Tuesday 8 November 2011

No Time For Instant Verdicts

Guilty As Charged!: The modern news media's seemingly insatiable appetite for instant verdicts - especially on political performance - risks reducing the citizen's serious civic responsibility of rendering democratic judgement to the level of participating in a television game show.

THE RUSH TO JUDGEMENT encouraged by the modern news media serves us very ill.

If you doubt this, try the following thought experiment.

Imagine that there were 24-hour news channels like CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera covering the Battle of France in 1940. Imagine the breathless reports of Germany’s surprise attack through the Ardennes, and the journalists’ consternation at the speed of the Wehrmacht’s advance. Consider what the endless parade of pundits and military experts would’ve made of the French Government’s chances of survival. Or, how the British electorate would’ve responded when pollsters offered them the choice of pursuing the war under Churchill, or making peace under Sir Samuel Hoare. Who’s to say that a British Government, harried by the 1930s equivalent of the far-right Fox News channel, might not have bowed to the public fear of invasion and signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler?

All very well, you might say, but in wartime the news media would simply not behave so recklessly. And, if it did, the Government would, quite rightly, impose very tight restrictions on what it could and couldn’t say.

When ballots, not bullets, are in play, however, we are unwilling to even contemplate placing restrictions on press freedom. As a result, our politicians, journalists and commentators all fall prey to the news media’s insatiable demand for instant stories and instant judgements.

The Leader of the Opposition stumbles over his party’s fiscal projections in The Press’s “Leaders Debate” and the Prime Minister is more-or-less instantly proclaimed winner: not merely of the debate (which he was) but of the election itself.

Forty-eight hours later, the Labour Party releases its fiscal outlook, making nonsense of the National Party’s claims of a $14-17 billion “hole” in the Opposition’s numbers. What are the journalists supposed to say then? That their earlier call was incorrect? That the election is not, quite, a foregone conclusion? That the Prime Minister has been shown up as economically innumerate?

Hardly. One precipitate judgement is simply built upon another, until the electorate’s head begins to spin and the entire electoral contest becomes a shimmering mirage – as untrustworthy as it is alluring. Parched though the voters may be for clear, cold, facts, these hastily generated illusions will not quench their thirst.

Indeed, one of the results I’m most eagerly looking forward to on Election Night is how closely the public opinion polls’ “snap-shots” of the electorate’s preferences match up with the hard-and-fast electoral judgements finally deposited in the ballot-box. Will the National Party really receive more than 50 percent of the Party Vote? Or, will the Government’s tally much more closely replicate the 45-46 percent of the vote anticipated by the political “share-traders” investing their money on iPredict?

If iPredict’s numbers prove to be closer to the actual result than the result predicted by political journalists and commentators on the basis of the opinion polls, then the electorate is entitled to feel very annoyed.

The electoral effects produced by poll data which consistently reveals a huge gap between the principal contending parties’ levels of popular support are well attested in the academic literature. Voter perception of the political efficacy of their ballot may be influenced to the point where they forego participation in the election altogether. Alternatively, voters of more malleable political allegiances may be persuaded to abandon the “losers” and clamber aboard what has been repeatedly depicted as the “winner’s” bandwagon.

Pondering these issues, the question arises: Is it wise for the news media to devote so much effort to telling the voter who’s “ahead” and who’s “behind” – as if elections were indeed nothing more than horse-races? Surely, the most important democratic function of the media is to subject the various political contenders’ claims to the critical scrutiny of expert witnesses? Publishing dispassionate critiques of contending policy; broadcasting fair and balanced accounts of the candidates behaviour on the hustings; and then allowing the voters to make up their own minds. Isn’t this the media’s most important contribution to the electoral process?

In a country whose largest cities publish only one daily newspaper, political neutrality is even more essential. Commentators from Right and Left can provide readers with an indication of the mood of their respective patrons, but we should never forget the words of Guardian editor, C.P. Scott, who wisely reminded his readers that while “comment is free”, “facts are sacred.”

