How the traditional media harms our politics

Criticising traditional media has become something of a fashionable thing to do in recent years. Since the rise of Donald Trump and the explosion of ‘fake news’ opinion of traditional media has been exceptionally low. While many of these criticisms relate to how traditional news conducts itself, this is arguably only half of the story. The much more significant damage it could be said is done not by how the media present themselves, but by how they make us, their viewers, treat one another.

Part of this problem is that human beings are incredibly complicated. Our environment is extremely complicated. The problems we create by interacting with it are more complicated still. But this is not a reality that is mirrored in our news. Switch on any major network in the United Kingdom or the United States be it Channel 4, Sky, CNN or Fox, and you will find the same tired formula formatted to be expedient, not communicative. Short segments, often heavily edited or live portions, under time pressure are not efficient avenues for political discussion. Not even our election debates escape this tendency, often showing up to seven party leaders scrambling to get a word in before the subject inevitably changes. It’s a mess. The constraints placed on a conversation are crucial to shaping them. Even under optimal circumstances, the mainstream solution proves maladaptive. Sharp time constraints irrevocably alter the landscape of communication and warp the incentives influencing our participants. Such pressures and the wildly optimistic participant counts we view in mainstream political debate means truth becomes secondary. Under pressure, aware that a slip up will leave no time for reprieve we’re fed simple root cause analysis when our problems are multivariate. This behaviour, while apt, is designed to reinforce established narratives, frequently directing you to a predetermined political cause. A cause that alone fails to adequately represent the complexity of the problem faced, but just amplifies existing noise.

To provide an example, on the 3rd June 2017 eleven people were killed after a vehicle was deliberately rammed into pedestrians on London Bridge and multiple stabbed as the attackers pursued bystanders shortly afterwards. The opportunity this provided to highlight partisan concerns about government policy was jumped upon, and conversations about police cuts began to take up an inexcusable amount of space in our political discourse. Such a narrow diagnosis is puzzling. British citizens are ramming vans into one another with the aim of killing as many people as possible. This behaviour is deranged. Our concerns should be broader than police cuts. To use another example, increasingly popular is the notion that prejudice must be the sole cause of all inequalities in outcome between the sexes. The ostensible ‘gender pay gap’ that has been giving the BBC such a headache over the last few years is a product just such a belief. In truth, the sexes may on average have different earnings for many reasons. Prejudice is only one of these reasons. But these responses, like many of those you see manufactured on contrived television news debates, are partisan, simplistic and designed to direct you to a predetermined political goal. This binary thinking our news cultivates brings out the worst in us. Low-resolution images of reality make us susceptible to simple ideological explanations for our problems and make it hard to identify nuance and subtlety. Groupthink and dogmatism thrive under such conditions and all the while we get no closer to understanding the obstacles before us.

What then can be done? Unfortunately, it would seem very little. As people have less time available and even more things competing for it, the short form punchy debate format we see on TV news isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. It teaches us a valuable lesson though. We need to think carefully about how we stage our conversations if we are to get the most out of them. At present, our practices fail to provide a suitable stage for the questions we want answers to. Short form debate has its advantages, but it’s restrictive and conducive to a tribalistic simplicity. What it fails to appreciate is that many of our problems are not new, but are the subject of hundreds of years of debate by some of the finest minds in human history. The way we talk about them needs to reflect this. Not only so we can solve them, but so we can do it in a civilised way too.

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