It's now well over a fortnight since the EU referendum, and amidst the turbulence there is at least some consensus. Whether or not they agree with the result, a huge number of people feel the campaign was rife with confusion, misinformation and a general lack of either facts or clarity.
Jonny Bottomley and I spent the campaign trying to dissect, clarify and present the arguments on either side of the debate with our not-for-profit site Referendum.wtf, along with the help of some fantastic volunteers. Our mission was very simple: to provide people with the tools to come to an informed decision on which way to vote.
We did this for the simple reason that we did not feel such a service currently existed. But for me, the process shed light on just how far the news currently is from providing what I feel is necessary for any informed debate, let alone a referendum.
Here are three things I learned about how we report on issues like the EU.
1. We’re writing news without facts
Take an average news article from the time of the campaign, and try removing all sentences that merely state the claims of one side or the other. Now remove the sentences that state facts about the campaign itself (such as when the debates are happening) rather than about the issues themselves.
The handful of lines you are left with is the sum total of useful information a reader has to make up their mind.
If there’s one thing we have learned from the referendum it’s that the actual facts, confirmed by objective experts or independent bodies, are all we can rely on – everything else is just a claim that needs to be fact-checked.
Whether we are in a referendum or not, getting this information is essential. So why aren’t we – the media – giving our readers the tools they need to come to an informed opinion?
2. Most claims are actually bullshit
Obviously saying ‘we need more facts’ is one thing – getting them is another.
The trouble with the referendum campaign in particular was that claims were very tough to prove or disprove, and as journalists, the act of giving a verdict can risk accusations of bias or inaccuracy. This makes it constantly tempting to cancel out any argument with a safety net, such as “however, opponents dispute this”.
But though we may not know who is right, there is often a consensus among objective experts about what the likely outcome is. We might not have an answer, but we have a best guess – and if one side of a dispute is stronger than the other, then our readers deserve to know.
Our experience of fact-checking Brexit arguments on both sides, with the help of fantastic resources such as Full Fact, was that most claims eventually turned out to be too tenuous to justify including at all. As a result, our main 'Issues' section actually shrank over time, and we ended up creating ‘Red Herrings’ boxes to flag up all the statements flying around that should be ignored.
For readers, this was a double-win: every claim that we debunked and removed also made the debate, as a whole, more concise and manageable.
3. Articles suck
Even once you have stripped out the dodgy claims, issues like the EU are complicated – there are plenty of sub-topics and a lot of routes you can go down. The amount of information involved means you either overload the reader or fail to give the full picture.
At the root of this is a fundamental problem with articles – they were a great format for the era of the printing press, but in 2016, they are seriously outdated.
For us, the solution was to make the site as interactive as humanly possible. We chose to initially show readers just a top-level overview, with all the main arguments but with very little detail. More information on each point was then hidden on a second layer, so readers could interrogate any individual point just by clicking on it. We put even more detail on a third layer, and so on.
This choose-your-own-journey approach meant we could keep everything as concise as possible, and yet not short-change our readers – all further information was available for those interested at a click of a button. It was the best of both worlds: simple, but without withholding a single detail.
My view is that we are now overdue a complete redesign for the way we receive news information.
Of course, in hindsight, we barely scratched the surface of the task we set ourselves. There are plenty of claims that we didn’t have time to interrogate as fully as we would have liked, and the user interface is far from perfect. Neither are we claiming to have had insights that have not been highlighted by journalists and commentators many times before, on our site as well as others.
But in a world now drastically in need of clarity, journalism needs to evolve dramatically in order to serve our readers. Like it or not, most people get the vast majority of their information about the world from the news. We have a duty not only to report but to be bold enough to clarify confusion, correct errors, and present the true facts unambiguously.
It’s not just about improving our offering – it’s about staying afloat. In my view, survival of our industry and our transformation into this kind of service are two sides of the same coin.