And is not the existence of Winston Peters and NZ First a fact? Why, then, has he been excluded by so many media outlets from the minor party debates? Yes, he’s contentious, and yes, a maverick. But then, so was his namesake in 1940. The world has reason to be grateful that the media organisations of 1940, fighting for the very life of democracy, knew better than to offer instant verdicts, or demand rushed judgements.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 November 2011.


Anonymous said...

Two comments, the first is that the separation of the major and minor party leaders in debates suggests that the party system has ossified, and the 2002 result cannot be replicated, unless Labour collapse in the next two weeks. Though the televised debates can be cumbersome, and irritating, in the past it allowed someone like Peter Dunne into the running, for better or worse. It would be even better if genuine independents also had a chance in the electorate seats.

The other point was about the fascination with a numbers game, or percentages, in the media. The argument over the gross and net debt, and where the money comes from, is a farce. Unlike Chris, I don't think that Opposition parties should have to present detailed budgets based on the Treasury numbers and forecasts. The Treasury cannot be trusted on accuracy, besides the lack of transparency over funding from borrowed money. It is a joke for Key to say he will set up an investment fund, with money earmarked from asset sales, and applied to particular spending. This goes against everything Treasury has done in the last 60 years, even since they bamboozled the second Labour Government into thinking that the Black Budget was necessary.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Good Grief, Mr Trotter.

"All very well, you might say, but in wartime the news media would simply not behave so recklessly."

Where were you from 2003 to 2006?

CNN, NYT, Al Jazeera, CBS, ABC ? ? ?

Chris Trotter said...

Imperialist wars don't count Mr Fiinkensein.

Besides, after Vietnam, the news media - even in its coverage of imperialist wars - was strictly regulated.

Have you not heard of "embedding"?

Robert Miles said...

The important thing to remember is that humanity and democracy was saved by individual genius and class confidence of one man Winston Churchill. Of course their were other brilliant maverick politicians determined to resist Churchill. Harold MacMillan incinerated an umbrelled guy of Chamberlain in a bonfire after Munich.
While the Churchill stand for rearmament , freedom and individual support had much support among ordinary voters, to the vast bulk of the middle and upper class and his conservative benchmates, Churchill was a warmonger , an alcoholic freak show of questionable sanity.

Reagan was of course dismissed by the fashionable and left with similar derision for his critique of the universities, social workers and peace industry.
Today are not the Act Party and the new right the same as the Chamberlite and Joseph Kennedy appeasers- believers only in business, trade and peace at any price. To them any election can be brought.
The real issue of the 2011 election is simply the need to finally get Act and the hopelessly limited vision of Brash out. The purpose of life is pleasure not work - which should be done to the minimum degree necessary. People are born to love and for a long time many will be born to fight-not to waste their lives in repetitive jobs and enforcing the dull dictates of business. Epsom must be made to see sense and send Don back to the Vineyard and Dianne.

Victor said...

I tend to the view that instant punditry and the constant taking of the public pulse are inevitable features of electoral politics.

What should not be so inevitable is the shameful right-wing bias of what falsely purports to be objective reporting, particularly on television news.

Another matter of concern is how highly significant policy ideas increasingly tend to surface only shortly before the public gets to vote on them.

Labour has done well to bring some of these issues to the fore and, irrespective of our electoral loyalties, deserves our thanks for so doing.

But time is required for policy related to these issues to be debated, refined and made part of our conversation as a nation.

We simply shouldn't be deciding such crucial matters as the future of Superannuation, compulsory savings or the extension of Paid Parental Leave in the brief hiatus between the RWC Final and polling day.

I also can't help but think that the introduction of the 'Prefu' has exacerbated the already strong trend towards instant pre-poll policy announcements.

It is, after all, difficult for any party (and particularly for those in opposition)to float new policies if there's a danger of the stats subsequently casting scorn on them.

