Addressing the Quality of Broadcast Coverage of Politics in Britain

As an American living in the UK, who is not a journalist, I’ve long looked at broadcast journalism in Britain as a model for the US to emulate. Over time, however, my confidence in the UK’s coverage has declined. Rather than simply complain, let me offer a few observations and suggestions. Most recently, after weeks of watching broadcast coverage of the 2019 election in the UK, my concern over the state of ‘quality journalism’ was reinforced.

Partisan Coverage

A common rant over highly partisan news coverage is one aspect of the problem, as illustrated by Fox News and CNN in the US. But through much of this last UK election, it seemed both Conservative and Labour Party supporters, along with politicians from the minor parties, were accusing broadcasters of overly partisan favoritism. For example, Channel 4’s Jon Snow has been accused of having a liberal bias in anchoring their news coverage.[1] But partisan bias aside, which is even more evident in the US, partisan coverage is not my primary concern in the British case.

More importantly, broadcast news in the UK seems to be facing problems of quality coverage in several related ways that cumulatively contribute to polarizing the political process and unminding the civility of political discourse. I’ll provide a few problematic patterns.

Over-Simplify and Over-Exaggerate

First, we increasingly hear less from the mouths of politicians and candidates for office and more from journalists and the members of the public at large. While not a bad turn in itself, it has had negative consequences.

When journalists provide their summary synthesis of a candidate or campaign, it is inevitably very brief and dramatic. One could say this has long been guidance to even quality print news reporters: simplify and then exaggerate. This surely distorts news coverage, but broadcast journalism is particularly vulnerable due to the tremendous pressure to be exceedingly brief and conclusive – ending with a catchy theme. So leading journalists are led to over-simplify and over exaggerate and in the process, seldom allow politicians and candidates to speak for themselves. Perhaps news producers see politicians as too nuanced and long winded for live television news coverage, and more difficult to access and interview that their journalistic surrogates. But the resulting simplification and exaggeration can be misleading and polarizing.

Dramatically Contrasting Competing Points of View

A popular format for 2019 election coverage was moving a broadcasting crew across the UK to visit cities, towns, and villages that ‘represented’ leave, remain, or divided opinions on the Britain’s future in the EU. And during each stop, the team would broadcast short snippets of interviews with people on the street, in the pub, or in their homes. The idea of getting the views from the street was good, but these interviews sought out diverse, colorful, and often caustic viewpoints. One would call a candidate for office a liar, another would call a candidate a racist, and so on. Often, the interviews would end with concluding that the voters were forced to choose the lesser of various evils.

But of course, choosing four or five caustic or colorful interviewees off the street of any city is not truly representative, much less a systematic or scientific sampling of opinion. Rather than sampling opinions, the broadcasts showcase entertaining or jaw dropping insults, which convey a clear message: it is okay to insult the candidates for public office. This is cheap and quick and possibly entertaining, but it contributes to the toxicity and polarization of politics. Perhaps it is too costly to actually sample public opinion, but journalists should refrain from suggesting they are genuinely sampling opinion.

The Leading Question with No Such Thing as a Non-Opinion

An added element of interviews with the public is the prevalence of leading questions. With the journalist asking: “So you can’t really trust any of these candidates, can you?” What can you expect Joe or Joan public to say? Maybe the journalist discussed their views ahead of time, and simply want to push the interviewee to get to the point, but while going on air with a leading question might speed things up, it also leads journalists to over-simplify and exaggerate the public’s views. It may even create opinions when there are none. It is very common for members of the public to not have an opinion about many issues. Asking leading questions forces them to make up an opinion on the spot. This has been a well studied problem in survey research, when respondents are asked to respond to a question that they have no opinion about. It is also a problem for journalism that needs more study.

The Proverbial Horse Race

Finally, the public love a horse race encourages broadcasters to find a way to make any election into a horse race if at all possible. The weeks leading up to the 2019 UK election consistently showed a gap in the voting intentions in favor of the Conservative Party. But in the week and days before the election, pundits nervously claimed that there were signs of a narrowing of the polls, and a very real possibility of an upset. It not only didn’t happen, but post hoc, there seemed to be little sign of this narrowing, yet losers were more crushed than they might have otherwise been, and the winners were pleasantly surprised.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which journalistic practices might have gone wrong in ways that might well contribute to the toxicity of public discourse, and the polarization of public life. Perhaps this is not new. The old adage is that: If it bleeds, it leads. Notwithstanding, we are not just talking about car crashes but the coverage of candidates and elections for public office. People love to joke about politics and politicians. But journalistic coverage has gone beyond jokes to publicly cutting and insulting remarks that would come close to hate speech in another context.

Why?

This may well be a symptom of a decline of broadcast journalism that is driven by a raft of factors. More competition for the attention of viewers? Declining revenues and financing relative to demands? More focus on street reporting and immediacy, than on thoughtful synthesis? Efforts to entertain rather than to report? Whatever the causes, the problems may need to be recognized and agreed upon — that a problem exists and that there is a need to focus attention on higher quality journalism. There is a looming debate ahead over the future of public service broadcasting and that debate needs to address perceived risks to high quality broadcast journalism, and not become another example of sensational or exaggerated coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/28/jon-snow-criticised-mid-interview-panelist-tells-not-everyone/

Polarization is Not the Problem: A Post-Civic Culture

Increasingly, the dilemmas facing politics in the United States if not worldwide are being portrayed as outcomes of polarization. It is an attractive topic for discussion, because there is undeniably a great deal of polarization, if defined as wildly different (polar opposite) viewpoints on one or more issues. Moreover, it seems to be tied to popular conceptions of the role of the Internet in enabling individuals to find support for their views online, even if extreme. Conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles are tied to this perspective. While I have argued that echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched, I also can’t believe that polarization has not been prominent throughout the history of American politics.

So what is the problem? What has changed?

Perhaps it is the degree that proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or even sectarian positions. Their opponents are not wrong, they are seen and portrayed as bad if not evil.

What is surprising about this in the context of American politics is our history of being the model of a so-called ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system, such as the two-party system and our system of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticized as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, the idea of a civic culture seem ludicrous. 

So I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarization, or a diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian righteousness. Maybe it is the nature of the issues being considered, such as the right to life, the environment, and immigration, that have connections with deep ethical or religious principles. But the search for answers to this question will lead in different directions than the search for the dynamics of polarization on the issues of the day.

There is a thoughtful letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen of Spokane, Washington, that focuses on the decline of civil discourse. I find myself in agreement with him and others who are focusing on the decline of civility in American politics as absolutely central to fixing or mitigating what seems to be a decline of our political processes. Yet even the discussion of civility in American politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as a recent story about whether voters see the Democrats or President Trump as more responsible for a decline in civility (Wise 2018).

Are we lost in what I would call a post-civic culture?

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Engen, D. (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility