energized. Everywhere he went today, supporters were telling him how well he'd done. Turner soaked in the praise, and then continued to make his arguments against the trade deal....[Citizens] were expressing their admiration...praising the Liberal leader....[Turner] ridiculed Mulroney twice today. (Citizens): "you did darn good," "you did well," "I was always a Liberal, but I was more or less sliding down, but now I'm right up to the top." (October 26)

The momentum frame may be primed for casual viewers. The framing of momentum is done in terms of the leader and it is he and his performance who are identified as the cause of success or failure.

Third, news coverage which frames the campaign in terms of the horserace--at least partly because it is believed that this is more entertaining and thus will attract viewers--contributes to the banalization of discourse and contributes to the development of cults of personality.

Fourth, the frames of the horserace, coupled with a lack of ideological, philosophical, group, or social frames that would help viewers interpret events and understand issues, guarantees that viewers will turn to that which is easier and more apparent, namely leadership.

And fifth, a failure to frame events in terms of competing interests may leave many voters confused. The 1988 campaign witnessed a great deal of opinion instability (Johnston et al., 1992).This instability was partly due to the fact that voters did not know who represented them and who was speaking for their interests, and this lack of understanding was related to news framing which ignored competing interests, making it difficult for viewers to make sense of an issue in a meaningful way.

To the television networks, the campaign is the leader. Though parties have focussed their efforts on the leaders' tour, the networks have embraced this focus. The networks have chosen to personify the issues of the campaign by devoting their resources to the leaders' tours. They have done this because of the ease in covering a leader's tour and the misplaced belief that it is there that "new" things happen. Many journalists complained about the lack of newness in the messages of leaders as the campaign continued. A familiar complaint on CBC was, "the Prime Minister's tour today looked very much like it did yesterday..." (October 4) and "there is a sameness to his campaign day after day" (October 5). However, a bitter partisan and ideological debate was going on at the same time. Interest groups had mobilized and local candidates were engaged in heated debates with other candidates and constituents. The fact that newsworkers complained that leaders were saying nothing new, that many others involved in the campaign were, and that television news continued to devote its efforts to covering the leaders' tours contributes a great deal to our understanding of the current sociology of newswork. In fact, when the leader took a day off, the party usually got no coverage on the National News. To television news, if the leader did not meet crowds on that one day, and essentially go through the same routine that he had gone through the day before, nothing of relevance had happened.

On the other hand, the frames that we have identified will make it difficult for viewers to evaluate policies for five reasons. First, the discussion of the policy usually lasts no more than 45 seconds, including opposition criticism. Second, the frame remains one of strategy, contributing to the popular understanding of the campaign as no more than a political spectacle. Third, the policy usually disappears the next day, so that those voters who happened to be otherwise occupied the previous day will have missed it. On the other hand, the strategic frame remains a constant. Fourth, because the policy disappears from the airwaves the next day, other more enduring features of the campaign are more visible: strategic frames, momentum, and in 1988 the frames surrounding the FTA. What is also likely primed is the competence of the leader. While the specifics of the party proposal may fade, what remains is the image of the party leader in controlled circumstances presenting an organized statement to deal with a national concern. And fifth, the policies are not linked to other policy proposals that have been made, suggesting that parties do not have coherent visions, that they may differ on particular policies, but that there are no enduring ideological differences.


The frame analysis revealed four things. First, the campaign was interpreted through the frame of the horserace and secondarily through the frame of leadership. Second, leaders were interpreted through the frame of the horserace. Third, issues, including the FTA, were interpreted through the frame of leadership, credibility, and the horserace, particularly momentum and tactical motivations. And fourth, the Conservatives were successful in having their frames of interpretation applied to the FTA.

The specific ways newsworkers went about organizing the campaign, to make it comprehensible to them as well as to viewers, focussed on what leaders did, what their tactical motivations were for doing it, how they felt and looked while doing it, and understanding the actions and statements as a reaction to their standings in the polls. They framed their reports to answer the question: "Who will win?" and set out to answer this question by reference to campaign events, campaign strategy, and leader performance. Newsworkers did not organize the campaign in ideological terms, with reference to competing values, interests, groups, or visions. The ideological battle that was so much a part of the 1988 election campaign, and which often manifested itself in class terms, was absent from television coverage and television framing, and this group conflict was, in large part, the hidden campaign. Newsworkers asked the question: "Does Canada benefit from the FTA?" rather than asking the more realistic question: "Who in Canada benefits from the FTA?" And in order to assess whether Canada would benefit, newsworkers turned to the financial community, and hence, embedded the assumptions of this community into news coverage. The first question ignores class, group, and ideological conflict, while the second recognizes this conflict as an integral part of politics. Though there is a great deal of partisan squabbling and bickering on television news, there is no real substantive conflict over values and direction.