Moreover, once the Prefu has happened, opposition parties have to get up to speed very quickly on what is or is not possible.

This puts them at a disadvantage compared to the incumbents and is another reason why immediate pre-election policy discussions are falling so far short of what is required.

I'm not sure what can be done about these issues but they're certainly troubling.

Meanwhile, on a pedantic note, I think it would have been Lord Halifax rather than the already discredited Samuel Hoare who would have done the deal with Hitler had Churchill not been around.

And here's the point; 99 times out of 100, a country is better off being governed by a measured, humane, sensible and mildly progressive chap like Halifax than by an old war horse like Churchill.

The tick is to recognise the one percent of occasions when,above all else, you need a domineering comudgeon, scribbling 'ACTION THIS DAY' on a constant flood of memos.

If he or she can also make your spirits soar, so much the better!

Tauhei Notts said...

Your comments about publishing the results of numerous polls are good.
I recall a man, not very well informed about politics, who was so pleased with himself. He boasted that he had picked the last four winners in elections. He knew nothing about the policies or candidates; he went into the polling booth and treated the voting paper as one would treat a jetbet slip. Having voted for the winning party in each of the past four elections he was as happy as some punter who had won a quadrella.
"But you have not studied what the parties stand for?"
He responded with an ascerbic cynicism,
"All the bastards are the same. All I know is that I picked the winner!"
I sometimes wonder how many cynics there are like that in voterland. It does make you wonder about democracy.

But all that aside; the best graffiti I've seen about elections was one that went;
"Don't vote. The government always wins."
Not even I can argue with that logic.

Anonymous said...

...they forego participation in the election altogether. Alternatively, voters of more malleable political allegiances may... abandon the “losers” and clamber aboard...the “winner’s” bandwagon.

On the nail. And remember that those "voters of more malleable political alletiances" are by definition the crucial "swing voters" who solely determine our governance.

And there's no "may" about it. Though almost impossible to prove specifically, for obvious reasons (i.e. if the false "prophesy" is effective, the "actual result" "confirms" the poll), the "poll effect" or "self-fulfilling prophesy" phenomenum is observed every day in meetings, advertising technique and "peer pressure" research projects.

And anyone can run and publish a poll without scrutiny or check: from the scrupulouly honest to the rabidly partisan who believe in John Key's maxim "whatever it takes".

The Right cottoned on to this years ago. Hence the heavy poll emphasis in the press - provided they favour the right. And hence, as you note, the emphasis on the "horse race" above all else. Ignore whether 17, 14 or 11 billion dollars is a lie: a salacious "Goff crucified" reinforces the polls yet again and strengthens the prophecy.

The clues are in the trends and outliers: poll discrepancies with election results fall heavily one way only - to the Right. And Winnie's 1% poll after what you correctly described as his "pack rape" translated to 4.7% on the night. Mt Albert and Hone, similar results.

And iPredict will prove or disprove nothing: not only also subject to the "poll effect" of other polls, but able to be manipulated by the wealthy. Witness the constantly high ACT score.

Other factors also play, such as landline-only, huge "refusal rate" (reputedly around 70%)etc, but having been polled only today by one of the "biggies", peer pressure is actually audible - even in those trained to eschew it. The audible breath intakes and "o-kaaaays" from the researcher recording (I hope, who would know?) my relentlessly pro-Labour/anti-Key responses made even this cynical old heart beat a little faster. I can just imagine the effect on nice people.


Unknown said...

Chris is correct in that constant head-lining of poll results regarding the (apparent) huge gap between National and Labour not only depresses those who wish this wasn't so, but surely anyone dismayed that New Zealanders seem unable to seriously and intelligently critique the status-quo.

