Here is a fascinating post by Laurence Jantalipinski (h/t Giuseppe Sollazzo) which takes assumptions made by a reporter and tests that against actual polling. The subject itself is irrelevant — but the method is a great anecdote to relate to journalism students to demonstrate why it’s important to challenge your own assumptions about what “most people” think.
Here’s how it goes: a reporter makes a casual assertion:
“If you ask most people why they don’t trust Labour, they will respond with one of the following…”
…before listing reasons which, perhaps, are articulated within her own social circle. But is one reporter’s “most people” representative?
Well that’s the thing. When Talipinski tested those reasons against other possibilities using a proper poll with 1100 people, he found none ranked in the top five:
Can you guess what people are most concerned about?
That’s the anecdote then. What about an exercise?
Here’s how I get journalism students to test their own assumptions about what people think, or care about: ask them to guess what are the top issues for people in the country, then compare those to the latest Ipsos MORI/Economist Issues Index.
This is what I do in my classes, with some useful context: first, that newsrooms tend to be located in metropolitan areas (in the UK there is a particular concentration in London while the US media is concentrated in Democratic-leaning counties).
Second, that newsrooms are underrepresentative of the wider population when it comes to social background, ethnicity and religious beliefs. (Try one of the “check your privilege” tests or video for an extra exercise on this score). Research from 2013 suggests the proportion with disabilities is similar to the working population as a whole.
And third, that among more experienced journalists, there’s also an underrepresentation of women — and an underrepresentation of men in entry level positions.
It’s also worth looking beyond the broad figures about what the public is concerned about, to see how that differs based on the same demographics.
For example, people in wealthier social classes tend to have different priorities than those in poorer households, and younger people are notably more concerned about unemployment and the economy, and less concerned about immigration.
You’ll also find regional differences, with the EU and Brexit a much bigger concern for those in the South and rural areas, than in the Midlands, urban areas, and among those aged 25-34.
Of course the unanswered question in all this is how much of public concern is shaped by the media, and to what degree media coverage should in turn be shaped by public concern. If we only report what we think people care about, then we risk an echo chamber of another type.
But that’s a second stage problem. The first step, perhaps, is acknowledging that we have one.