Case study: The politician who pushed on the swing set

Elected officials will frequently try to frame debates and issues in ways favourable to themselves, and unfavourable to their opponents. The way a story is told or framed can affect how it is understood by audiences

On the last day Parliament was in session before the summer break, Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer raised a point during Question Period about costs to upgrade the prime minister’s summer residence, Harrington Lake. Specifically, the CBC reported that $7,500 was spent on a swing set, and Scheer took issue with this use of taxpayer money. Trudeau responded with a suggestion that Parliament had more important things to discuss than a swing set.

It was later clarified that Trudeau had paid this cost out of his own pocket, not with taxpayer dollars. The CBC updated its story to clarify, but Scheer did not.

What politicians say can be an act of agenda-setting, because their actions are considered to be in the public interest, and therefore likely to be reported by news organizations (if enough news values are present). Politicians can also amplify their own messages on social media.

Elected officials will frequently try to frame debates and issues in ways favourable to themselves, and unfavourable to their opponents. The way a story is told or framed can affect how it is understood by audiences.

There is a long-standing stereotype that politicians don’t tell the truth, but in recent years, there has been a shift in political culture, where politicians misrepresenting facts to achieve political goals has become more normalized.

This example provides an opportunity to discuss the ways people in power will try to influence the public conversation, and how that framing may or may not affect how events are perceived, as well as why it can be important to dig deeper to understand the context of a claim.

 

Investigation:  

Scheer posted a clip of his exchange with the Prime Minister to his Twitter account.

WATCH: https://twitter.com/AndrewScheer/status/1009594873501175808 (4:03)

What do you see? 

  • What is the point that Scheer is making?
  • What point does the Prime Minister make in return?

What do you think? 

  • What is Andrew Scheer suggesting in talking about the cost of the swing set?
  • Why would Scheer bring up the Prime Minister’s swing set?
  • What is the Prime Minister’s response? He doesn’t address the substance of Scheer’s comments directly — why not? Should he have?
  • How relevant is it to Canada how much money the Prime Minister spent on a swing set?

What does it mean? 

  • What do you think it means that Scheer posted this video to his social media accounts? What does he want his followers to think about the exchange?
  • How is he trying to depict the Prime Minister to the public? What is he hoping the public will think?
  • How is Scheer framing the issue? What does he want people to think about Trudeau?

How accurate are the facts? 

– How accurate is it to say the swing set was installed at Trudeau’s cottage?

– Was the swing set paid for with taxpayers’ money?

(Note: Harrington Lake is not the PM’s personal residence, but is owned by the government of Canada. This is also true of Scheer’s residence, Stornoway. 24 Sussex Drive, the PM’s official residence, also owned by the government, is in notoriously poor repair.)

  • How much do these factual differences matter?
  • Should Scheer have to correct the record? What are the ethics of leaving the posts online?
  • How important is it for politicians to tell the truth about their opponents?
  • What do Scheer’s actions indicate about his trustworthiness?
  • Should politicians always tell the whole truth? What may be consequences of not doing so?


Additional resources: 

Maclean’s fact-checks politicians claims: https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/fact-checking-conservative-twitter/

Column: “Mr. Trudeau’s swing set and what it says about our politics,” Gary Mason, The Globe and Mail, June 22, 2018


Activity: 

Find the Twitter accounts of your elected representatives. See what claims they post, and investigate them. Can you find the source of the information? Are the claims accurate?


Key concepts: Framing, Agenda-setting, Fact-checking