February 27, 2017— Helen Boaden, spring 2017 Joan Shorenstein Fellow and director of BBC Radio, and Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, discussed the role of the press and social media in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.
Below are some highlights from their presentations, as well as the audio recording. This event was part of the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar Series on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Helen Boaden on Brexit
Who voted to leave the EU—and why it came as a surprise
“When I said the UK unexpectedly voted to leave, really it was unexpected to a lot of people in London…I was unsurprised by this, I leave London quite a lot….we go and see friends and neighbors in the north of England, and none of our friends and neighbors were voting to remain, not the working class friends, not the middle class friends, not the arty friends…if you were in London, it felt very, very different.”
The level of immigration didn’t seem to matter, but the pace of change over the last decade really did.
“Only the highest income group of voters backed remain…the idea that global capitalism has been good for everybody is not true…one of the things that the media generally in the UK has not done is reflect the losers in global capitalism.”
“Economics wasn’t the only consideration. Demographics mattered, culture and geography mattered…the level of immigration didn’t seem to matter, but the pace of change over the last decade really did. If you lived in an eastern rural area where suddenly you had Polish shops springing up…this is unusual in the east of England. You might feel that your country has changed too fast and nobody asked if you wanted it. And so it wasn’t places like Birmingham or Manchester or London, which actually have high levels of immigration, it was places that had high turnover.”
The role of legacy and new media
“We need to be careful about social media—it tends to influence a core of people intensely, but increasingly we’re seeing that the stories often come from mainstream media. Turning to family and friends for information is one of the key trends we’re seeing throughout the last ten years at the BBC…it’s about the nature of trust. We trust what we know, and we know our family and friends.”
We tend to think that social media is the only way you get an echo chamber. Newspapers can be just as much of an echo chamber, and always have been.
“The newspapers were almost overwhelmingly pro-leave, and this is entirely about the business agendas, I would argue, of their owners. Mr. Murdoch, who owns The Sun and The Times is a vehement and public critic of the European Union, which has often trimmed what he can do in business terms. The Daily Mail, owned by Lord Rothermere, I would imagine that comes from a more ideological opposition and the sovereignty argument…and The Daily Telegraph is also owned by two multimillionaires who would have worried about the sovereignty issue. The papers that were most pro-remain are those of what you would call the financial elite, the people who read the Financial Times, and the liberal elite, the people who read The Guardian.”
“The Mail, the Star and the Express emphasized migration as a key topic. This was not new to this campaign. All of these papers had for some time been talking about the impact of migration [on] what they regard as an overcrowded country.”
“We tend to think that papers don’t make a difference. Actually they do…the people who voted were people who read newspapers, they tended to be older…they were much better at reinforcing the views of decided voters than informing the undecided, and that’s an important thing, because we tend to think that social media is the only way you get an echo chamber. Newspapers can be just as much of an echo chamber, and always have been.”
Ann Marie Lipinski on Election 2016
How the media failed
“There’s a sense that media failed and it wasn’t so much our failing to predict the outcome of the election, but in preventing Trump’s election. I think that kind of view is the hubris of ideologues, and should not be the sentiment or the perspective of working journalists. The failure was in failing to report what was fully transpiring across this country, and our inability to see that and to share that in a way that was compelling to people.”
A shift from vox pop to polling
“What had happened to draw us away from those listening posts that had been so common to our work? One of the things was the rise of not just polling, but the aggregation of polling, which gave us this veneer of a new science…and also the reliance on big data…we gave it a very special status in our reporting and in our thinking about what was possible to know.”
“The signs were there before November—one of the more glaring being the Michigan primary, where Clinton was supposed to win, and of course Sanders won…those same models that failed in those individual circumstances also would fail us come November. I thought it was sort of pathetic in the aftermath to read the jockeying going on among the people who do this work—basically, people claiming status if their polling had been less inaccurate than that of their competitors.”
On bursting filter bubbles
“How many of us talk to people, or see on Facebook, ‘I tried watching CNN’ or ‘I tried watching Fox News, I gave it a half hour and I just couldn’t stand it anymore.’ There’s this desire to know what other people are thinking—at the same time at war with this intolerance we actually have.”
The founders had this amazing idea that the people are sovereign, but that only works if they’re informed. Are we informed, or are we more incited?
Does the news media ignore positive outcomes?
“Journalism’s focus on its historic obligations sometimes leads us away from explaining how things and when things work. I don’t mean just that kind of sappy good news…I mean actual substantive documentation of when things are systematically, actually working…a question for me is whether journalism had a role in painting a portrait of a nation in need of being made great again? Did we contribute to a refrain that was accurate, but only narrowly so, and not fully descriptive of what was happening in the government, or in our communities?”
The problems with punditry
“Think about the cable news shows that you watch, and actually count the reporters versus the commentators, many of whom were paid political consultants ten minutes ago. Have we settled for formalized opinion as reporting, and what have we lost in that arrangement?”
“The founders had this amazing idea that the people are sovereign, but that only works if they’re informed. Are we informed, or are we more incited?”
How journalism should move forward
“If you’re reading a news report or if you’re working in a newsroom where you’re organized as you were in November, and where you’re getting the same journalists reporting on the same stories, [then] we have learned nothing, and we journalists are failing you, and you need to demand better of us.”
“I think we need to take the drama of the White House out of the center. I’m not saying to not report on what happens in the briefing room, but our obsession over who gets in…who’s going to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, is so beneath us.”
I think we need to take the drama of the White House out of the center.
“What is before us is not unprecedented. It is maybe in modern times or in some of our lifetimes…official disdain for journalism has been a strong component of democracy in this country as long as historians can document…we need to focus on what is different for this period of journalism…Don’t take the bait. We are not the enemy of the people…it’s not an effective way of bringing journalism through this period.”
The Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution series is sponsored by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Boston area members of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.