Is “bias against understanding” in state and corporate media a problem of journalism or a policy coming from the top? Unfortunately the latter.
Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.
Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling
All professionals are vulnerable to professional deformation – a tendency, often exacerbated by groupthink, to fail to see that their training and experience has inculcated into them an incomplete and biased view of the world. So it is, I fear, with Nick Robinson’s claim that the Today programme’s ratings are falling because of “news avoiders” who no longer want to face the world’s problems.
What this omits is that many of us who want to face the world’s problems are unhappy with the BBC’s coverage thereof. This isn’t merely because of partisan bias; or because of individual errors and inaccuracies; or because the corporation is impartial between truth and lies; or because it over-indulges ignorant, evasive or dishonest politicians; or because it is insufficiently attentive to who sets the news agenda.
It’s also because of another problem.
For years, much of the public has been horribly wrong about basic facts about society. Which alerts us to the likelihood that the media does not properly inform us. Such mistakes are worldwide, so the problem is much bigger than the UK media.
This happens because even the best journalism provides only a partial description of the world. Even when the news is the truth, it is not the whole truth.
To see my point, let’s start with the sad story in the summer that the head-teacher Ruth Perry had taken her life after Ofsted had downgraded her school.
This highlights two things about the news. One is its focus on human interest stories to the neglect of less salient or eyeball-grabbing facts. Teachers have for years been angered, alienated and stressed out by Ofsted, but it took a suicide to drive this onto the news agenda. The other is that the story soon disappeared, long before anyone had satisfactorily answered the question of how best to regulate and improve our schools. News inherently has a short attention span and journalists are looking for the next new story, not the old one. This lack of attention span distorts politics. The government recently had a “health week” to get the media talking about healthcare in which everybody forgot that a week of chat is never going to solve the system’s problems. What we had was airtime being filled to suit the government’s agenda and to replace silence.
Journalists’ love of human interest stories means that something gets deprioritized. That something is often statistics, which are much drier than anecdotes. My favourite example of this statistical illiteracy came from Jeremy Vine who, after a cycling accident, said: “This was the first penny farthing injury the hospital staff could remember seeing, which suggests they are normally extremely safe to ride.” Thus giving us a perfect example of base rate neglect.
His error is however not an isolated one. The BBC Trust has found (pdf) that “the BBC sometimes falls short in its reporting of statistics.” We see this in (for example) reporting of attacks by XL Bully dogs. How common are these? How dangerous are such dogs? Reports of individual instances are dramatic and eye-catching but not informative. Yes, journalists’ historic blindspot about statistics is being corrected by the rise of data journalism. But if we want an accurate picture of society, all journalism must be data journalism.
Which brings us to another problem. The news reports events rather than trends. It thus foregrounds politicians’ words and deeds and neglects slow-moving developments such as our almost 20 years of stagnating productivity and real wages and the associated decline in real interest rates. The upshot is that, as Phil says, reporting “caresse[s] the surface of politics” by neglecting the socio-economic forces that shape it. Laura Kuenssberg, for example, said back in 2020 that the nation’s credit card was “maxxed out”. She was utterly wrong, because she was overly heedful of politicians’ talk whilst ignoring the long-term slump in government borrowing costs. Similarly, the BBC was caught off-guard by the rise of Corbynism because it paid too much attention to MPs who disliked him and not enough to the countless young graduates who felt alienated from the system; an estate agent’s window told us more about the source of Corbyn’s popularity than most news reports. And it failed to see Brexit and the rise of anti-“woke” sentiments because it failed to appreciate that economic stagnation breeds both discontent and illiberalism.
Many social developments – economic stagnation, the decline in crime, fall in global poverty and so on – are emergent. They are not the product of any single individual’s actions, so the journalists’ emphasis on human interest causes them to neglect them and the knee-jerk question of “who’s the hero or villain?” is the wrong one to ask.
This focus on events rather than trends means that journalism often produces expiring information – things that are briefly interesting but soon irrelevant: the minutiae of the Brexit negotiations, gossip about cabinet ministers’ careers or day-to-day moves in share prices and so on. Which means that wider, generally applicable lessons aren’t learnt.
To see what I mean, take just two cases from this week’s news. One is that the police are switching off their bodycams or deleting footage from them. In response to this Jim Colwell, Acting Chief Constable of Devon & Cornwall Police, “says the vast majority of body-worn video shows good policing.” This should be a good base for a discussion of selection bias. But it’s not. Equally, reporting of HS2 should be a starting point for a discussion of the sunk cost fallacy. But it’s not.
In both cases, viewers could learn useful lessons they could apply in everyday lives. But the news does not provide this. Instead, what we get are isolated facts presented with little context (how dishonest or not are the police? what if any errors and biases are made in decisions about infrastructure?) or inference. This doesn’t happen because of bad journalism, but because of the nature of what news is.
And that’s my point. Yes, we all complain, rightly, about the BBC’s flaws. Even if these defects could be cured, however, the news would not properly inform us. And I’m not sure they could be wholly cured because they perhaps arise in part from the nature of journalism itself. Journalists’ lack of grounding in statistics and social science makes them vulnerable to being overly influenced by fluent charlatans, especially if all they want is a soundbite; if you think this is confined to political reporting, you’ve not seen financial journalism.
This is an old problem. When I was growing up I saw almost every night news reports of murders in Northern Ireland by protestants, loyalists, Catholics or republicans. “What is all this about?” I wondered. But the news never told me; for that, I needed history and sociology books. As long ago as 1975 John Birt criticized journalists’ “bias against understanding”. Like many of us, he was better at diagnosing than curing. But the accusation he made still holds good now. It’s quite reasonable, therefore, for people who are curious about the world to avoid the news.