Archive for September, 2008

Representing a financial crisis

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What to say and what not to say.


In the current financial maelstrom, when news can send share prices plummeting and lead people to rush to withdraw their life savings, the question of whether a news report is representative suddenly becomes rather more pressing.

Broadcasting pictures of people queuing outside banks is likely to convince other people to do the same. This is not to say a news organisation should not show such pictures, but that it needs to think carefully about whether the pictures are representative of general behaviour, or limited to an isolated few.

It was for this reason that Peter Horrocks, the BBC’s head of television news, made the decision not to show people queuing outside branches of Halifax in Middlesbrough and Glasgow, until the BBC was sure it was a nationwide trend:

we decided that queues in two places were not conclusive evidence of a widespread financial phenomena. We decided to wait and watch. The queues later dissipated” (from Editors Blog).

The mood is so febrile right now that there seems little question that, had the BBC screened people panicking, more people would have panicked.

Contrast this with the front page of the Mail over the weekend, reporting that a City financier killed himself because, we are told, of ‘mounting financial pressure’. Clearly a shocking story and newsworthy, but representative? How many City financiers commit suicide each year? Given there are many hundreds of thousands working in the City, it cannot be that unusual for a single person to kill themselves. Each death, though tragic, is certainly not necessarily significant of a trend.

No, the reason this story made it to the front page was because of the parallels with 1929. Because someone committing suicide makes the current situation feel more precipitous. Perhaps it will become like 1929, but if deaths such as this are not representative, then we don’t need the media nudging the story in that tragic direction.

Written by Martin Moore

September 29th, 2008 at 10:57 am

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Journalism past and future?

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Beside one another on my RSS feed:

“Up to 500 editorial jobs could be cut from ITV regional operations, the National Union of Journalists said today after Ofcom endorsed ITV proposals to slash its local and regional news services” (from Media Guardian)
and…
“The Teesside Gazette is to increase its roster of ultra-local contributors to 1,000 in the next year, building on the 400 it already has across 22 postcode-related sites (from Journalism.co.uk)”

Written by Martin Moore

September 29th, 2008 at 10:53 am

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Top 10 media lessons from Labour conference

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1. Avoid loose talk…
… in the lift. A lesson David Miliband will certainly remember next year after he – allegedly – remarked to a colleague after his speech that he wanted to avoid a ‘Heseltine moment’. Unbeknownst to Miliband an (unnamed) BBC journalist was also in the lift

2. Learn from the US – use your family
Gordon Brown wouldn’t go as far as Sarah Palin (or David Cameron) – he wouldn’t use his children as ‘props’ at the conference, but by letting his wife introduce him he seems to have convinced much of the media that he is, indeed, human (‘Gordon’s Wife-Line’)

3. Avoid loose talk…
… in the bar. Or you might let slip, as one junior No.10 official apparently did (from The Guardian), that a Cabinet minister is resigning – distracting from coverage of your leaders’ pivotal conference speech

4. Give press conferences in the bar at 3.15am
As Damien McBride and Julie Crowley did on Tuesday night – to confirm reports that Ruth Kelly was indeed going to resign. As opposed to making announcements in the official press briefing area which was, according to the FT, ‘deserted’

5. Avoid loose talk
… in the corridor. After Cherie Blair’s alleged ‘Well, that’s a lie’ comment at the 2006 conference. She was reported to have made the comment after hearing Gordon Brown claim in his speech that it had been a privilege to work with Tony Blair. It subsequently became the defining media moment of the Labour conference

6. Don’t manhandle your supporters from the conference hall
This is another lesson Labour learnt back in 2006 but watching the coverage again on YouTube (BBC clip here) reminded me how astonishing it was. But rather than releasing control there are reports that the Party instead used less overt methods of suppressing dissent (see lesson number 7)

7. Avoid loose talk…
… in unofficial Labour-supporting media. LabourHome made the mistake of releasing the findings of a ‘grassroots survey’ on the eve of the conference. The findings were not particularly shocking, but were presented as such by The Independent (see previous blog). LabourHome’s editor reportedly attracted the wrath of other party supporters. Wrath that may then have been extended to other Labour supporters (see Harry’s Place report on Martin Bright)

8. Walk more
A lesson Cameron learnt from The West Wing, Clegg adopted in Bournemouth, but Brown ignored. Walking gives the impression of dynamism, that you can’t just hang around making a speech, you have to get things done (though one must be careful not to walk too fast)

9. Say the same thing
And it might, eventually, get through. Matthew Engel picked up on this one in the FT. “So it’s official” Engel wrote, “it doesn’t matter what subject it is, you just say the same things. The template is: “In the past 11 years, conference, your Labour government has abolished ——-, put £xxxm into ———- for the ——- and provided free —— for the over-60s/over-80s/under-fives. The Tories opposed all these changes and have said they will revert to ——-. We want to make ——- stronger. That’s why we need unity and a fourth term for Labour.”

10. Avoid loose talk…
… in your hotel bedroom? One must assume, after the lead story this year (and in 2006) came from an overheard remark, that journalists will go to ever greater lengths to catch an unguarded, off-the-cuff comment. Politicians beware.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2008 at 9:56 am

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Independent's suspect use of LabourHome Poll

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Grassroots turn against Brown” The Independent splashes on its front page. According to an exclusive poll by the paper, Andrew Grice writes, “The Labour Party’s grassroots have turned decisively against Gordon Brown and a majority want him to stand down”.

The article goes on to cite the poll’s finding that “54 percent would prefer someone else to lead the party into the next general election”, and that David Miliband is Brown’s favoured successor.

Given that the Labour conference is about to start this poll might appear, at first glance, to be significant – possibly even significant enough to strengthen the cause of a leadership challenge.

But wait, take a closer look both at the poll itself and at the way it is reported in the paper and its significance begins to crumble.

The Independent commissioned the poll from LabourHome.org, a “A pro-Labour, group-blogging effort, that gives the like-minded the chance to have their say” according to the site. LabourHome used its mailing list to invite its community of users to take part in a ‘Labour Grassroots Survey’. 788 did (or the 788 ‘Labour members’ that were used in the eventual results – unclear how these were distinguished).

There are at least three reasons why this poll cannot be considered a representative sample of Labour grassroots. First, it’s too small. Second, it’s self-selecting and therefore – without considerable distillation – inevitably unrepresentative. Third, it overwhelmingly favours new media savvy younger, active Labour supporters.

Alex Hilton, the editor of LabourHome and previously an exec researcher at NOP (according to his comments on the site), recognises the limitations of the survey. He would much prefer, he says, that the Labour Party did its own grassroots research with its 100,000 email database. But, he writes, “most of you have seen the drivel we get as emails from the party”.

If only The Independent had similarly recognised – and highlighted – the limitations (by putting it a few pages back in the paper for a start), as opposed to making it appear as though this represents a clear message from the Labour rank and file.

Indeed even if it was a representative poll of Labour grassroots the Independent’s coverage is still misleading. Based on the figures it could as easily have written ”Grassroots say stick with Brown for next election’, given that 55% of those who responded to the poll do not believe that changing their leader will improve their chances. On top of which, as Hilton points out, 46% supported Brown which, in a leadership contest, would almost certainly give him enough to win.

Written by Martin Moore

September 19th, 2008 at 10:31 am

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