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Friday 4 February 2011

Media malperformance punctures political process

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.

Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics.

For sometime now the Australian media has been negatively influencing the Australian political system by unnecessarily placing governments under undue pressure and thereby distorting the proper functioning of our democracy.  It does this in several ways that need to be highlighted and addressed.

Three of the more significant ones are: media hypocrisy, media treatment of polls and the 24-hour news cycle.

Media hypocrisy

Despite repeated calls from many in the media for politicians "to stand for something", "to follow their convictions", "to not be poll driven", many of its number then proceed to chastise politicians when they, in fact, take a course of action that appears not to be popular.

Consider the flood levy:

A plethora of web and phone polls (all voluntarily participated in and therefore held no value, which we will discuss later in the piece) were produced to show that there was overwhelming opposition to the flood levy.  Over 90 percent in one poll!  Many television, radio and newspaper commentators used these findings to criticise the Government for going against public opinion.

The Government was now being urged to do what it had been constantly criticised for doing, that is, follow public opinion and develop policy on that basis.

Consider also the media pressure on the Independents following the 2010 Federal Election:

You may recall that many in the media were then urging the three rural Independents - Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter - to ignore whatever conviction they might have had in seeking electoral stability in forming a minority government and just follow the polling results from their electorates suggesting they must support the Coalition.

Politicians are often criticised by the media, on behalf of the public, for hypocritical behaviour, and correctly so.  However, who speaks on behalf of the public against the hypocritical behaviour of the media?
Media treatment of polls

Polls, rightly or wrongly, play a significant role in the Australian political process.  However, a general lack of understanding in the media about polls is reflected in its treatment of poll findings, which results in an unsatisfactory communication of the meaning of the polls to the public.

This occurs in three ways: 
(i) Ignorance about what are and are not credible poll results

Credible poll results are produced by credible market research agencies who use rigorous research methodologies, including researching a randomly selected representative sample of the population to ensure the integrity of the research process.

The results from voluntary web and phone-in polls do not come from randomly selected representative samples and thus have no integrity or validity. 

This is clearly understood by those in the market research profession and by international media organisations, as the BBC explains in its Editorial Guidelines, Section 10, Politics, Public Policy and Polls:

Phone, Text, and On-Line Votes and Other Straw Polls

"'Straw polls' — including phone, text and online votes — have no statistical or numerical value.
They can be an effective form of interaction with the audience, illustrating a debate, but they should only be used with an explicit reference making it clear to audiences that they are self-selecting and not representative or scientific.  Such votes cannot normally be said even to represent the audience for the programme or website, they only represent those who chose to participate.  This applies even when there is a large response.
They should not be referred to in our output as a 'poll'.  The term 'straw poll' itself is widely misunderstood and should normally be avoided in output." 
"We should be particularly careful about using straw polls on those controversial issues which are vulnerable to highly organised pressure groups.  Their ability to influence the outcome, even when we make it clear such votes are not representative, has the potential to damage the BBC.
Suggestions to the public, by any media outlet, that any of these results have validity is an unacceptable misrepresentation." 
The market research profession understands this; the BBC understands this; it seems that many in the Australian media have yet to learn this. Surely it's about time they did.
(ii) Poll results are reported as news items not research findings

The regularly published opinion polls, conducted by reputable agencies such as Newspoll, Nielsen and Galaxy, are commissioned by media outlets. Traditionally this was the province of newspapers, though in the 2010 election television networks commissioned polls as well.

Glenn Milne detailed his experience of the reporting process in Death by Newspoll IPA Review November 2010:
"In my role as Newspoll interlocutor to the rest of the country I never encountered any editorial pressure to present the figures in any particular way.  Sol Lebovic's* written guide was that only.  It was at my discretion whether I accepted his interpretation of the results or not.
The pressures, nevertheless, were heavy but subtle.  You were aware that the poll was expensive.  Therefore you had better make good use of it.  A headline that said 'Newspoll Results; Not very Much' would not cut it with any editor.  There was therefore an unspoken demand to dramatise the numbers within reason.
You were aware that as the national flagship paper of the country Newspoll was inextricably bound up with the prestige branding of The Australian.  To make Newspoll count was to make the Australian count.  That was an added pressure to maximise the impact of the poll.
And, yes, there was ego involved as well.  As the Political Editor of The Australian your importance as a player in Canberra was magnified by your role in interpreting Newspoll.  Any one of my successors that tells you differently is kidding themselves." *(Sol Lebovic was CEO of Newspoll)

Sources revealed that Milne's experience was not unique, either within Australia or internationally.
(iii) Other media outlets report verbatim the interpretation of poll results by the commissioning media outlet 

While the above account explains the dramatisation of poll results by the commissioning media outlets, it is unclear as to why other media outlets simply reinforce this dramatisation by reporting verbatim the interpretation of the commissioning media outlet.  Too often other media outlets, mainly television and radio, simply adopt the original headline as if it were their own headline with little or no apparent critical analysis of the interpretation of the poll figures.  It's essentially a straight copy and paste, and as such maybe these outlets should simply provide the web address of the original analysis to their audience and ask them to see for themselves.

Perhaps they are under significant time pressure; perhaps there is a lack of understanding; perhaps they don't care.  Nevertheless, the outcome is a deficient one which does not serve their audience well.

