Why 2016 Was Terrible For News – And Why Things Won’t Get Better

News media not only reported erroneously, but also egged on destabilising events like Donald Trump’s victory or demonetisation.

WrittenBy:Mihir S Sharma
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This has not been the best of years for the media, either in India or abroad. It has consistently failed at predicting events – something it should arguably not be doing in the first place. It has had to face surprising and large omissions in its coverage being exposed. It has failed to deal with being openly manipulated. And it has consistently focused on the wrong aspect of a story, sometimes with truly disastrous results.

Worst of all, each one of these failings is born of structural features of how the news media is now – and so, far from this year being a dreadful outlier, we’re likely to see it repeated over and over again. 

First of all, the predictions. That’s easy enough to talk about – the Brexit vote and President elect Donald Trump are among the biggest. In recent years, the Indian news media has consistently failed to predict the size of various victory margins – whether Narendra Modi’s in 2014, or Nitish Kumar’s in Bihar, or Arvind Kejriwal’s in Delhi the second time around. In many cases, this was likely because the raw results of polls were being doctored to look more reasonable.

During Brexit, the polls were shouting that it was close; but not a single major newspaper chose to assume it was in its coverage, suggesting smugly that voters would come down in the end for the safe option. And the US election was even dicier: some pollsters themselves seem to have analysed the raw data wrong. Even so, looking at swing state margins should have suggested it was a tight race – but the coverage in the last week of the campaign suggested anything but.

When the campaigns woke up, in the last couple of weeks, to the Great Lakes states that eventually determined the winner, the tone of campaign coverage was frankly incredulous – although there were no high-quality, late-breaking polls from those states.

So why did these predictions go wrong, and why will the mistake be made again? First of all, because predictions sell. People want to know the future, and newspapers and TV channels are all too willing to tell them. And why will errors continue to be made? Because polls are expensive, and people are conducting fewer and fewer of them. And big errors come from shifts in places considered safe, where fewer polls tend to be conducted. And, in India, polls can shift the political mood so sharply that there is a strong incentive to make the results as “reasonable” as possible – so again, big swings in the data might be missed. 

Next: the surprising and large omissions. In India, I feel the largest omission in the media coverage of the past year has been of the answer to this simple question: why do people support demonetisation? Here we have what appears to be one of the single most irrational and unjustifiable economic moves ever carried out in a liberal democracy, one that has imposed extraordinary costs on pretty much every single Indian citizen – and yet it seems to have been near-universally popular in at least urban and semi-urban India for weeks. (I am told the mood is turning, but I am now deeply sceptical of such pronouncements in the media. See above and below.)

With the occasional honourable exception – Prashant Jha in the Hindustan Times for example – reports have focused on the inconveniences. What we really need to know is about the deep anger about inequality that demonetisation may have tapped into. If news is meant to get us out of our bubble, then it’s failing to do that in this case.

The failure here is similar to the British media’s before the Europe referendum. Only after the depressed north of England voted heavily for Brexit did the London-based media try and understand what was happening there. Thus the results from those areas, and the anger at elites underlying those results, came as a sharp surprise. But I don’t think we can make an equivalent claim about the American media and the Trump insurgency. That would be unfair. In fact, thanks to Trump’s sustained popularity during the primary season, so many pieces were written about the motivations of the Trump voter that they became a cliché. They could be easily parodied – and, in fact, they were. The surprise was not that they existed or why they existed, but that enough of them existed for Trump to win. 

What about the news media’s vulnerability to manipulation? In India, we see one facet of this: news outlets’ excessive dependence on information from the government. When the government announces a “new” policy, we tend to believe both that it is new and that it is rational. Thus even old schemes repackaged can be covered as entirely new ideas. Nor do we tend to go out looking for the holes in government claims. The Swachh Bharat campaign, for example, is little different in intent and execution from the Nirmal Bharat campaign earlier; but the media was manipulated into imagining it was.

The coal mine auctions were poorly designed and executed; but the media was manipulated into repeating the government’s claim that they were a success. Instead of doing our own investigations, or going out and finding experts on the subject – or even quoting the opposition on the subject of the policy change in the story about its announcement, something that is de rigeur elsewhere in the world – we in the media tend to regurgitate what the government has said, on or off the record, and leave it at that.

The biggest failure in this regard this past year has been about the government’s Pakistan policy. More soldiers have died this year than in most previous years; but the coverage has uncritically reported on New Delhi’s policy as if it has been a success. Most Indians will think that the supposed “surgical strikes” were both new and have intimidated Pakistan; although there is strong evidence of the reverse being true, that has not been presented in a sustained manner.

Manipulation has been taken to a new level, of course, in the US election. Whether or not elements in the Russian government were behind Wikileaks’ crusade against the Democrats, the American news media reported the relatively inconsequential details that Wikileaks put out with breathless excitement. The effect was to steadily cause Hillary Clinton to hemorrhage support; somebody was playing on the media’s hunger for stories about campaigns, and the media was unable to take a step back and realise it was being played. 

And that leads us to the final problem: how the news media over the past year consistently managed to focus on the wrong story, or the wrong aspect of a story. Word clouds of coverage of the Clinton campaign versus the Trump campaign are indicative — the Trump campaign’s word cloud is relatively standard, with such words as “America” or “speech” somewhat larger than the rest. The Clinton word cloud has one giant word dominating everything else: “emails”.

In effect, by starting with the prior assumption that both candidates should be treated as equally normal – i.e., equally bad – the media created the impression that Clinton’s various email-related problems were as dangerous as Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest and other forms of corruption. This is one of the most monumental failures of emphasis in the history of news. Worse, it was led by some of the most respected news-gathering organisations in the world – The New York Times in particular. There are endless examples of a desire to investigate both campaigns “equally” leading to massive errors of judgment – even from the wires. One wire report turned the story of Clinton, as secretary of state, taking a meeting with the Grameen Bank’s Mohammed Yunus – a more-than-justifiable decision for a secretary of state – into a story about Clinton Foundation corruption.

This is part of what people worry about when they worry about a “post-truth” world; that prior assumptions can shape coverage and events in such a way that even facts are not presented in a manner that reflects their true weight and prevalence. In India, the equivalent failure has been of the media’s inability to tell the right policy – as opposed to political – story about demonetisation. Instead of covering it for the unprecedented irrationality it is, revealing an apparent willingness to sabotage the economy for political gain, it has covered it as it would “normal” policy. It has not held the government or the Reserve Bank of India to account.

In a post-truth world, it isn’t merely that untruths replace facts; it is that everyone’s preferred “fact” is considered equal. Thus instead of hammering away at the absurd decision to undertake demonetisation, asking who knew and when, the Indian news media is reduced merely to presenting conflicting reports about its implementation.

Each one of these major errors has contributed to 2016 being a disastrous year, and not just for the media. But each one of them emerges from deeper structural factors – the burning desire to appear even-handed, a bias towards the status quo, and so on, which cause the media to poorly report and to even egg on destabilising events like Trump or demonetisation. And that’s why, if 2016 was bad, I don’t see any way in which the coming years can be better.

 The author can be contacted on Twitter @mihirssharma


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