In the aftermath of both the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential elections in the United States, the media were caught by surprise.
They were slow to respond to the changing nature of the campaigns the winning sides had run, which painted the media itself and its core values and professional workflows as an enemy, with impartiality and bias constantly under a spotlight.
As well as referencing both the UK and US media’s focus on traditional polling companies, lack of understanding of the political sentiment outside the main cities, and failure to reflect diversity, Barber explained the media was also slow to pick up on the misinformation campaigns, the so-called fake news, that became more prominent during the US elections.
“One point is that, particularly in Britain, the coverage of the referendum was heavily London-based,” he told Journalism.co.uk.
“So much of the media failed to appreciate the way public opinion was going in a different direction elsewhere in the country and I think if they had paid more attention to social media trends, they would have understood better what was going on, because we now know that there was much more activity on social media for the Vote Leave camp than for Remain.”
“In America, as in Britain, the media as a whole relied very heavily on the traditional opinion poll companies and even the betting companies, and the problem with America was that they were showing results for the national popular vote. But, as we know, in America that's not what counts, it's the Electoral College vote.
“That meant they should have probably paid more attention to trends in the crucial swing states, and what we now know was that in those states the impact of these complete lies, so-called fake news, for example 'pizzagate', was much greater than elsewhere in the country, and that suggests there was a targeted campaign. Everyone in Britain and America was slow to pick up on the disinformation.”
Barber added that the media in the UK and the US were perhaps unfortunate as they were entangled into the first two large examples of such misinformation campaigns, where neither them nor the state had previous experience to understand the environment and react accordingly.
In France however, where presidential elections took place in April and May 2017, both Macron’s campaign team and the French state authorities reacted quicker when faced with hacking.
French media also undertook several collaborative fact-checking projects during the election campaign, and titles such as Le Monde made it a key part of their election coverage to reflect voices outside of Paris.
The British media was given little breathing space to learn from its own coverage of the EU referendum and the shortcomings of the media in the United States, with a general election taking place this week on Thursday, 8 June.
“Somehow you've got to get a much wider and fuller sense of what’s happening in the society around you and that means a deeper understanding of where people get their news and opinions from,” Barber told Journalism.co.uk.
“That means recognising that different parts of the country think differently, it means clearing your head of your own personal instinctive beliefs, prejudices, and trying to keep a clear head.
“I don’t think we should be completely pessimistic, it doesn’t mean political journalism has no future, it just means picking yourself up and learning some lessons from it."
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