Victoria Noble: Explaining away partisanship

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 10:54am

“You’re on Trump’s side,” a tall mother, hair pulled out the back of her baseball hat, told her young, bikini-clad daughter. While we all waited in line for ice cream at the beach, the daughter asked her mother about the recent U.S. statements on the Israeli settlements. The settlements had become the focus of renewed public scrutiny after their condemnation in a United Nations resolution and a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry – and President-elect Donald Trump’s tweeted condemnation of those condemnations – in late December 2016.

I was impressed that the daughter – who looked like she was only in middle school — wanted to talk about the Israeli settlements at the beach. But the mother’s response struck me as well. Rather than attempt to describe the controversial and endlessly complex situation in Israel to her daughter, the mother simply told her which side to support.  

But in many ways, the mother’s response reflects media coverage not only of the Israeli settlements issue, but of all issues. Instead of describing and explaining issues, policies and events, the news media simply relays information about who is on each side of the issue and what they are saying about it. Political parties function similarly, providing ample information on which policies, ballot initiatives and non-partisan candidates, like judges, party adherents should support.

This is reflected in public knowledge of politics and current affairs. While the majority of respondents to a Pew survey conducted in 2012 could correctly identify all major policy positions of the Republican or Democratic parties, barely half could determine the correct partisan composition of the Senate, even when shown a picture of the Senate. Only a third of respondents knew how many Supreme Court justices were men and how many were women. Roughly a third knew who the chief justice of the Supreme Court is; whereas in 1986, about 43 percent did.

Understanding who is making policy is central to understanding that policy, but those details are often left out of media reports. The processes that produced those policies and how those policies actually work gets similarly little attention in the popular press.

Yet a strong public understanding of policy is critical to sound democratic governance. When constituents lack information about the economic, social and national security implications of policy, politicians and spin-doctors are free to scapegoat the other party and its policies and win elections by promising policies with little potential to achieve their purported goals. When voters expect their leaders to explain how a policy works, rather than just tell them to support it, it becomes infinitely harder to prop up bad policy with partisan rhetoric.

We live in a tell, don’t show media landscape when a well-functioning democratic society requires the exact opposite.

This trend is new and reversible. At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the use of radio to explain policy developments to American citizens. FDR used radio to explain the economics of his policies designed to prevent banking panics and stem the financial crisis. He briefed average Americans on economic processes taught in college classrooms.

To be sure, the media landscape has changed since the Great Depression. Consumers have a broader range of news sources of varying quality. The vast quantity of available information makes it increasingly difficult for media leaders and political innovators to capture and sustain public attention. Experts at Harvard University predict that, going forward, success in media will go to the organizations that pioneer ways to best capture the attention of their audiences.

Explanations of the economics and political processes that undergird policy do not lend themselves well to the kind of Twitter outrage and meme cycle that candidates took advantage of in the last election. But that doesn’t mean that current news industry frontrunners can’t work to regain public trust and establish a new standard for quality political reporting by consistently publishing articles that explain rather than assert.

Some publications do this already. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog explains the statistics supporting politics and sports for a lay audience. The Economist and the Financial Times tend to incorporate more analysis into their articles. However, none of these sources inform large swaths of the American electorate or command large enough lay audiences to change the standards for reporting writ large. That requires editorial changes at publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

It’s tempting to take the problems with American news organizations as an indictment of their quality and relevance in the digital age. These organizations face pressure to adapt by adopting the language, style, tone and content of the blogosphere to transform serious content into clickbait that will stand out on Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Others condemn media professionals as biased insiders who intentionally mislead their audiences. In a media environment that rewards speed – often at the expense of analysis and accuracy – mistakes are all but destined to occur and personal biases are likely to emerge. This holds true for professional reporters and the Twitter commentariat alike.

Professional journalists governed by strict professional standards have proven themselves more adept in producing quality, accurate content in the face of these pressures than anonymous amateur bloggers and those working for media organizations whose business model revolves around creating content that its audience will agree with.

Professional journalism has the greatest potential to solve the problem of tell, don’t show. Doing so seems likely to address the problem of perceived media bias as well — showing readers how the facts of a situation interact to support a given conclusion seems more likely to engender neutral storytelling than reporting where journalists and experts simply tell readers what they ought to take away from the story.

Sound good? Then one of the best ways to make this happen is to embrace organizations and reporters that embrace this model. Reading and supporting explanatory journalism increases the likelihood that publications will expand their use of, and other organization will adopt, this kind of storytelling.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.