The broadcast media in the UK, and particularly the BBC, can do an excellent job at providing information in an accessible way. However, the moment a subject gets politicised, this ability seems to collapse. This is because the moment a subject becomes politicised, the non-partisan media puts ‘balance’ above all else, which in turn allows politics rather than reality to define what is understood as true. I’ve called this the politicisation of truth, and have identified four ways this happens:
Ignoring facts: ‘shape of the earth: views differ’ type reporting.
Ignoring expert pluralities: for uncertain outcomes, failing to mention that one side is a minority view. The economics of Brexit is an example.
Allowing politicians to create untruths. Labour profligacy caused austerity is an example.
Repeating politically generated untruths. For example 'the 364 economists were wrong'.
Here is an interesting discussion of the first two of these in the context of Brexit. From the discussion you can see that shifting existing practice will not be easy, so in this post I want to be positive rather than just complain.
Before doing so, however, I want to say why this is so important. If the broadcast media do not correct politicians when they lie, they provide an incentive for them to lie. That will quickly become apparent, so even if one side ‘starts it’, the other side will follow. This creates an incentive to tell even bigger lies and so on. In the short term the lies are believed and this distorts democracy, and in the longer term trust in politicians deteriorates even further.
We saw this with Brexit, and we have seen this with Donald Trump. Trump’s stream of well documented lies are ‘balanced’ against seemingly baseless or minor insinuations about Clinton. It is easy for people like those who read this blog to think everyone knows that Trump is a serial liar, but they do not. In fact:
“Trump has his largest edge of the campaign as the more honest and trustworthy of the two major candidates (50% say he is more honest and trustworthy vs. just 35% choosing Clinton)”
If you are reading this in the UK and thinking this could only happen in the US, who do you think was trusted during the Brexit campaign?
There is no one else who can inform the majority of people what the truth is. There are countless media organisations, think tanks and websites designed to present a partisan view. It takes both time and knowledge for people to find sources that can be trusted, and that is time most people will not spend. As Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis note, people actively want the broadcast media to separate facts from spin, but this popular demand is being ignored because it is drowned out by politicos shouting about bias. As they also note, this information has to come in prime time viewing: doing it only in specialist programming watched by those who are already well informed completely misses the point.
The obvious way to avoid facts being distorted is to correct them. As Jeremy Shapiro says in his discussion above, this has to be done in real time. It is just no good saying we corrected that on our fact checking website a few days later, not only because of the delay involved but also because hardly anyone looks at that website. So, for example, in a debate between two sides, if one side says X and X is not true, the moderator should say so. If in an interview the interviewee says something untrue, the interviewer should say so, even if they want to get on to another point.
This of course immediately gets you into questions of how does the interviewer know what is true and where do you draw the line. Here I have some sympathy with journalists, who are sometimes expected to have everything at their fingertips. What academics in particular need to do is to ensure that this information is easily available from trusted sources, and protest when that information is ignored.
I think those in the physical sciences understand this. For example a few years ago there was a period in which climate change was only discussed by broadcast media in a politicised format, where typically a climate scientist would debate the issue with someone from denial organisations. But with almost all climate scientists agreeing about the fundamental facts, this ‘balance’ gave a completely distorted view of reality. As a result of concerted pressure from scientific bodies (and with help from MPs), the BBC finally recognised this and issued revised guidelines. (Here and here (pdf) is the BBC Trust review.) Their coverage of climate change may still not be perfect (or more seriously may have simply diminished), but at least the BBC recognised there were cases where evidence is more important than balance.
Academic economists as a collective are not so well organised, and we need to become more so. This is not about improving individual economist’s media skills, or getting certain people regularly invited on discussion programmes. It is about having a trusted source that can present what the balance of views of academic economists are, and what the key facts and arguments are, and make sure this appears in the inbox of all the media’s key journalists. It should make letters to newspapers signed by a long list of academic economists a thing of the past, because economists themselves would find out what the plurality of opinion was and make that widely known. If Brexit does not compel academic economists to organise in this way, nothing will. Only in this way will we stop politicians defining the public's perception of what is true and false in economics.