Thursday, 27 March 2008

Groupthink and the story that really matters

It isn’t just the Liberal Democrats who beat themselves up about their dearth of compelling narratives and storylines. Having plummeted in the polls, Labour are hard at it too (more on this soon).

But no politician should imagine that the stories that they tell about themselves will transform their political fortunes. The winners are always who do the best job of understanding the stories that are in the voters’ minds and then adapt their own messages.

At the same time, the public’s view of the world will be strongly influenced by the stories that the media are telling. Their stories chop and change and the media follow the herd.

Patrick Coolican of the Nevada Sun neatly sums up how this has worked so far in the U.S. Democratic primaries.

"The vogue word in journalism for groupthink is "narrative." A bunch of reporters and editors read one another's dispatches, talk at events and on planes, and come to a rough consensus about where things stand and what's important:

"Barack Obama is viable. Obama is a weak debater and not "tough enough." He has committed "missteps" on foreign policy. Latinos won't vote for a black man. Yes, they will. Jeremiah Wright has dealt the Obama campaign a game-changing crisis. Obama parried with the most significant speech on race since Martin Luther King Jr.

"Hillary Clinton
isn't electable. Clinton is unflappable and unstoppable. Clinton isn't connecting with Iowa voters. Clinton is finished. Clinton found her voice. Clinton is unstoppable. Clinton is finished. Clinton may win it."

Patrick Coolican confuses “political narrative” with “media narrative” but he makes a valid point. Whilst there is still a range of quality commentary across the UK media, I am sure that it applies to the bulk of reportage in this country. This time last year, Gordon Brown was set to be a disastrous, unpopular prime minister. For his first twelve weeks, he walked on water. After he finally said there would be no snap election in the autumn, Brown wasn’t very good. There was a brief respite over the New Year. Now he is an unmitigated disaster, in deep trouble, heading for defeat.

Last summer, David Cameron was cast as a lightweight, disliked by his own party. By the turn of the year, he was firing on all cylinders. A few weeks ago, he should have being doing better in the polls. Now he is.

Sir Menzies Campbell was too old – no, “seen as too old” – to be a party leader.

In the space of just three months, Nick Clegg has been depicted as a waffler who then mishandled the Lisbon Treaty vote and endangered his authority but may now be doing quite well.

Media bashing is an easy alibi for politicians. But I am sure that there is still too little understanding - and detailed analysis - of the power of the media and its prevailing narratives and how those stories are formed.

Back to Mr Coolican. After being self-critical for, on one occasion, helping to turn a notion into a conventional wisdom, he makes a call for change:

"When we [journalists] thought for ourselves, out in the hinterlands, we did some quality work. For instance, in the spring of 2007, when the D.C. and New York media began its inevitable pushback on Obama with a raft of stories about him being all fluff and no substance, we examined this narrative and reported on a new element: blogger pushback to the pushback. . . .

". . . Here's the important question: How do we avoid false narratives and get at more salient and fundamental issues?

"Or more plainly: What should we political reporters be doing with our time? When is our supposed "analysis" simply a rehashing of the campaign machinery's narrative?

"I'm pretty sure we do too much shorthand, guesswork "analysis," which often amounts merely to repeating groupthink we've read or heard elsewhere.

"We ought to be analyzing what the candidates propose and whether they possess the skills and character traits to get it done.

The rest should be left to voters. It's their groupthink that matters."

Anyone disagree?

1 comment:

fh said...

I couldn't agree more. As the internet erodes the traditional business models underlying journalism, one might have expected the hacks to differentiate their product by being more opinionated and more distinctive. Well, they're certainly more opinionated now that they've all got blogs. But who'd have guessed they'd all have the same opinion?

Well, ok, not quite. But clearly while the commentariat has multiplied over the past decade or so -- with more columnists, more news networks, and now blogs -- the expected diversity of opinion hasn't happened. The herd instinct is thriving. The herds are just larger.