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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Journalism & the #Brexit debate #Polis2016 - the focus on the economy, the fact free ghetto of social media, the UK media's power - and why weren't 16 years olds allowed to vote?

Last Thursday I attended the #Polis2016 conference at LSE, London, UK.   I've already done two earlier posts on parts of the conference:

- one on Jon Snow's opening address - at which he gave some priceless advice (given the venue) "if you want to be a journalist don't do a journalism degree"

- and another on a conference session about Reporting Refugees  - from which I was reminded that "Good #storytelling isn't limited to simplified representations of reality"

Another great scribes on 'Reporting Refugees' from

This post is about some of the ideas that came out from the session on the UK referendum on Yes or No to EU membership


1) Its the economy stupid - part of the panel discussion  was on how the main thrust of the In campaign has focused on the economy and the bad effects on it if the UK exits the EU. At the same time it was mentioned that the Out campaign had been forced to battle on this economic ground as the "self governance" argument is seen as having little traction with voters.

One of the journalists from abroad on the panel commented on how much of UK political debate seemed to focus on economic matters.  Others on the panel pointed out the effect the economic arguments had in helping the Stay campaign in the Scottish referendum - and indeed in the Conservatives gaining sole power at the last general election.  

A final thread of this part of the discussion was on the stories that hadn't been reported:

- the UK's impact on the EU (e.g. on competition policy/free trade);
- the role of the EU in helping to maintain peace in Europe;
- how the EU institutions actually work (because its a hard story to make interesting?).

This part of the debate led me to make a mental note ...

2) Fact checking and the echo chamber of social media - One of the panel described "the Facebook echo chamber where people hear views they agree with echoed back to them"

This theme of confirmation bias came up in this and at least one other of the conference sessions.

panel on reporting on said social media can be a "fact free ghetto" where people only hear what they want

What I didn't hear pointed out is how the algorithms used in social media magnify this confirmation bias. For more on this see this post on facebook ... the takeaway from which is - social media amplifies confirmation bias because its algorithms are designed to present you with content you'll be interested in based on what you - and your friends - have already viewed, shared or liked.

This confirmation bias even seems remarkably robust against facts

. runs fact checking project but judgement already being clouded by emotion, & often incorrect stats

3) The power of the UK media in framing debates - in comments about the Scottish referendum some on the panel said it showed how the power of mainstream media in the UK is weakening (but maybe this was also the anti-Westminster bubble effect in Scotland?)

However the French and German journalists on the panel both commented on how much more powerful than their press the UK press was in setting the agenda for debate. (An example given was how the European press perspective on the deal Cameron got was that he did very well. Yet most of the UK press promoted a "he didn't do well" storyline).

There was also a debate on the uniqueness of the BBC in the UK media landscape - the equivalent of which doesn't exist in many other European countries. The role of the BBC in occupying an unbiased position of presenting "on the one hand and on the other arguments" was seen to be fairly unique. But it also has some downsides ...

tells conf. BBC et al efforts 2b very fair sometimes make it hard for journos to dismiss some claims as wrong

And I heard one complaint (from the audience maybe) about "Those idiots on the Today programme setting the agenda"

4) Why didn't Cameron lower the voting age to 16 for the referendum? Was an interesting question asked but not answered. Particularly as there would be a higher likelihood of young people voting to stay in the EU - and not forgetting the effect such a move had in energising the debate in the Scottish referendum.

A side point made was that when 16 year olds are given the vote then schools can help educate them on how to vote (so what you do in a polling booth or with a postal vote) and help them actually register to vote. This is help not available to 18 year olds (or older) in their 1st voting opportunity. And maybe it is one of the factors that influence why so many younger voters don't vote - embarrassment about not knowing how to.

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