Rant on the failure of news media

Last night I watched Charlie Brooker’s news recap of the year. As I watched, the humour leavened things and left me entertained. But in my sleep, my mind has realised it had made me pretty angry. So a brief change in tone for this blog – a rant!

Charlie – both you personally, and you as a representative of the media – stop whining about the news bubble! You collectively all made the news bubble. Take some responsibility for it!

It’s cute and funny and post-modern to take the piss out of yourself for thinking the referendum on leaving the EU wasn’t a serious political event all year as remain was bound to win, and to take the micky out of yourself for going to bed on both Brexit and Trump’s election nights assuming they’d lost for sure when actually they won…

Yes it’s cute to be self-deprecating about that absolute failure of the main middle class intellectual UK media reporting. But it’s also pathetic.

Brexit

The news was absolutely useless at explaining Brexit to me as it happened. It didn’t help that the campaigns were useless too, and indeed many of the supporters of both campaigns who I knew. But they aren’t meant to be professionals reporting on the world for me and explaining how it works. The news industry that the BBC’s recap of the news year is representative of – that was their one job.

There seemed to be no understanding and no desire for analysis as to what was going on with the referendum. You’d think I might have read about it in the Guardian or at least in the Economist that I was paying for. But no, I had to rely on things like Simon Wardley’s blog or on my uncle sending actually good academic reports on the labour market effects of migration to have any idea why intelligent people were voting to leave the EU. I had to go off and read the Daily Express all by myself to gain any kind of understanding of the general mood amongst half the country.

So no Charlie, it’s pathetic apologia for your industry to just giggle at yourself for this disastrously bad failure of your industry’s reporting on the key UK political event of the year. It utterly failed in the worst possible way. Admit it explicitly, not just in jest, and do the work to not be so shit any more.

If you were surprised on the morning of the referendum result you just weren’t paying attention. Not only did some polls get the result right – all polls were so close and variable, you didn’t need to be looking hard to know there was a decent chance that leave would win.

You can’t just look at the average poll even if it wins by a tiny amount and assume that means that will be the result. It is probabilistic! If you don’t know this no you’re not funny or cute, you’re just being wilfully stupid in a destructive way. You’ve no basic idea how polls work, they’re just amusing numbers you sometimes share on social media.

Worse, you’ve no idea how to prepare your mind for multiple outcomes. You’re trying to use the news to reassure yourself, rather than understand reality. It’s pathetic. If you were surprised on the morning of Brexit, you need to completely alter your information diet and your approach to understanding the world.

All that applies to any politically aware citizen. It applies a hundred times more to someone like Charlie in his role representing the establishment media by doing the main news recap of the year.

Trump

This was even worse. The reporting on Trump all year was unbelievably bad. It consisted of finding tiny tiny moments when Trump said something that can be interpreted as bad, and only reporting on those in a one sided way, not realising why doing this increased his poll ratings. Watching him from a distance gave you no idea why tens of millions of people would vote for him.

I had to read Ian Welsh’s blog to find anyone to explain to me how Clinton was representative of neoliberalism, and both candidates were equally bad. And then, even though he’s a deeply problematic person in lots of ways, I had to resort to reading Scott Adams’ blog to understand the persuasion techniques Trump was using to win.

Why was this material not clearly explained in my Economist subscription, or the Guardian opinion pieces I was reading? Utter failure of professional media. I had to rely on a crowd funded social media consultant and an alt-right cartoonist for actually decent quality information. Seriously!

And no Charlie, it’s not funny you were surprised Trump won on election morning. It just means you were an idiot. No, polls have not been wrong recently, you just don’t know how to read them. For example, 538 (an obscure source to use in 2008, but hardly in 2016) were giving Clinton a 65% chance of winning. I’m going to put this in bold for people as it seems a common error:

When somebody has a 65% chance of winning it does not mean they have won!!!! It means there is a 2 in 3 chance that they will win. You roll one dice and have to get a 1, 2, 3, or 4 for Clinton to win. Actually pretty good odds for Trump when the prize is the presidency – pick up a dice, try to roll a 5 or 6! Feels possible, right?

So unless there’s, say, a 99.99% chance of victory going one way in an election, you shouldn’t be surprised whichever way it goes! Either could happen.

If you woke up after the election surprised Trump won, then you’re just an idiot who needs to understand basic probability. I’m sorry, it just isn’t an acceptable reaction to have been surprised. Learn not to have it again.

I expect better from our best people hired to work for our best public service broadcaster. It’s frankly embarrassing.

Summary

So, to summarise, on both of these supposed election upsets of 2016, which have made everyone in the UK college-educated bubble claim it was a terrible year, there were two failings in basic reporting by our media:

  1. They didn’t investigate properly why so many people were voting the other way to the way they expected.
  2. They didn’t understand basic probability, couldn’t read polls, so were surprised at the result.

The two are linked and reinforce each other. The reason I knew I had to go and do the research on why (1) myself was because the mysterious polling (2) was clear.

Failing in this way is excusable for a normal member of the public, we can hardly be expected to have the time do to this work. It is absolutely unacceptable for people working in the media. If you work in the UK media, and you were surprised by either Brexit or Trump on election morning, then you need to go back and retrain.

I’m a computer programmer, not a professional media worker, and I knew. Why didn’t you?

Disclaimer

For the record I voted Remain, but maybe there are potential opportunities from Leave in a ten year timeframe (it can’t be judged before at least ten years have passed, don’t even bother trying). I don’t endorse either Trump or Clinton, and I don’t need to as I’m not American. This blog post is in rant form deliberately, so do make me add nuance in the comments if you feel the need.

3 thoughts on “Rant on the failure of news media

  1. Everything you say is in rant form these days. I can’t blame a bang on the head. Here is my rant.
    I have to say, as your mother, a hopeless case who “needs to study science and do better quality research”, it was obvious that both polls were touch and go. But I do not rely on the media for news. I look at the rants on Youtube to find out what the plebs are thinking. There you can get some very frank views about what is really going on, e.g. what is the EU’s real agenda, which politicians are secretly Illuminati, and so forth. You don’t have to believe it all, but it’s a different slant on events and can be an eye opener. It is a mystery why some of it doesn’t reach the newspapers. Now that the plebs can communicate easily en mass, politics and the world will change. And they need to.

  2. One quick comment – you’re right about 60% chance of winning meaning only 60% chance of winning, but quite a lot of the voting reporting was about polling indicating e.g. 60% of the electorate planning to vote one way or another. That’s a very different thing and doesn’t in any way equate to a 60% chance of winning. But these two categories of stats were maybe not seperated clearly enough by the media, and in the public mind?

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