The innocent meteor

22 Nov
Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

 

Back before the world ended, I came across this story in the subs’ queue:

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That doesn’t sound good: “nearly one in four” of young people voting for an “imaginary alternative candidate”? But then you read on, and – most unusually for journalism – you find that there are even bigger numbers in the third paragraph than there are in the first.

Some 53% of the 1,247 people aged 18 to 35 said they would prefer to see a meteor destroy the world than have republican Trump in the Oval Office, with 34% preferring planetary annihilation to a win for the Democratic former secretary of state.

This almost never happens: the standard newspaper rule is that the largest number – in an election, a poll, a statistics release – is the news. The tendency is to calculate the worst possible case, the theoretical maximum jail term, the largest achievable bonus payout, and set your baseline at that. This is how the term “headline figure” has come to have a qualified edge to it: even in newsrooms, it means “the number that needs a bit of context” rather than “the definitive total”.

But why, then, if Reuters is writing a story about millennial disaffection, is it ignoring the biggest number – more than half of young people would rather face destruction than Donald Trump – in the survey? Why has it led with the finding that, in statistical terms, crosses the line in a distant third place?

Because, as an American mainstream media outlet, it has to. Because, in Professor Jay Rosen’s words, it needs to be “innocent”.

Rosen has written extensively about the historical requirement for American news providers to appear impartial. As he puts it:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

In Britain, we have the BBC to provide balance while the different sides of Fleet Street wage war on each other’s beliefs. But in America, it’s different. Its geographical vastness helped to create media monopolies, cities in the plain with just three TV channels and a newspaper that had a whole town of Democrats and Republicans to itself. Straight-down-the-middle news, in those circumstances, was not just the fairest approach but probably the best business model too.

Since then, as cable news and social media have spread and the culture wars have intensified, there is a new pressure on the mainstream to prove its rectitude under constant accusations of bias – never more so than with political news, and of course never more so than at election time.

So, from one aspect the angle Reuters chooses in this story – “young people equally disaffected with both candidates”  – might be seen as a classic fair-dealing compromise. But it also generates some misleading implications: an impression of millennial ennui and of a demographic split down in the middle. In fact, the numbers show that many more young people fear Trump than Clinton – a 19-percentage-point difference – and that the nihilistic none-of-the-above option is the least favoured, not the most, of those three choices.

Of course, these numbers would swing strongly towards the Republican side if the poll had been conducted among border patrol officers in Arizona or autoworkers in Saginaw. But that’s the point – whichever way a demographic leans, almost none of them can offer the kind of 50/50 balance that a good-faith media organisations would feel comfortable with. Young people are strongly for Clinton; white working class voters are strongly for Trump. Whoever you choose to focus on, innocent, even-handed conclusions are very hard to extract from this sort of sectoral polling.

Media organisations on the left and the right are accused of cherry-picking statistics for reasons of bias. The trouble is, in cases like this, impartial wire services are cherry-picking statistics too – except that instead of choosing the biggest number, they are choosing the safest one.

Not that any of it matters now, of course, and the interstellar third-party candidate never really featured in the race. But at this rate, possibly more than a quarter of young people may be scanning the Kuiper belt hopefully as we approach the midterms.

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