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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2022

Analysis: The election drama...

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. This edition is about elections, not any particular election, but the focus on election coverage.


This is going to be the most exciting and dramatic election in years

I have been a media analyst for about 12 years now, and during this time, we have had many elections. I'm not just talking about the elections in my country, but in every country. We have had elections in the UK, the US, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia ... in fact, everywhere (every few years).

But, when you work as a media analyst, one thing that quickly becomes clear is that we, as the press, don't really cover it that well. Sure, we spend an enormous amount of time covering it, publishing 1000s of articles, but there are a number of key problems that repeat every time.

I want to talk about what those problems are because our role in covering elections is critical to a functional democracy. In fact, as the press, we often claim to be the protectors of this democracy.

The first problem is about the mindset.

Newspapers are massively politically focused and most stories are covered from that perspective, so it's not surprising that newspapers get excited about elections. It's like the super bowl of news. But the problem is that the worse things are, the more excited political journalists get.

One example I came across recently (in relation to the election currently happening in my country) was when newspapers announced that "this was going to be the most dramatic and exciting election for years" ... in others words, the newspapers were thrilled with the prospect of all the drama, the conflicts, and the fighting to come.

In fact, other newspapers started writing about the 'fighting forms' of each political party leader. You can just hear in the journalistic tone and narrative this never ending encouragement to "fight, fight, fight, fight, fight", and how the editors and journalists feel energized by it.

This is entirely wrong for a journalistic focus. As a society, we do not prosper by having our politicians fight. Instead, we create the opposite effect, where important actions are undermined because the political parties are so focused on fighting that anyone seeming to work together to solve a problem is minimized.

This idea and culture that it's better to fight to make the other parties look bad than to actually focus on the very real problems we face is fundamentally bad for society. But this is what we encourage as the press. Our narratives, our focus areas, the way we interview politicians ... It's all based on trying to create this conflict.

And it's the same for the public. This fighting narrative does not bring us together. It does not create more compassion, more equality, or more community. Instead, this fighting narrative only drives polarization. We are splitting people apart, and focusing the political landscape into opposing groups.

And, as the press, we know this. I'm not telling you anything that you didn't already know, and yet, for most of the elections we are doing exactly this. In other words, we know it's bad ... and yet, with every election, we keep doing it.

This leads to three fundamental things:

Politics is not a sport, and it should never be covered as such. Again, I'm not telling you anything new, and yet, this is exactly what we do.

Politics is also not entertainment. It's not a reality TV show where the more drama you can create, the more views you will get. Take a headline like this:

This is not a functional democracy. This is a form of politics that would be better suited to a show on Netflix, instead of being what we are faced with in the real world.

But the problem again is how we are covering this. In the press, we are energized by this drama, and you can hear the excitement in the newsroom over how this is playing out. Here is a screenshot from my country, where the press has turned the election into a form of game show, asking each candidate to answer "what makes them great", as if it were an episode of Jeopardy.

And finally, politics is not a zero-sum game. As a society, we do not win by having other people lose. In fact, our very system of democracy is wrong. Think about it. Here in Denmark (like in every other country), the election is so split between opposing sides that it's unlikely that any party will gain widespread support, and we see the same pattern everywhere else.

Think about what that actually means.

If we have two choices, and the public is split 50/50 ... we have not actually reached a point of consensus. Instead, we have reached the point where we have achieved maximum polarization.

And again, in the press, we are encouraging this exact outcome. I see articles talking about how exciting it is that the election is 'so close'. That's not exciting. That's terrible, because it means we have a completely divided society.

But, wait a minute, I hear you say. As newspapers, we can't favor any one side, but that's not the point either. If we want to protect a functional democracy, we need to encourage unity and find ways to make that happen, and discourage divisions. But instead, our journalism is doing the exact opposite. We are encouraging a world where the public is completely split down the middle.

This is not about choosing one side or the other. It's about changing the narrative to focus on working together.

Being politically biased

Another very big problem is the bias that exists in the media. Everyone in the press claims that they are not biased, but if you spend a few minutes working as a media analyst you will realize that this is not true.

The bias we have exists in many forms, but no matter how you define it, it undermines our journalism.

One big problem is with the editorials, where some newspaper editors have come to believe that it's their job to post daily political statements against whatever political party they don't like. For some newspapers this is so bad that, as a media analyst, I cannot tell the difference between what they do and what an opposing political party would do. The narratives, the focus, the talking points, the framing is identical to political campaigning.

This is not journalism.