Our analysis suggests that television news, by accepting the theory that Canadian politics is dominated by catch-all and brokerage parties helps perpetuate this apparent lack of class or ideological cleavage. Many (like Brodie & Jenson, 1988; and Ornstein et al., 1980) have concluded that the lack of class and ideological cleavages in Canada is partly an artifact of the appeals made by parties. We suggest that television news is an important accomplice, because even when parties attempt to make ideological appeals, television continues to mute ideological differences by portraying elections as tactical pursuits for votes rather than arguments about political direction. The media chose to focus on Turner's supraclass "Crusade for Canada" rather than the NDP's more ideological opposition.

Television has a great deal of ability to control the agenda and set the bounds for debate. While political parties attempt to have their frames accepted by the news media, ultimately the news media have power by accepting or rejecting these attempts at information management. While individual journalists have very little control, the news media as a whole define what their typifications and conventions will be, and by so doing, reinterpret the messages that parties attempt to communicate. Those parties that more fully understand news conventions will be more successful in having their understandings more faithfully communicated to viewers because their messages will be subject to less reinterpretation. However, television news conventions are not developed independently from the state and society. The conventions are based on collective myths--the myth of objectivity, the myth of the market, the myth of economics as a valueless science--and reside within mainstream beliefs and ideology. News conventions are built on this ideology and depend on it. The relationship between the news media and politicians is thus interactive. Both try to conform as closely as possible to news conventions, conventions which are bounded by the ideological consensus of elites at the moment.

Even within these conventions, however, changes can be made to help viewers become more active participants and more informed citizens. Newsworkers should assume that conflict between groups and interests exists, if not over the foundations of society, at least over short-term goals and direction. Newsworkers should recognize and explain differences between parties, based on their past performance and a belief that what they say is not purely tactical, but actually has meaning. Newsworkers should make more direct reference to groups and other political actors who can provide viewers with important cues. Newsworkers should turn to a wider range of sources and experts for context in order to democratize the process of news reporting. Providing a voice to those other than the leaders of political parties would communicate a greater sense of understanding to viewers about who stands with whom. Newsworkers should not assume that the election is already settled from the outset based on the polls. This could encourage voters to take a more active role and interest in the campaign. In sum, when newsworkers approach an election campaign, they should ask: "what was said today and in the past that tells us what parties would do and how this would affect the lives of citizens?" rather than: "what did the leader do today that will affect his/her chance for victory?"

On the last day of the campaign, CBC did a report on how well the media did covering the campaign. One of the conclusions was that "the media was [sic] never able to come to terms with the issue of free trade." We suggest that they could not come to terms with the issue because it "broke frame." The typifications and frames that journalists usually use to transform the infinite world of campaign activity into "news" had little relevance to the FTA and responded insufficiently to the needs of viewers. And because the media could not come to terms with the FTA, they chose the simplest of narratives: television's traditional frames of the horserace and leadership.


I am grateful to the "Fonds pour la formation de chercheurs et l'aide à la recherche" and l'Université de Montréal which have both provided financial assistance for the research on which this paper is based. I am grateful to Todd Swift, David Taras, and two anonymous reviewers who provided exceptionally helpful comments on an earlier draft. As always, I am thankful to André Blais for his always insightful comments.
We also did frame analysis of every night of Radio-Canada's Téléjournal and a random examination of a number of days from CTV and TVA. The frames were consistent regardless of the network, suggesting that the typifications newsworkers use are universal.
It should be noted that all the leaders did not talk about it. Turner refused.
On October 19, CBC reported that several high-ranking Liberals had put pressure on Turner to step aside as leader.
It has been suggested that the election came down to a question of trust for many voters (see Fraser, 1989; Caplan, Kirby, & Segal, 1989).
Canadian political parties have recently hinted that they may de-emphasize the leaders' tour in the next federal election. Though we contend that the media are always free to focus on something other than the leaders' tours, if the parties choose to eliminate the tour, this will force the media to find another focus. What they choose, and how they choose to cover it, may very well change citizens' understandings and evaluations of parties, leaders, and issues. See "The Voters Reflect," p. 19.


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