It does seem that there is reasonable effort to offer a range of panels and debates on the main media, but the instant translation of "what he said" (Phil Goff) to the less flattering alternative is irritating. i.e. Goff call Key a 'liar' as is now unquestionally related? He actually made a statement - "that was a lie". The first is an accusatory personal slap, the second a 'passive voice' conclusion. Likewise in comments yesterday in which the word 'smug' appeared, it was not Goff saying Key was smug, but part of a general put-down of National's cocky presentation. Of course, Labour tactitians meant listeners to leap to a link, (like the '10' list) but that's politics in an increasingly frustrating run-up where confronted with the "foregone conslusion" mythology now firmly embedded. Anyone remember Jim Bolger's rueful election night loss comment? "B---er the polls!" Media out there? The facts please.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I’ve been thinking for some time that it is a mistake to think of the media as primarily beholden to wealthy political interests. It seems to me that they are partly so, and there is sometimes a definite conservative bent to coverage, but this varies over time and by issue (the electoral financing dispute was a good example). I don’t think this does that much to explain current media behavior.

So here’s an alternative view. The traditional media, by virtue of its control over broadcasting discourse is itself an institution of power and privilege – its political behavior can be best understood as a means of protecting and enhancing that power and privilege. This is why they spend so much time editorializing – after all, they have complete control over editorial content. It’s also why they ignore the facts of the matter and talk up “the dispute” – they don’t have control of the facts, and to allow facts to take charge reduces their own power by making them subservient to the facts and the providers of those facts. Note how political polls, which are commissioned by the media are treated by the media in contrast to their treatment statistics that originate from elsewhere. Polls are holy writ; other surveys are mere opinion. It’s not what the politician means or thinks that is important, but what the media professional says that the politician really means or really thinks. Yesterday was a particularly brutal example: Phil Goff makes a number of purportedly fact based claims about failures of the National government, but we are told that the facts of those matters are unimportant, and that the primary issue is whether John Key is smug.

Powerful media personalities see themselves as political actors and this generates a peculiar class consciousness among media professionals. Hence, old-school partisan journalists like Chris Trotter look weird, because they write to promote a political cause external to their profession. The Garners, Espiners and Holmes’s of this world aim to increase the power of themselves and the media class. The more it is about them, the better from their point of view.

The only solution is, as it always is with a dominant but useless class – forcible removal from the position of dominance.

Hone said...

"Its failings notwithstanding, there is much to be said in favor of journalism in that by giving us the opinion of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."

- Oscar Wilde

Robert Miles said...

While its two early to make a final prediction on the election result, given that Cunliffe is performing well and Goff may make fewer mistakes- the prognosis is for a Labour wipe out . It is difficult for the left to believe this as it was for the progressives to grasp the disastorous nature of the McGovern campaign in l972. Essentially McGovern was the candidate Nixon wanted and assisted as the most beatable. In a way Clark put Goff up and insisted he be leader, because Goff could never win and in a way pave the way for Cunliffe, Dalziel, Parker or even Clark's return.
It is a bit rich for Chris to expect the media to be kind to Goff, when Goff falls short of many of standards expected of a professional politician. Keys voice and body language modulated by years in a hard ruthless business environment is infinitely superior. Given my tendency to typographical errors, lose grammar and the odd spelling and proofreading error -I also can expect punishment, competing in the blogs without professional editors. But neverthless Phil is leader and should never have accepted the post because he should never have been more than a bureaucrat or a academic.
Goff has too much baggage- he is too compromised by his role as a Lange minister, Douglas lapdog, foreign affairs house trained poodle and Clark minister. Thirty years of loyal service have left him without credibility and it is rich to blame the media. Goff accepted a poisoned chalice in accepting the labour lead.
The polls and results could just worsen for labour as for eg whale oil, thinks and the latest fairfax poll indicated- as the voters fully appreciate the spectacle of Goff in the limelight and because anything could happen in world with economic and middle east crisis quite possible before the election

Anonymous said...

Again and again I hear people comment with amazement that so many people are crazy enough to vote for the current Labour party.

paul scott said...

you are reading to much history Trotter, stop this nonsense, and get real in NZ