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Why we aren’t reporting on who ‘won’ the B.C. election

Until we know more, we won’t tell you what the results mean for our beats.

Journalism Innovation

Why we aren’t reporting on who ‘won’ the B.C. election

Until we know more, we won’t tell you what the results mean for our beats.

I was one of many British Columbians who went to sleep on Tuesday night before the outcome of the provincial election was clear. So, when I woke up early Wednesday morning, the very first thing I did was check my phone.

The Globe and Mail’s headline read: “BC Liberals win minority government, Greens hold balance of power.” An interactive was titled “Who won, who lost.”

I switched on CBC Radio (The Early Edition with Stephen Quinn sitting in) and heard discussion about the moment our public broadcaster “called a minority government” the night before, as well as news reports referring to how many seats were “captured.” CBC’s website headline, “B.C. Liberals hang on to win minority,” accompanied a subhead that said the final result wouldn’t be finalized for several weeks.

To me, these snapshots made the election result sound pretty conclusive. But after more reading and listening, it became clear that a Liberal minority government was far from the definitive result.

“The results that we've reported tonight are the preliminary results from general voting,” Andrew Watson, communications manager at Elections BC, said on election night. “It doesn't include absentee ballots, include voters who voted by mail, voters who voted in a district office, voters who voted outside their electoral district during advanced voting and voters who voted [on election day], but not at their assigned voting place."

...it became clear that a Liberal minority government was far from the definitive result.Here’s why that matters: Multiple possible election outcomes remain, including several scenarios that could result in an NDP-led government. The Liberals are leading in 43 ridings, just one seat shy of a majority, and the NDP trails close behind with leads in 41 ridings. In four ridings, the parties are separated by less than 300 votes, which includes Courtenay-Comox, where the NDP candidate leads by only nine votes. So, recounts and uncounted absentee ballots could deliver a minority or majority government led by either party — four potential results all within the realm of possibility. Meanwhile, if current numbers hold true once all votes are counted, the Greens could negotiate a coalition with either the Liberals or the NDP that could lead to a majority government.

As I write this on Wednesday afternoon, news coverage has already become more nuanced. Reporters who were up half the night as election results unfolded, were back at it this morning, working hard to figure out what they mean. (CBC published this primer and the Globe has this useful explainer.) Still, considering the uncertainty of this election outcome, headlines suggesting a Liberal “win” are more than just inaccurate — they’re irresponsible.

Michelle Lee
B.C. Legislature.

“To tell you the truth, other than it’s close, we don’t know much for sure,” says Richard Johnston, a UBC political science professor. “Winning? I would be more inclined to say that nobody has really won anything at this point yet. And that the legislative situation is such that whether or not [B.C. Premier Christy Clark] can actually enjoy the mandate that she won … that’s an open question.”

For the past several weeks, Discourse has been reporting on issues related to B.C.’s future, including the foster care system, the Trans Mountain pipeline, the Site C hydro dam, funding for services for women who’ve experienced sexual violence and Indigenous land rights. It’d be natural for us to follow up today by telling you what the election result means for these issues, but we’re not going to do that. Why? Because we don’t know.

What we do know is B.C. politicians are scrambling to control the narrative. When the federal Liberals and NDP tried to form a coalition government back in 2008-09, we saw the Conservative government do everything in its power to cast that option as illegitimate and justify a prorogation of parliament. We’ve already seen Clark (who remains premier for now) position her leadership as the only legitimate result. We’ve seen NDP leader John Horgan decline to accept defeat with carefully crafted messaging. We journalists need to be extra cautious with our language right now to avoid implying that any outcome is more legitimate or final than others.

But journalists aren’t always good at acknowledging what we don’t know, especially when it comes to breaking news events like an election. There’s pressure to publish, fill the news hole, feed the beast. Too often, stories get cranked out without pause for reflection.

For example, we noticed that stories published by the CBC and others about the influence of Green Party votes mostly looked at ridings where Liberals won by fewer votes than the Greens received. These stories assume that those voters would support the NDP. But the most recent poll showed that only 45 per cent of Green voters would choose the NDP as their second choice. My point? The argument that “Green supporters handed the election to the Liberals” (a message promoted by the NDP) requires a much more nuanced look than it may seem.

There’s pressure to publish, fill the news hole, feed the beast. Too often, stories get cranked out without pause for reflection.

For his part, UBC’s Johnston spent all of today talking to media, and says his conversations with reporters have “all gone on too long because [the election results are] too hard to understand.”

During today’s morning meeting at Discourse, we discussed what we should publish about the election outcome. We felt like we had to publish something. But as a different model of media that doesn’t report daily news, we realized Discourse has no obligation to publish anything before we have something of value to add to the conversation. Contrary to our journalistic instincts, we don’t have to respond to political messaging about what happens next. So, you won’t be hearing from us until we’ve learned something of value to share about the issues we cover. That way, we can explain what’s going on with the nuance a complex situation like this requires.

Our obligation is to serve you, our community, and what we’re hearing is there’s a growing movement of dissatisfied citizens that want an electoral system that works better. To these people, an unprecedented moment like this one — from which a rare type of collaborative governance could emerge — is huge. And reporting on that complexity takes time.

In the meantime, tell us what you want to know to navigate this critical moment in B.C. history. Give us information from your own research or experiences that media is getting wrong. Help us produce journalism that empowers British Columbians to move forward with the most accurate, relevant and nuanced information possible.

With files from Francesca Fionda