Monday, September 21, 2015

Party politics and the media – distortions and spinning mountains out of molehills


In the words of Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst possible system except for all the rest, in another quote he suggested, if you ever want to shake your faith in democracy just spend five minutes talking to your average voter. The contrast to the voter of his day and the contemporary voter is that, the voter of his day had five minutes. It is very difficult for the average voter today to gain the knowledge required to be really informed, as people are running at an extremely fast pace; so even if the press were providing information unaffected by political distortion by which to form opinion, voters of today hardly have time to think. In this context there is instability in the voting public, resulting from people susceptible to a 30 second news clip asserting a scandal that would be contrasted to earlier times when opinion was formed slowly and changed slowly. In view of this battle for the “swing vote” or “vital middle” parties seek to differentiate by exaggerating differences that are really minute, spinning mountains out of molehills.

What emerges from this process is a polarised public by party but really possessing nearly identical beliefs or political outcomes. There then exists the absence of substantive difference in policy direction. This dynamic diminishes real choice, but what is worse is the distorted view of government policy that emerges out of the process.

The media feeds the political rhetoric by attaching undue saliency to occurrences in society at large and in response to political prompting. The events of September 11, 2001 where ghastly and warranted acute national attention, yet only 3000 people were killed. In that same year 100,000 people were killed by preventable medical accidents. The medical accidents received no attention at all. Both were horrible occurrences, yet only one, 9/1,1 received coverage. 

There are issues were political saliency becomes detached from mathematical reality and this distorts public perception and the political process. In Canada 171 people per year are killed in gun related incidents (one would be too many) yet we spent $2 billion on a gun registry and nothing on a medical records system, when in Canada 25,000 people die each year from preventable medical accidents. In the context of rational thought medical accidents should be our priority. It seems that journalists should give more consideration to saliency and the way it affects public opinion, as public concern is often misdirected with the most serious of consequences.

I've used gun control as an example above, there are many other examples to draw from.

A useful concept to consider this phenomena by is called the Availability Heuristic Salient. In these instances, the ease of imagining an example or the vividness and emotional impact of that example, becomes more credible than actual statistical probability. Because an example is easily brought to mind or mentally "available", the single example is considered as representative of the whole, rather than as just a single example in a range of data. Salient events tend to distort the judgement of risk.

 It is difficult to imagine a means by which this can be addressed, but the distortion in the public’s view of issues as a result is worrying. Even the application of ideology would give some stable means by which to anchor support. For the most part, political party’s position is so nebulous its hard to see what is being supported and so fungible that today’s policy is something else tomorrow, depending on which direction the windsock of public opinion is pointing. Young people see this, particularly the informed ones, and turn away from the system. One understands the nebulous stance holds political advantage at its core. In the effort to promote brand over substance in defining political parties, the overall brand of democracy is waning.  

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