Again we can turn to the BBC's Editorial Guidelines for some help:

Reporting Opinion Polls 

When reporting the findings of opinion polls (especially voting intention polls in the United Kingdom), whether commissioned by the BBC or others:
- We should not lead a news bulletin or programme simply with the results of an opinion poll
- We should not headline the results of an opinion poll unless it has prompted a story which itself deserves a headline and reference to the poll's findings is necessary to make sense of it
- We should normally report the findings of opinion polls in the context of trend and must always do so when reporting voting intention polls.  The trend may consist of the results of all major polls over a period or may be limited to the change in a single pollster's findings.  Poll results which defy trends without convincing explanation should be treated with particular care
- We should not use language which gives greater credibility to the polls than they deserve.  For example, we can say polls "suggest" and "indicate", but never "prove" or "show"
- We should not normally rely on the interpretation given to a poll's results by the organisation or publication which carried it out or commissioned it
- We should report the organisation which carried out the poll and the organisation or publication which commissioned it, as well as the questions, results and sample size.  This information too should always be shown in television and online graphics
- We should normally report the dates of the fieldwork, and include them in television and online graphics, and draw attention to events which may have had a significant effect on public opinion since it was done
- We should normally report whether the poll was carried out face to face, by telephone or over the internet
- We should report the expected margin of error in voting intention polls if the gap between the contenders is within the margin.  Television and online graphics should always show the margin of error.

You can read the complete BBC Editorial Guidelines on opinion polls here

It would be of great benefit to our political system if all Australian media outlets considered adopting these guidelines.
The 24-hour news cycle

Perhaps the most notorious negative influence on the Australian political system, and the most difficult to address, is the 24-hour news cycle.  

The media now has an insatiable need for fresh stories to fill the vast vacuum of the 24-hour news cycle and thereby places governments under enormous pressure to continuously feed the rapacious appetite of the media beast.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard explained in October last year:

"Governments around the world are still coming to grips with explaining deep reform concepts to the new media environment.  Not everything can be reduced to a tweet."
"We are in a media environment now where you could make a blockbuster announcement and deliver a press conference, someone is tweeting about it while you are doing the press conference.  Journalists can be doing a stand-up using you as a backdrop.  By the time you get back to your office journalists are interviewing journalists about what the announcement may or may not mean, and two hours later someone will ring my press secretary and say, "Have you got a story for us?"
President Barack Obama also made mention of this negative influence, first in April 2009:

"There is also an impatience that characterises this town (Washington D.C.) - an attention span that has only grown shorter with the twenty-four hour news cycle, and insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers."
"When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furore has died away and the media coverage has moved on, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way."

Then again in June 2009 when the Iranian government harshly put-down democracy protests, as Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post reported:

"Responding to insistent questioning from NBC's Chuck Todd about why he wouldn't 'spell out the consequences' for the Iranian government, Obama shot back: 'We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out.  I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle.  I'm not. OK?'"
Jeff Bercovici of the New York Observer commenting on Obama's reaction at that news conference highlighted, "the unwillingness or inability of journalists to see things in terms other than their own" as a significant contributor to the problem.

The commercial demands of the media have completely distorted the political and public policy process.  Rather than working to a timetable that suits the needs of the nation, governments are now working to a timetable that suits the needs of the media.  This is not good for thoughtful, considered policy development.  

Curiously, having contributed in large part to this distortion of the policy development process it is then the media which becomes the loudest critic of policies that have been rushed and implemented without due thought. 

It's the equivalent of a supermarket having expanded its floor space ten fold now having a multitude of shelf space to fill.  The traditional suppliers of products to that supermarket had been on weekly stock replacement cycles.  The supermarket is now demanding daily replacement cycles from its suppliers to ensure its shelf space is always full.  The suppliers would explain that they were on weekly cycles because their products needed that amount of time to be produced to an appropriate quality standard.  The supermarket continues to demand daily refills irrespective of past practices.

Keen not to lose the business the suppliers acquiesce to the supermarket's wishes and deliver daily, although the products are now at a reduced quality standard.  On seeing the quality of the stock delivered, the supermarket complains that it's not up to the usual standard and is now losing customers as a result.  The suppliers explain that it was the supermarket that insisted on this rapid turnover of products and is now receiving what it asked for. 

The media plays an important positive role in the effective functioning of our democracy.  It communicates with the public, influences policy debates and highlights deficiencies in the political process.  Yet increasingly its influence is becoming a negative one.

Media hypocrisy, the treatment of poll results and the 24-hour news cycle are all placing unnecessary pressure on an already stressed political system, and all need to be addressed

Media hypocrisy is easily addressed, if one so chooses, by maintaining a consistent approach individually and then challenging these hypocrisies when they occur. 

Media treatment of polls is easily addressed, if one so chooses, by education and application individually and then challenging misrepresentations when they occur.  

However, dealing with the impact of the 24-hour news cycle is much more difficult than a simple choice.  This will require some deep reflection by the media industry and all those who participate in it.  But it does need to be addressed and with some urgency.

In several years from now, will we be lamenting even more the lack of thoughtful policy development by governments; lamenting even more the quality of person who could be bothered to serve in politics, more celebrity than substance; lamenting even more the fact that sound bites had been reduced even further to a mere nod and a wink; lamenting even more that all that exists in the political debate are slogans and rhetoric designed to grab a headline; lamenting even more that political leaders are placing their party's political interests ahead of the national interest; lamenting even more that our politicians see no point in standing for anything and believe in nothing; lamenting even more how vested interests are distorting the political process; lamenting even more that the collective behaviour of the media had contributed in large part to this situation; lamenting, above all, that we could have done something about it and did not?

In several years from now, what account will we be able to give of our stewardship of our political system?


  1. Another reason why we need an Australian version of "The Daily Show" in some format. Media watch can't do it all in 10 minutes.

  2. I wonder what is the ABC's excuse. It doesn't have the commercial constraints/considerations of the other media. Yet it consistently performs as one of the most abysmal.

  3. Fantastic article. I heartily agree. For a while (between 2005-07), Insiders did treat polls respectfully, but now even Barrie Cassidy is rabbiting on about the latest Newspoll as though it were writ from God Almighty.


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