Too many political commentators think about social media users as voters who don’t matter when they should be thinking about them as an audience that does
When Julia Gillard ripped into opposition leader Tony Abbott accusing him of sexism and misogyny, the YouTube video of the speech went viral. Viewers took to social media platforms like Twitter to say how excited they were about her performance.
But elation turned to despair as opinion columnists in major newspapers marked the PM’s speech a fail. According to blogger Tim Dunlop "the reaction of ordinary people on social media shows in a glaring, almost cruel way just how out of touch political reporters have allowed themselves to become."
Dunlop points out that political reporters are out of touch with a large chunk of their potential audience. But media commentary on the issue misses this point. Instead of asking whether they are delivering the kind of news, opinion and engagement that consumers want, political columnists ask whether the views of social media users are representative of the electorate as a whole or of the views of swinging voters in marginal electorates.
If there’s one thing that sets swinging voters apart, it’s their lack of interest in politics. According to political scientists, swinging voters are mostly ‘low information’ voters. People who pay attention to political issues, read political commentary and engage in political debate on social media are rarely undecided about who to vote for. Political journalists at the Financial Review, the Fairfax broadsheets or the Australian might be helping readers become better informed but they’re not helping them decide how to vote.
A lot of political commentary resembles sports coverage. Polling numbers or votes in the house are how journalists keep score. Analysis tends to be locker room chat about cross-bench deals and strategies designed to win over voters in marginal seats. The Australia’s Tom Dusevic illustrates the approach when he writes Gillard’s " strategists are trying to claw back Labor’s base and repel the Greens in their territory. But they are ignoring Mr and Mrs People Mover."
In this kind of coverage, the PM’s speech is a ‘play’ in the game. And for many journalists, the question was whether or not it was a good play. Would it help the government win votes in the marginals?
Out in the land of big mortgages and long commutes, Mr and Mrs People Mover have better things to do than read the Weekend Australian or tweet comments during Q&A. If ‘ordinary people’ means swinging voters in marginal seats then it’s pretty clear that political journalism is not produced for their benefit.
So who is political journalism for and what do they want? Many people active on social media are complaining about newspapers because the news and commentary doesn’t reflect their values and interests. As Mr Denmore suggests, many would rather have the PM’s speech framed in terms of women’s struggle against sexism than as an electoral play.
Unlike ‘ordinary Australians’, people who talk about politics on social media tend to be people who read newspapers. So you’d think it might matter if this group was unhappy about what newspapers were offering.