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Has the EU Referendum Campaign Thrown Us Off Balance?

13/04/2016 09:18

We're not even half way through the EU referendum campaign. Yes, over two more months of euro trash still to come. The latest plotline has brought us the usual claim and counter claim: the IMF warns Brexit will cause severe damage, Cameron says the IMF is right, Vote Leave says the IMF is wrong. The public are left none the wiser.

Both sides have been calling for less scaremongering and more facts. But how will that ever happen when one side's facts are viewed by the other side as scaremongering? Sensible coverage seems less and less possible amid the noise of personality politics, Tory backstabbiing, Labour bickering, contentious leaflets and disputed letters to newspapers.

The BBC, obliged to remain impartial unlike the rest of the overtly partisan media, appears to have been employing editorial weighing scales to ensure it's providing so-called balanced coverage. You can see the lengths it goes to in this report to give the same number of quotes to each side, balancing Cameron and Osborne against Farage and Lamont, allowing Vote Leave a few more sentence inches than Stronger In to counterbalance the IMF's slightly larger word quota as the source of the story. Even the payoff requires a pro-Brexit comment by Moody's to be neutralised by a pro-EU one from the CBI.

But is this well-intentioned attempt to maintain editorial equilibrium constructive for informing our decision-making - or is it throwing us off balance?

Around the time the IMF report came out I happened to be discussing the difficulties facing the media in election time with the eminent author and New York Times journalist David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. As its name suggests solutions journalism, often also called constructive journalism (which I've written about here), is about focusing on people working toward solutions to pressing problems, rather than concentrating solely on what's going wrong. I wondered if the solutions-focused approach could be helpful in election periods.

Bornstein responded by making an interesting distinction between the traditional binary model that journalists tend to employ to get to the truth and a more scientific approach. The former uses the clash of opposing viewpoints, the latter involves observation and synthesis of evidence and drawing inferences to approach the truth. Bornstein believes the solutions journalism model is more in line with the scientific method.

The difficulty though with the current EU referendum campaign is that there's nothing directly comparable to observe or infer from, as no nation state has ever left the EU. Nevertheless there are comparisons that can be made. The closest example we have is of Greenland, one of Denmark's overseas territories, which voted to leave the EU in 1982. Helpfully the BBC's Carolyn Quinn went there to investigate what actually happened and so can provide concrete evidence.

Reporting from countries that aren't members of the EU or other politico-economic unions can also offer valuable, evidence-based information and provide a welcome substitute for the claims about those countries from those with vested interests in the outcome of the referendum.

Another way to cut through the noise of elections, says Bornstein, is to ensure it is the voters who set the agenda, not the candidates.

In one key swing state in the presidential election, he told me about a project that's underway in which several local news organisations have polled voters about their main priorities. From this they've been able to produce a list of the top issues and are able to explore different approaches to dealing with those issues. So when candidates are interviewed, they can be questioned very specifically on the voters' concerns and possible responses. That makes it harder to avoid answering meaningful questions.

It's crucial therefore that journalists engage with the public to ensure it's the voters who are calling the shots and setting the agenda rather than the politicians. And journalists need to deliver the factual back up, rather than allowing the politicians to provide their own subjective statistics.

Putting voters first, sticking with the evidence, investigating solutions - all these may help better inform the public about whether to head for the Brexit door or stay put inside the EU. Whether that information will actually change anyone's mind is quite another matter.

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