Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.58.36 pmOne of the tropes of media election coverage is when ‘jaded’ seen-it-all ‘insiders’ proclaim to the wet-behind-the-ears public that it’s all over. The ‘people’ have already decided. Call off the election. The conservatives have it in the bag.

These stories are invariably based on opinion polls and written by telephone journalists, who having forsaken the campaign bus, spend their lives talking to other insiders who are reading the same polls and not connecting with anyone outside the bubble.

US journalism academic Jay Rosen calls this cramped perspective “the cult of the savvy”. This is the practice of journalists reporting from inside the system to others like them. The viewpoint and mindset are that of political operatives, judging each day’s developments in terms of who won and who lost the news cycle.

“Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the US and Australia,” Rosen has written. “Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.”

Journalists have become inward looking and disconnected from the electorate for a few reasons. One is economic. Thanks to newsroom cutbacks due to declining media revenues, there are few specialists anymore. Where formerly there might have been a health reporter, whose job it was to track health policy, or a technology reporter, who was across broadband issues, there are now only generalists. Few newsrooms have the resources to look at issues as they might affect voters, so the focus becomes the race itself, politics as a process.

The second reason, and one well canvassed, is the rise of social media, the continuous news cycle and the appropriation of new communication technologies by politicians and their staffers. Stories that might formerly have developed over two or three days now can be born, live and die within two or three hours. Journalists try to keep up, but the more they chase the noise, the less time they have to find the signal.

And when the media does try to stand back from the daily circus to identify the malaise with politics, they often end up interviewing people just like themselves or the usual paid apparatchiks like the IPA “fellows” who are as much players in the game as anyone. Rehearsed talking points are intoned in such a predictable way that you find yourself anticipating what each contributor is going to say before they open their mouths.

Everyone talks condescendingly about what the “ordinary voters” are thinking, or worse, “the punters”. No-one ever asks them directly. We hear constantly about how political parties have become scientific about picking up phrases uttered in focus groups and then cynically layering them into their communication as if this is somehow admirable.

It’s this insider mentality, this culture of a narrow group of elite opinion makers talking among themselves, that was so dramatically given the middle finger by Britons in their recent referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit.

If you recall, the late polls in that case were suggesting a reasonably comfortable victory for the remain camp. Indeed, even as the counting began, the exit camp was ready to concede defeat. Then, as the trend reversed, the talking heads had to change their prepared scripts.

Few people appreciate that political journalists don’t really have any special insights to the public mind. They’re guessing as much as anyone, just as financial journalists tend to talk about what has already happened in the market as if it is a guide to what happens next.

Events can occur. Polls can change. The public mood is not singular or simple. People’s appreciation of issues as they affect them is often much keener and deeper than many journalists give them credit for. But reporting depth and nuance and complexity is hard. It’s much easier to host a half-hour of thumb-sucking “analysis” of the latest Newspoll.

Keep that in mind next time you hear some smartarse on TV telling you it’s all over.



Martin Spalding · June 30, 2016 at 9:18 am

They don’t even get the psephology right, simply repeating the glib conclusions of the lead newspaper articles and not going to the level of analysis of say a William Bowe or Kevin Bonham. And yes, a ‘Turnbull is Inevitable’ narrative has completely taken hold.

Bobalot · June 30, 2016 at 1:45 pm

You only have to look at how the Brexit vote as an example of how out of touch the journalist and political class has become.

The disenchantment and alienation of the working classes has been seething for years. The EU became an embodiment of the undemocratic, arrogant and economically unequal society that they found themselves in.

Instead of trying to understand this disenchantment and address it, the journalist class labelled them all as racists (admittedly, a minority were) and simply demanded they shut up, fall into line, and be happy with the accelerating cost of housing and living and the benefits of the association with the EU which accrued to the wealthy and middle classes.

I must admit the shock of the political and journalistic elites has been a guilty pleasure for me.

mga · July 3, 2016 at 7:01 pm

I think it’s much more insidious than that. It’s risen with concentration of media ownership. Journalists are scared for their jobs if they dont toe the Owner’s line.
It’s even become rampant in publicly owned media which has seen savage cuts and big names dispatched the BBC and the ABC for example. Journalists do what they are more or less told, and it is to the terrible detriment of democracy.

    Jason Brown · July 11, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    MGA nails it on the head here. Journalists, scientists, researchers – anyone dealing in verifiable facts – are being intimidated into silence.

    There is a worldwide crisis in journalism, and in an era of ever tighter globalisation, this lack of scrutiny is costing us plenty already.

Ambigulous · July 3, 2016 at 11:13 pm

Yes, well it’s all very well for you to carp, Mr Denmore.
It is clear that Mr Turnbull has won the election, albeit with a possibly reduced majority. His appeal for stability, common sense, unity, innovation, the ability of start-ups to go belly up, a long term scheme to reduce company taxes, and his absolutely first rate NBN have energised the electors as never before. And his master stroke of calling an election immediately after tabling a budget, well if that’s not agility I’m not sure what would qualify!

I think you’re likely to be so embarrassed when the votes are counted, you’ll be sending apologies to pundits all over the shop. Do try to be more gracious and receptive when your betters talk down to you.


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