The failure of journalism and of polling to accurately reflect the electorate is not unique to this U.S. presidential election, or even to America.
During the June referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, Faisal Islam, political editor of Sky News, interviewed then Minister for Justice in the Conservative government, Michael Gove, a prominent campaigner for the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. Islam listed some of the countries, institutions, and individuals warning that Brexit would damage the British economy. The list included India, China, and the U.S., the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the chief executive of the National Health Service, and leaders of several trade unions.
Gove’s response: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts … from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best.”
The remark epitomized a campaign dogged by widespread misinformation and, sometimes, outright lies—and the media’s failure to understand and report on the concerns of an enormous number of voters.
One of the most notorious misrepresentations was the claim by Leave campaigners, emblazoned across buses throughout the country, that “We send the E.U. £350 million every week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” During a televised debate, Remain campaigner and Labour MP Angela Eagle called the slogan a “lie.”
The nonpartisan U.K. Statistics Authority issued a statement noting that the figure did not include Britain’s rebate, and warned that “the continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.” The £350m also did not include European Union aid given to agriculture and other sectors.
What is not disputed is that the number stuck in voters’ minds. A week before the referendum, polling firm Ipsos MORI found that 47 percent of the public believed the £350m claim was true.
Better training in dealing with facts and figures—including polling data—seems essential. Most journalists come from a liberal arts background, which can leave them feeling ill-equipped to deal with competing truth claims in areas like science, economics, or polling. Live television, because of its fast-moving nature, is a particular challenge. Dame Jil Matheson, former U.K. national statistician, recently led a report into the use of statistics for the BBC. She says that, far from having had enough of experts, viewers and readers need to hear more from them. Too often, she discovered, “people were allowed to make a claim and then the only challenge came from a member of an opposition party. That doesn’t serve the audience. It turns stats and evidence into a political football.”
The British public broadcaster, the BBC, came under particular criticism, from both sides, for its handling of the Brexit debate. Leave campaigners accused it of being staffed by the type of well-to-do metropolitans more inclined to vote Remain; the other side argued it was being too generous to fringe viewpoints in the name of editorial “balance.” All this contributed to a climate in which staff worried about the Corporation’s mandate to cover subjects with “due impartiality,” defined by its guidelines as being “inclusive, considering the broad perspective, and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.”
During the Brexit debate, one producer worried that campaigners were using stopwatches to check that both the Leave and Remain advocates received equal airtime. Another BBC journalist was concerned about a package on the science community’s attitude toward Brexit, as he could not find any prominent scientists in favor of leaving the E.U. But due to BBC guidelines, both sides had to be represented.
After Britain’s E.U. referendum, a study by Cardiff University examined 517 statistical claims made during the campaign, finding that, although one in five was challenged, 65.2 percent of this challenging came from rival politicians, not journalists. “In relying so heavily on campaigners without journalistic arbitration or seeking expert opinion, viewers were often left with little more than a statistical tit-for-tat between rival camps,” wrote Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis of Cardiff University. “Voters complained about the lack of hard information even at a late stage in the campaign.”
In a single year, journalists have experienced two disruptive, unexpected rejections of the elite consensus
While newsrooms have begun to talk more about diversity, it is more often seen in terms of race and gender than class and geography. But if voters are making decisions based on identity and values, rather than facts, it becomes even more important for newsrooms to look and sound like their audiences. Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of The Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” urges the media to include “more voices from working class backgrounds, who are not white, who are women. That’s really critical, because the sets of questions you’re going to ask are different.”
Technology can also play a role in sharpening coverage. Google now tags fact-checking sites in its News search results. There is now a greater clamor for Facebook to weed out fake news from its trending topics and users’ News Feeds. And to puncture filter bubbles, aggregator The Daily Mixer compiles stories from a variety of news outlets, but doesn’t show where they came from until after they are read.
What technology can do “is observe claims which pop up and have already been debunked, and identify its trail of propagation—here are the users spreading it, here is where it’s being repeated,” says Gabriel Pogrund, a Google News fellow who has spent time at Full Fact, a British fact-checking charity. Pogrund cites Pheme, a web application being developed to track rumors as they spread across social media. The goal is to automate the process of identifying material as speculation, controversy, misinformation, or disinformation by cross-referencing it with other data sources across the web.
If successful, Pheme would help journalists sort through social media rumors in real-time. “Our mission is to help journalists to fact-check quicker, by looking to highlight contradictions with information published previously or other information on a similar topic,” says Kalina Bontcheva of the University of Sheffield, one of the researchers leading the project.
In a single year, journalists have experienced two disruptive, unexpected rejections of the elite consensus. Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump happened despite dire warnings of the potential consequences from mainstream politicians on the left and right. Clearly, many voters do not believe the facts as reported in the traditional media. Before anything else, journalism must restore its authority and regain the trust of the public.