Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Favouritism/bias in VFM contest?

[Originally posted January 21 in votermedia Google group.]

Various concerns have been raised about possible favouritism or bias in the VFM contest. VFM is all about reducing corruption, so it's appropriate that any such concerns are brought up.

First I'll address a specific minor incident as an example. On January 11, I flew to Memphis for a media reform conference, and returned to Vancouver January 15. I was reluctant to be away during the crucial launch of VFM at UBC, but the conference was definitely worth it (see my January 18 post). I was reachable by phone and email, but didn't take my laptop so couldn't update my website. The VFM contest was in the capable hands of Tiffany Glover and the Elections Committee - see my previous post on how my role is limited to advising.

A key goal of VFM is to better inform voters. My website has pages devoted to the UBC contest, and I update them with info that I think will be useful for voters and others interested. For the last two weeks I have closely followed the progress of contestant registration, linking to the official list at as well as copying it to The last time I copied the list before going to Memphis, only one contestant was on it. Then while I was away, several more signed up, but unfortunately I couldn't update my website's copy of the list until I returned to Vancouver. There were some complaints that this created bias in favour of the first contestant.

Note that I had a link to the official list; and note my January 9 post "Who's going to enter UBC VFM contest?" where I gave the best info I then had on who was planning to enter, listing seven groups. I guess it's true that showing one contestant on my web page for a few days gave them a slight benefit. But it was not done wilfully nor with malice, and I welcomed and responded to feedback on it when I could.

When serving the main goal of helping voters, it's hard to give perfectly equal treatment to all VFM contestants. Those of us involved with creating the contest faced this tradeoff many times, and we tended to choose what would best help voters, even if it meant an unequal competition. The VFM Committee and I especially felt this tension when debating whether to let The Ubyssey enter. (BTW these are my own impressions of our discussion; I speak about but not for the Committee.)

The Ubyssey is by far the best known campus media organization, and receives plenty of student funding. Any other campus media group would be hard pressed to compete with them for name recognition and the votes of busy students. We considered barring The Ubyssey from the VFM contest. But we felt the contest should be as open as possible, and that the absence of UBC's leading media group would detract from the goal of serving voters. On balance we decided to leave that door open. We thought The Ubyssey would enter and take first prize, so to encourage a diversity of media we cut the prize pie into eight slices.

This illustrates not only that we chose effectiveness over equality, but also that the VFM Committee did not stack the contest in favour of its members. Three of the five committee members are involved in VFM contestants, but none are with The Ubyssey. They could have barred The Ubyssey, but chose not to for the sake of the voters.

Choosing the members of the VFM Committee is another case of choosing effectiveness over equality. The contest is open to (almost) anyone, including committee members. Here too, to exclude them would have diminished benefits to voters. And a committee with no one connected to any campus media would have lacked the knowledge to design an effective contest. The final go-ahead decision was made by the full AMS Council, and the contest is run by the Elections Committee (whose members are barred from the contest, along with electoral candidates and Student Court members).

However, The Ubyssey's decision not to enter the contest is understandable for the same reasons we considered barring it. They already get student funding, they cover the elections anyway, and it doesn't look good to enter with a huge advantage - if you win you're a big bully, and if you don't you're a big wimp. Also, staying out may put them in a better position to provide a robust debate on the pros and cons of VFM. I welcome such debate in this group too - please join and speak up.

I will continue to help the contest by advising, answering questions etc., and will try to be even-handed in my treatment of contestants. I have been interviewed by some, and am available to all. The Knoll requested an article on VFM, which I was happy to provide as it gave exposure to the contest. But we agreed that the article is not exclusive to The Knoll. Anyone may copy it from and publish it (title: How UBC Can Change the World). Another contestant requested photos, so I have now posted several at Feel free to tell me if I seem to be biasing the contest (email mark[at] Soon I plan to post here some ideas for how contestants can help voters and thus gain their votes.

Human organizations and political processes all have conflicts of interest. We can reduce their harmful effects by enhanced disclosure and voter insight. An open VFM contest is designed to encourage a diversity of investigative journalists to check and balance politicians and each other. We will soon see how well (or poorly) this works.

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant" - see

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