Wednesday, March 27, 2013

FDA Talking Points Series: Media Election Content

This graph shows the affects of unregulated private media during election periods: narrow and imbalanced election coverage. Over the last 32 days of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election according the FDA media study involving 7,921 data points, Obama received 54% of the total coverage, Romney 44.75%, and all other presidential candidate 1.25%.
The Foundation for Democratic Advancement (FDA) takes the position that legally required broad and balanced media election content during election periods should take precedence over the freedom of the media to determine its own election content. The position is based on the following premises:
  1. Freedom itself is not democracy. Rather, freedom is a component of democracy which must be balanced with other components such as fairness and equality.

  2. Freedom of the media is limited. Private media is controlled by its owner or ownership group and shareholders, and public media is controlled by the state. The freedom of media itself is contingent on who owns and controls media.

  3. Political elections in a free and democratic society are fundamentally about the voice of the electorate as expressed by their ballots.
From these premises, it follows that the election period should be about informing the electorate of their electoral choices, so that they can make the most informed choice on Election Day. To argue that the freedom of the media should trump a fully informed electorate is to put the interests of the media before interest of the people. To argue that the media should act as an election information filter is inconsistent with a democratic society. The FDA acknowledges that an unregulated media could provide broad and balanced election coverage, but it is not guaranteed nor supported by the FDA's media studies of elections with unregulated media. In addition, the FDA concedes that there is onus on the electorate to get informed within limits. However, the FDA believes it is an unreasonable requirement on the electorate to create their own media companies during election periods if they are dissatisfied with the media content. To elaborate, from the FDA Media Report on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election:

"Due to the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and various U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the importance and protection of free political speech, most recently the Citizens United ruling, American public and private media has no legal requirement to provide the electorate with broad, balanced, and complete election coverage and that the onus is not solely on the media to inform the public. The electorate should also make efforts to gather information and form conclusions on its own volition, and even set up their own media companies and new sources if they are not satisfied with the news of the current media. Yet, the FDA believes that during an election period, legislation should mandate broad, balanced, and complete campaign coverage by the media in order for citizens to have a reasonable opportunity to make informed decisions on Election Day. The onus should not be fully on citizens to become media persons or form media companies to generate alternate media content. Democracy and elections are not solely about freedom; fairness and equality are integral parts as well. Freedom left unregulated like in the financial markets will likely lead to self-interested actions which are detrimental to the public good. Similarly, an unregulated media will lead to similar outcomes as this report shows. In democracy and elections a balance must be struck between freedom and the public good."

Presently, in Canada and the United States, there is minimal regulation of private media during election periods. The FDA believes that this is an example of the promotion of media freedom at the expense of democracy, and likely to the exclusive benefit of interest groups such as large, established political parties and their supporters, and the large corporate media companies and their ownership and shareholders.

The FDA supports at minimum a volunteer code of media conduct during election periods which support broad, balanced, and complete coverage of registered candidates and parties, and at maximum a legislated code of media conduct with sufficient enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance. The Code of Conduct would only apply to registered candidates and parties who have proven voter support of at least 0.5 percent from relevant electoral districts. The intent of this code of conduct is not to limit the freedom of opinion of the media, but to encourage the media in its democratic role of helping to fully inform the electorate of all their electoral choices. Within the parameters of broad, balanced, and complete coverage, media would be permitted to their opinions, so restriction on freedom is minimal. The legal justification for the restriction on freedom is as follows:
  1. Limit on freedom of the media by requiring its content during election period is broad, balanced, and complete of registered candidates and parties. (Complete is used in a general sense and applies to inconsistent and unreasonable gaps in media coverage.)

  2. The negative affect of the limit on freedom is minimal as it only applies to the legislated election period which in Canada is currently 36-days and in the United States is 60-days. In addition, the media still has the right to express its opinions. The impairment only applies to the scope and extent of the content covered.

  3. The positive affect of the limit on freedom is maximal in terms of democracy because it means that the electorate will have a reasonable opportunity to be fully informed of all their electoral choices subject to the 0.5 percent threshold. This maximal affect is reinforced by the legal bias in American and especially Canadian law in which elected officials are viewed as extensions of the people, which then justifies non-substantive rights for citizens (i.e. duty to consult and hold public hearings, but no final say in decisions).

    As an example, California is an exception by giving its residents sovereignty over political affairs or "all political power is inherent in the people" (California Constitution, 1879, Article 2, Section 1).

  4. As mentioned, the overall balance of competing prejudices between competing rights favours the electorate, because they are fundamental to elections and their outcomes.

Do you agree with the FDA position that the media's content ought to be regulated so that it conforms to broad, balanced, and complete criteria? Do you think the freedom of the media is so important to elections that it should never be regulated within extremes? Do you think that the interests of the electorate should supersede the media's interest during election periods? Who benefits from an unregulated media during election periods? Is 0.5 percent of voter support a reasonable threshold for broad, balanced, and complete election coverage?


California State Constitution. (1879). Retrieved from Official California Legislative Information

Garvey, S. (2012). Press Freedom Does Not Necessarily Equate to Democracy. Foundation for Democratic Advancement. Retrieved from

FDA Media Study of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. (2012). Foundation for Democratic Advancement. Retrieved from

FDA Media Study of the 2012 Alberta Provincial Election. (20120. Foundation for Democratic Advancement. Retrieved from

Mr. Stephen Garvey, Executive Director Foundation for Democratic Advancement


  1. ".....complete coverage all registered candidates and parties....."

    I just don't see how this is practical in the real world. Are media outlets with budget, staff, and resource constraints supposed to spend time and money by chasing and covering each and every candidate, even when there is no chance of them winning?

    Unless there is some kind of subsidy, I just don't see how your idea would work. And if you tried to bring in a subsidy, lots of people would object to their tax dollars going to candidate who cannot win.

  2. The proposed Code of Conduct would only apply to registered candidates and parties that have at least 0.5 percent electoral support from relevant electoral districts. Based on the 2011 Canadian federal election, as an example, that would apply to only 5 parties, with the Cristian Heritage Party just below the minimum threshold.


Thank you for sharing your perspective.