Just how out of step were the press during the UK’s general election?

“I think there’s a big role in media for doing what the country needs: providing strong analysis and hard facts,” said George Osbourne, the former MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, now The Evening Standard’s Editor, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this weekend.

As the UK continues to mull over the results and ramifications of this General Election, here at Content Insights we’re scratching our heads also, and (unusually) we tend to side with George: the media needs to sort itself out.

Once again, you see, we find ourselves with an election result that flies in the face of the political tone and coverage (and apparent public opinion) that had preceded it. Theresa May may have called this election to sure up her voter base or exploit a perceived public distaste for her opponent, but this result surely suggests either one or both of these assumptions was more than a little misunderstood.

So, how have the media got it this wrong?

Stop preaching, start listening

If you’re reading about success in the media at the moment, chances are you’re reading about the almost contradictory blend of innovation and back-to-basics journalism. Those publishers doing well are those who understand that it’s a combination of diligent reporting and an openness to different ideas about publishing that prove successful in the current climate.

Content Insights: changing the way we approach editorial analytics

One way that this works in practice is re-evaluating the relationship between reader and journalist. Lea Korsgaard talks of the significance of the shift in how we view authority when she says, “you gain authority from stepping down from the pedestal” (a point she made during our Q&A recently and is one which bears repeating). David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer owed a lot to his transparent way of engaging with his readers through approaching his research into and reporting from the campaign trail almost as an open source project. Both have thrown out the rulebook saying that journalists can talk down to their readers. By using platforms to foster a conversational and approachable tone, readers are starting to feel that they’re being talked with rather than at.

It needn’t be this informal of course. The Economist is now reviewing the way it deals with its comments section, thus seeking to engage its readers that way. However it’s done, the foundation is the same: finding a way to answer questions and explore issues without ego or presumption.

It’s a long way down from that pedestal, however, and we seem to be starting to see several in danger of falling.

Why the tabloids blew it

If you aspire to write the kind of journalism that attracts Pulitzers, it’s hard not to do a victory lap (at least a mental one) when you hear tales of people buying up quantities of The Sun with no other intention other than finding a creative way to dispose of them (or simply hiding them with the milk in the supermarket).

Why is the Attention Movement worth paying attention to?

The kind of content that fills – and filled – the tabloids during this short election campaign was rarely helpful or informative and commonly displayed little or no journalistic vigor. At best it raised a smirk, at worst propagated the kind of misinformation and disinformation that could prove truly calamitous. It’s hardly a surprise – the Financial Times squarely attacked the tabloid press for the same practices in 2015, but this time the attacks across party lines seem more baseless.

“Voters simply switched off the high pitched whine of targeted character assassination,” said The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore in her column on Friday. “It was as if they were getting their information somewhere else.”

Schadenfreude is easy. It might be simple to brand them outdated, clickbait trash, but if you’re chasing those clicks through whatever sensational story you can conjure on any given day, yet your sensationalism time and again proves baseless (even if it’s excellent at printing demagoguery) at some point readers are going to realize that you’re nothing more than an outlet for barbed witticisms that amount to little more than a photo plus caption. 

The Sun might have had king-making power back in the 90s, but the catchphrase ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ seems a little arcane in 2017, and as Politico noted: “attacks on Corbyn by the traditional media were dismissed by the Labour leader as signs that the mainstream political class was out of touch with the public”.

Social media savvy?

Sure, we’ve become used to social media as an instrument of knowledge sharing by now, so we really can’t claim this was the first election to be dominated by it, but it’s certainly true that readers are increasingly savvy about it. 

“Publishing opinion is easy, cheap and quotable, but it provides no factual framework for people to contest outrageous claims made by the press”

There’s little doubt that it has always been possible to edit in truth using photographs, but with social media so endemic, to continue to try to create a narrative when it can be so easily disproved is perplexing. Leftwing blog The Canary delighted in exposing Tory campaigning mistakes, with images on Twitter showing how photos of May’s supporters at a rally were cropped to show bigger crowds, but there is seldom mention of this kind of coverage in the mainstream broadcast media.

The danger is – and evidently has been – that as readers start to notice the holes in any particular publication’s content, they’ll abandon it. The solution is simple: make what you write watertight. Give context, fact check. “Too much of the coverage of the 2017 election was journalists saying what they think rather than reporting what voters felt,” says Charlie Beckett, and it’s true: publishing opinion is easy, cheap and quotable, but it provides no factual framework for people to contest outrageous claims made by the tabloid press – and indeed the mainstream publications too.

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