Things I’d like to see in the media: Journos who are comfortable with their ignorance #auspol

PEN Quiz 2007
PEN Quiz 2007 (Photo credit: englishpen)

Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media.  Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.

One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers.  They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts.  If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.

The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful.  They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website.  Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy.  Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.

The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer.  Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c.  Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.

It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:

Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.

How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;

Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,

And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.

Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.

We don’t have a political culture that’s founded upon the idea of persuasion.  When we think of political interviews, we imagine a keen-eyed, almost hawkish journalist attempting to grill the politician.  The journo hopes for a gaffe or a slip, where we get a peak behind the mask of carefully scripted responses.  It’s combative.  The politician tries to escape with their reputation intact, while the journo tries their best to rip that reputation apart.  David Mitchell explains it best:

But it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying mode of engagement because it relies on the journalist occupying the space of the expert, which they often aren’t.  It’s not rare to see an interview where, if you know the subject matter well, you can see that the questions asked by the interviewer don’t even make much sense.  The politician therefore has two options: to ask the interviewer to clarify their questions and address the incorrect assumptions behind the question; or to make vague, non-committal noises in response to reduce the time in which the interviewer is asking questions.

Wouldn’t it be better if the interviewer acted as a sort of avatar for the audience?  Instead of grilling politicians, the purpose of the interview would be for the politician to convince an intelligent, receptive, but ignorant person about a particular policy issue.  In exploring the issue with the interviewer, the politician effectively explores the issue with the audience.

The interviewer — being an intelligent, receptive, but ignorant person — would be able to ask the sort of questions they imagine the audience would like answered.  Even better, they could admit openly what the audience probably (secretly) feels: they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

This approach would change the dynamic of the interviews.  No longer combative, they would be collaborative.  Instead of being adversarial, they would be constructive.

It might also help counter recent trends in the ‘Audience Asks The Question’ genre.  The genre advertises itself in terms of ‘You get to ask the questions!’ and ‘Democratising the media’, but the quality of these approaches is rapidly diminishing.  In the cases of Q&A and OurSay, for example, we are seeing that there is not a great deal of creativity or diversity in the questions being put from the public.  In the case of OurSay, it’s because the questions which resonate with the most number of people are the ones that get asked.  Thus, instead of promoting the exceptionally clever, intricate, insightful questions, we’re seeing the dominance of generic questions.  And it’s a running joke that Q&A will always have the audience ask the same vapid questions week in and week out.  Asylum seekers, marriage equality, climate change, ALP leadership, rinse and repeat.

The questions are so mediocre because the public tries to affect the style they see on the television.  Instead of ‘Could you explain this please because I am an ordinary person and don’t have access to public servant briefings?’, we get ‘Could you explain this because I have opinions based on my Ekstensif Lernings which disagree with whatever you’re going to say next?’  When journalists aren’t approaching interviews with a view to have their views challenged, should we be surprised that the public begins to behave the same way?

Thus my great proposal.  Let’s get journalists and opinion writers who are happy to admit that they don’t know everything, and — as a result of creating this intellectual space to explore — can ask questions that avoid needless antagonism and facilitate better communication with the voting public.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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