Thursday, 10 January 2008

Never mind the facts, what's the story?

I was a little premature in the previous post, when I accused Matthew Parris of prominently displaying signs of madness. In my defence, the reason I thought he'd been repeating the same thing for ten years is that he said he'd been repeating the same thing for ten years and I, to my shame, believed him. As it turns out, he'd been doing no such thing. (Detective work by Tom Freeman, who also has a bone to pick with Parris here.)

It's an interesting time to find a (relatively) small error by a journalist, because we've just seen a massive one:

"Hillary is CERTAIN TO WIN. Obama talks well but lacks experience. There's no way he can compete with the Clinton machine OH MY GOD HE'S WON IOWA! Hillary is OUT. Obama will WALK IT. Clinton CANNOT RECOVER from this MAJOR SETBACK! Now she's CRYING. That's the END OF HER CAREER. Wait, stone me, SHE'S ONLY GONE AND BLOODY WON NEW HAMPSHIRE! Is this the end of Obama?"

And so on and so forth. Martin Kettle has an interesting article, admitting a massive collective error. He suggests that the problem is basically twofold:
  • Journalists get wrapped up in the "story" of the day, and ignore everything that doesn't fit that narrative;
  • The 24-hour news-cycle means that political correspondents are expected to provide analysis, but given no time to actually sit down and think through what's happening.

The "what's the story" approach to journalism seems fairly widespread. I would guess that Parris rewrote his history because (for reasons which escape me) it suits him to present himself as someone who's been using "You're a loony" as a substitute for political debate over a decade (instead of just four years). But I think there a couple of other issues affecting political journalism today:

  • Echo-chamber: how much of journalists' info is gleaned from other journalists? With 24 hours of news to fill, and comparatively few actual events to talk about, it must be all too easy both to speculate, and to repeat someone else's speculation as fact. Suddenly, "everybody knows" that e.g. Hillary Clinton's display of emotion was bad news for her campaign.
  • Two-way street: Voters get their info from journalists, who are telling them what voters are thinking. This can give both positive and negative feedback: for example, announcing that Candidate A has won might make Candidate B's potential voters less likely to go out and vote -what would be the point? On the other hand, it seems that Clinton's victory in New Hampshire was partly due to a backlash against the media's dismissal of her chances - especially notable, apparently, among baby boomer women.

So what can the media do? Step back from making unfounded predictions is the obvious answer, but that leaves a lot of airtime and column inches to fill. So here's an idea: stop reporting on politics like it's a sporting contest, and start reporting on the policies and issues. Then the journalists will have something concrete to say, the politicians will have to explain what they actually stand for, and the voters will have some real information to base a vote on.

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