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 undermining 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/

A Metric for Academics: A Personal Suggestion

Every year in the US, and at various intervals in other countries, academics must pull together what they have done to provide administrators with the data required for their indicators of performance. Just as metrics provided baseball teams with a new tool for more systematically choosing players, based on their stats, as portrayed in the popular film Moneyball, so universities hope to improve their performance and rankings by relying more on metrics rather than the intuitions of faculty. Metrics are indeed revolutionizing the selection, promotion, and retention of academics, and units within universities. Arguably, they already have done so. The recruitment process increasingly looks at various scores and stats about any given candidate for any academic position.

Individual academics can’t do much about it. And increasingly, the metth-1rics will be collected without the academic even doing any data gathering, as data on citations, publications, and teaching ratings get generated in the course of being an academic. Academic metrics are becoming one more mountain of big data ready for computational analysis.

I am too senior (old) to be worried about my own metrics. They are not great, but they are as good as they will ever be. My concern is most often with administrators tending to count everything that can be counted, rather than trying to develop indicators that get to the heart of academic performance. Of course, this is extremely difficult since academics seldom agree on the rating of their colleagues. A scholar who is a superstar to one academic is conceptually dead from another academic’s perspective. So this controversy is one of many factors driving academia towards more indicators or hard evidence of performance. The judgments of scholars vary so dramatically. At least by counting what can be counted, there is some harder evidence that might be indicative of what we try to measure – quality.

So what can we count? It varies by university, but I’ve been in universities that count publications, of course, but every kind of publication, from refereed journal articles to blogs. And each of these might be rated, such as by the status of the journal in which an article appears, or the prestige of the publisher of a book. But that is only the beginning. We count citations, conference papers, talks, committees, awards, and more. Therefore, we perennially worry about whether we published enough in the right places, and did enough of anything that is counted.

In the UK, there has been an effort to measure the impact of an academic’s work. There have been entire conferences and publications devoted to what could be meant by impact and how it could be measured. Arguably, this is a well intentioned move toward measuring something more meaningful. Rather than simply counting the number of publications (output), why not try to gauge the impact (outcomes) of the work? It is just that it is difficult to reliably and validly measure impact, given that the lag between academic work and its impact can be years or decades. Take Daniel Bell’s work on the information society, which had a huge impact, which went well beyond what might have been expected in the immediate aftermath of his publication on The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Nevertheless, indicators of impact will inevitably be added to all the other growing number of indicators, even thought universities will spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to document this metric. th

In this environment, because I am a senior in academia, I sometimes get asked how a colleague should think about these metrics. Where should they publish? How many articles should they publish? Which publisher should they submit their book for publication? It goes on and on.

I try to give my opinion, but my most general response, when I feel like it will be accepted as advice and not criticism, is to focus on contributing something new to your field. Rather than think about numbers, think about making a contribution to how people think about your field.

This must go beyond the topic of one’s research. It is okay to know what topics or areas an academic works in, but what has he or she brought to that field? Is it a new way for doing research on a topic, a new concept for the area, or a new way of thinking about the topic?

In sum, if an academic’s career was considered, by another academic familiar with their work, could they say that the person had made an original, non-trivial contribution to the study of their field? This is very subjective and difficult to answer, which may be why administrators move to hard indicators. Presumably, if someone has made an important new contribution, their work will be published and cited more than someone who has not. That’s the theory.

However, the focus on contributing new ideas can give academics a more constructive motivation and an aim to guide their work. Rather than feeling that your future is based on getting x number of journal articles published, you make publication a means to a more useful end in itself, furthering progress in your field of study. If you accomplish this, the numbers, reputation, and visibility of your work will take care of themselves. What would be a new contribution to your field? That is exactly the right question.

 

 

 

 

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

PBS Newshour Hands Down

In the aftermath of the primaries and caucuses in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and the bombings in Brussels, I – like many – was riveted to the news. Watching CNN coverage, then PBS Newshour, reinforced my belief that PBS is head and shoulders above CNN in the range of news covered, the reporting of facts on the ground v personal opinions, and balance. All three Republican candidates and Bernie Sanders, as well as Hillary Clinton, were covered well. PBS remains tied to a tradition of fairness, balance and accuracy that is clearly demonstrated at times such as this. More for less indeed. Well done #PBSNewhour url