Of course, most newspapers will say that it's not supposed to be journalism, since the editorials and the newsroom are completely separate. But everyone knows this is a lie. We all know that the readers don't see that separation at all, in fact, over at Niemanlab, they recently wrote a good article about this.

But also, if you spend your time analyzing the media, you will see that the editorials and the newsroom are very much connected when the editorial comes from the top newsroom editors.

We see this all the time. One of the editors (or even the editor-in-chief) posts an editorial about something political, and then the newsroom suddenly starts to cover the same thing, holding people to account with the exact same narrative and focus that was in the editorial.

The link between these two is often abundantly clear.

Now, I don't think this is done on purpose (at least I hope not). What I mean is, I don't think the editors are directly instructing the journalists to have the same focus. Instead, I think what's happening here is a case of employee vs boss relationship. Meaning, when the top newsroom editors write an editorial about something political, all the lower newsroom employees feel under pressure to focus on that to avoid a conflict with their bosses.

But, no matter how it happens, it very clearly makes this a problem. Newspaper editors should simply not spend their time making political statements. If they want to do that, they should create a personal blog and not use the platform of their newspaper to spread their opinions.

This is a conflict of interest and it massively undermines not just the newsroom, but also the public. It's a culture that needs to end.

Mind you, as I said before, the role of the press is to be biased. But our bias should be towards factfulness, and our role as journalists to investigate and fact-check stories. But what I see so many times is that it's the opinions that define the focus. That's the wrong type of bias. It should not have any place in newspapers, not even in the editorial section.

Political trade journal

All of the things I just described are bad enough, but the biggest problem of all is about the focus. The mistake that we make as the press is that we are not writing our stories for the public. Instead, so many political articles are written for the politicians, their staff, and their campaign strategists.

In other words, so much of the political coverage is more like a political trade journal.

Here is a simple example. Think about how often you are reporting what some politician is doing to appeal to the voters.

Just think about that for a second. The focus is on what the politician is doing to optimize their campaign strategy (that's useful news for other politicians, the staff, and other campaign workers), and the 'voters' are defined as a third person. As something external.

You see the problem here? They are not 'the voters'. They are your readers. You are reporting this from the perspective that your readers are just some unknown third party.

Other examples include the many articles that talk about campaign tactics, or how one politician is doing something that helps him/her. This is pure trade journalism.

Here is an example:

This article talks about a campaign tactic, so it's very useful to know if you are an opposing candidate, or if you are one of the many campaign staff trying to optimize your campaign.

But, what about the readers and the public? They can't use an article like this for anything. It does not help them better understand who they would like to represent them, it doesn't bring them knowledge or insights. So an article like the one above is 100% trade journalism. It does not benefit the public or the readers. It only affects people within the political establishment.

And this is only one of thousands of examples. As journalists, we should be covering the election for the public.

But how bad is this? Well, let's check.

Since it's election time here in Denmark, I decided to look at the five largest news sites, and divide the stories into three main categories:

  1. Reader focused: Meaning, the stories are based on concerns, interests, or needs of the readers, and tries to get the politicians to answer what they will do about them.
  2. Politically focused: Here, the reader doesn't really matter. Instead, the stories are entirely focused on what the politicians want to talk about.
  3. Trade journalism: These are all the stories about how politicians are winning or losing, providing insights and analysis for their campaign tactics. None of these stories help the public, but they are very useful for the politicians and their staff.

As you can clearly see, what we want is news that is dominated by a reader-focused perspective, but instead we get this:

Reader-focused news reporting is very sparse, and instead the focus is either dominated by what the politicians want to talk about, or trade-journal type articles talking about their campaigns.

Fundamentally, we are completely disconnected from our readers and the public in our reporting, and instead we have put ourselves into a political filter-bubble where we are so close to the inner workings of the political environment that we have become indistinguishable from it.

Try to do the same analysis with newspapers in your area, and you will see just how often this happens.

Here is another example:

Think about what is actually happening here. This does not help your readers decide which politicians will be capable of best representing them. Instead, it's an article for other campaigners to learn from.

This article does not benefit the public. It's political trade-journalism, and it's things like this that we must change, as well as all the other elements I mentioned above.

Fundamentally, we (the press) are not doing a good job covering elections. We are too close to it. We need to take a step back, think about our readers, and what we really need to create functional democracy, and get away from this entertainment-style coverage we do today.

We do not want a future where the politicians win simply because they create the most drama and are good at posting on TikTok.


Want to know more?

Speaking of elections. Back in 2019, I wrote a much more detailed article about how I (as a media analyst) would organize the newsroom around elections. So take a look at:

And speaking of how to do things differently, in 2021, I wrote another article about how to approach climate coverage in a more useful way:


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Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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