Tuesday, November 13, 2012

(No.219) U.S. election coverage: entertainment vs information


"The American presidential election of 2012:
entertainment versus information"

by Alastair Rickard


The 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign is over, something for which many Americans will give thanks.

The very long presidential campaign (in reality firmly under way before 2012) featured, more than ever before, not only the expenditure of ridiculous amounts of money (an estimated $6 billion) and the use of tens of thousands of almost entirely negative televison ads, many of which were not just distortions of the truth but clearly mendacious. It also featured journalism hardly worthy of the name, the focus of which was overwhelmingly the latest results of the presidential 'horse race' as revealed by a multiplicity of weekly opinion polls.

The forecasts were all over the map but poll results were customarily presented as if they were reliable predictions to be taken seriously about the results of the election between President Barak Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. For more than the last month before Nov.6 news media were especially absorbed with reporting the supposed 'statistical dead heat' between the two candidates. Right up to election eve the race was said repeatedly, ad nauseam really, to be "too close to call".

Clearly the 'experts' in the media were wrong.With 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency Barak Obama took 352 to Mitt Romney's 206. As for the popular vote, the president outdistanced Mr. Romney by 3.3 million, i.e., more than half the total vote ( and there were third party presidential candidates on the ballot is some states). Some dead heat.

Nate Silver, the New York Times' expert on political polls, was a voice in the journalistic wilderness during the presidential campaign. Wisdom after the fact is, of course, as plentiful in the media as among corporate executives. Silver was wise before the fact.

In Silver's "FiveThirtyEight: Political Calculus" column in the Times he repeatedly made use of well-founded statistical analysis to swim against the tide of pack journalism's use of supposedly reliable weekly political polling results to animate their 'news' coverage of the presidential campaign.

The week before the presidential election Silver stated that Obama's chances of winning the election were 83.7% based on his ongoing analysis of all the weekly polls, their strengths and weaknesses. He pointed out that even the best political opinion polls these days have a response rate of no better than 10% [sic]: "The pollsters are making a leap of faith that the 10% of voters they can get on the phone and get to agree to participate are representative of the whole population."

As for the U.S. presidential election result, as the media consensus had it, being too close to call, Silver declared to his jounalistic colleagues "It isn't ....[Obama] will win the Electoral College. If you can't acknowledge that ... then [ you] should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public." Of course "entertainment" was (and is) mainly what cable news election coverage in particular was all about during the presidential campaign.

However we have arrived at a sad time if what seems to count to most 'news' providers is not the unreliability of political polling in the forecasting of election results (in Canada this has been recently emphasized by the unreliable polling prior to the provincial elections in Alberta and Quebec).

The reality is that even in Canada, although less so than in tthe U.S., offering 'horse race' election coverage instead of meaningful analysis is the prevailing method.'Political news' media are so easily distracted with facile coverage of the trivial like candidates gaffes or references to Big Bird. Of course it has its advantages: it facilitates the replacing of more difficult and 'non-entertaining' coverage of substantive issues.

Why?

In the U.S. one reason contributing to this sort of development was recently articulated by American media analyst Jack Lessenberg:  the shrinking retentiveness of the average American voter, he says, is that of a "six-week pld puppy". Indeed the average news sound bite on American television has actually decreased fom 43 seconds in 1968 to 7 seconds today.

But many will respond: what of the new digital age when information is everywhere at hand? Surely the great information explosion of the past two decades involving online information, news sites and social media mean that American citizens, especially younger ones, are better informed than ever about politics and current affairs.

That's all very trendy. One might even characterize it as a media view well on its way to becoming fashionable conventional wisdom. It is neither my impression nor experience.

I have never believed the propaganda so beloved by the legions of digital/social media groupies about the positive impact of the information age on public knowledge of news and current affairs and the political process. I was interested therefore to run across the results of a Pew Research Study in the U.S. that found that American knowledge of current affairs did not change significantly over  two decades. And the least informed age group, the study found, was also the most technically adept and the most avid users of social media: the 18-29 year old group.

Poll addicts among journalists, of whom there seem to be many, may privately acknowledge the profound unreliability as well as the thin gruel of so-called news derived from predictions of future election results based on political polling.  But it is to expect too much to see the popular media depart from their continually increasing reliance on polls on all sorts of subjects to give them something to hang their story hats on.

Consider that the business media, even in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown which went unpredicted publicly by virtually all the 'experts' in the business media and investment communities, continues in the main to treat 'expert' opinions as the basis of much of their coverage.

The experts in business are on the whole no more reliable on, for example,  the subject of the market place in future, than the media's 'talking heads', their third party experts. For example: a Duke University study of 11,600 forecasts by corporate chief financial officers about how the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index would perform over the next year found the correlation between their estimates and the actual index was less than zero.

What might one conclude from all this? At the very least that information is not equivalent to knowledge, all the more so in an age when one can drown in information -- accurate and inaccurate -- but end up understanding less and less about more and more.

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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