Monday, August 03, 2015

How can we get newspapers to be more truthful?

It is clear to everyone except influential members of the Conservative and Labour parties that Britain's democracy is in a desperate state. Everyone with a functioning brain can see that our electoral system is shot.

But there is more than the electoral system to be fixed.

In 2013 Ipsos Mori did a study on misperception.
Here is a summary:

Issue                           Public Belief (%)                 Reality (%)

Teen pregnancy         16%                                      0.6
Crime                         Rising                                   Falling
JSA spend                  More than pension               15x less than pension
Benefit fraud             24                                          0.7
Foreign aid                Top item in Govt spend       1.1% of Govt spend
Muslim %                  25                                         5
Immigrants %.           31                                         13

Note that the misperception is biased in the direction of the right wing agenda - itself a reflection of the fact that 3 out of 4 newspaper readers is reading a right wing newspaper.

What can we do about this? The first reaction is to despair, since even the mild recommendations of Leveson are rejected by the newspaper industry.

At present, there is no obligation on newspapers to present the truth. This needs to change, and the data presented above give us a handle on the situation. From this kind of work, we could create an Index of Public Perception (IPP). By picking up on the public's understanding of a few key and robust facts, starting with the kind of figures presented above, we can get a handle on what the public is being given. If the Index shows that the public's knowledge is getting more accurate, the media is performing better, and vice versa.

So far so good. Next - how do we get the press to improve the IPP?

In the first place, publication of the IPP will make the public more aware of media distortions. However, the media are unlikely to publish the IPP, especially if it is adverse.

So Government could  bring sanctions proportional to the IPP.
Penalties could be imposed on the industry generally if the IPP is falling. However, this would be unfair to newspapers which were trying to be truthful. Therefore the polling would have to include questions about which newspaper the respondent was taking, and penalties would be allocated on a paper-by-paper basis.  This could be distorted however, as respondents could lie about which paper they took.

Another way would be to look at the actual content of the newsprint, to see how often the true statistic is included in pieces concerning the topic.

Any and all of these proposals will be actively (not to say hysterically) resisted by newspapers, who will characterise any attempt for them to write more truthfully as a Commie style attack on press freedom. There is no avoiding this reaction, this is just how the tabloid editors will play it.  If they do not like the method suggested, let them come up with a better suggestion, because the bottom line is that a functioning democracy requires a truthful press, and democracy is the basis of all our freedoms, including freedom of the press.

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