Journalism needs to change in the wake of the UK election — but how?

In the wake of this shock result should journalists now abandon their previously-held beliefs about covering elections? Or is there a danger that we’re replacing one set of shibboleths with fresh myths?

Clearly, most political reporters and commentators (and most media academics including me) called most of this wrong. Some like John Rentoul are coming out early and reflecting on their mistaken opinions.

There are a set of assumptions about electoral politics that have been overturned. One of the most important, that I’ve long cherished, is that the actual campaign doesn’t matter change things much. Labour’s ten point rise from it’s start in the opinion polls to the actual result suggests that in our current unstable climate suggests that is now false.

But before we rush to create another paradigm let’s list some of the apparent changes in political media and communication and ask what’s new from 2017.

It will take some time to judge empirically if there really has been a shift. Take youth voting. In the wake of the result people were recycling a figure of 70% 18–25 year-old turn-out. Anecdotal evidence plus the success of Labour in seats with a larger number of younger voters suggest this may be true, but as BBC research shows, that’s by no means proven — yet.

For me, here are some of the key campaign media issues that need looking at — let me know what you think and tell me if there are others that need addressing:

  1. Why did so many political journalists (and politicians, activists and academics) fail to predict the result or understand what was happening? Did we all fail to learn the lesson of Brexit? Are we in thrall to inadequate indicators such as opinion polls? Or has the Westminister ‘mainstream elite’ failed to get out of its London/Twitter bubble? Do we spend too much time covering the official campaign and not enough effort looking at issues and grass roots reality and sentiment? For example, too many ‘vox pops’ feel like illustrations for the journalist’s pre-existing narrative rather than genuine listening. Focus group polling by companies such as Britain Thinks were much more revelatory. Fox Hunting, for example, barely covered as a campaign issue, appears to have been a key factor in shifting voter perceptions.
  1. The power of the newspapers. Left-wing commentators especially have long been convinced by the ability of Murdoch, Dacre etc to brainwash voters. The polling day onslaught by the right-wing press was seen as a critical factor. Yet, newspaper sales are declining and their readership is ageing. Perhaps election-weary, media-cynical readers are more resistant to the kind of patronising and hysterical fear-mongering? Is it possible that it even backfires as social media provides a forum for people to mock the propaganda?
  2. There are quite rightly concerns about the millions spent by (both) parties on online campaigning. The suggestion is that unregulated micro-targeting of undecided voters is secretly swinging the election in the privacy of people’s Facebook feeds. I’m a little more sanguine about this. What is so different about this to direct mail or door-knocking? The evidence from this election is that it has not had much effect.
  3. Fake News. I am convinced that false news, often masquerading as mainstream journalism, is a symptom of a wider problem around the credibility of information.The indications are that unlike the US, the UK is less susceptible to the click-bait genuinely untrue news. But just as much a problem as the obvious hoaxes and lies is the hyper-partisan content which is now churned out by both left and right-wing activists such as the Canary or Breitbart.
  4. Twitter is now an invaluable tool for giving voice to everyone, providing feedback on mainstream media and politicians, correcting misinformation and alerting us to breaking news. But it’s brevity and its binary bias towards promoting more aggressive, antagonistic content might be turning the opportunity for deliberation and interaction into a slanging match that fosters fragmentation and promotes echo chambers. Is this simply a reflection of the reality of our more diverse and angry politics or is it making things worse?
  1. The political parties both turned this election campaign into something of a stage-managed sham. I’ve argued that this was a ‘fake election’. Certainly, Theresa May and the Conservatives ran away from open interaction with the public or news media. Their sterile sloganeering sought to build a majority for her Brexit negotiations. But they weren’t prepared to debate anything else and not even that key central issue. Corbyn’s Labour’s strategy was to pile up votes in their heartlands to secure his leadership and the left-wards shift in the party, not to win over more centrist voters to win seats that might put the party in power. Well that worked rather better than anyone thought for Labour but they still lost. In the end Corbyn at least did appear on TV ‘debates’ but many journalists were left furious that they were never given the chance in set-piece interviews or press conferences to properly grill the politicians on policy. How can we make sure that there is a proper interaction next time? Do we have to come up with better formats that allow politicians to engage in debate without turning it into ‘gotcha’ ambushes?

There are plenty of other issues to tackle: did we get the balance between horse-race and policy analysis right? Was the BBC critical enough of the main parties’ agenda? Why did some issues such as climate change, poverty, and foreign policy fail to get an airing? Let us know what you think the news media missed out on.

This article by Charlie Beckett @CharlieBeckett, professor in the LSE Media and Communications Department and director of Polis, the LSE’s journalism think-tank.

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