Tim Dunlop’s forgotten people

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.

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Tony Tea
9 years ago

“ordinary people on social media” is a very strange phrase.

Bernadette
Bernadette
9 years ago

The denial by mainstream media, especially newspapers, to see that people are turning off them in large numbers & seeking more reliable news elsewhere should be treated as a warning, not ridiculed & patronised by responding that they are right & social media is wrong. Did they not learn after Alan Jones? They may have money & perceived power, but it can diminish very quickly when you insult the intelligence of those people whose money you rely on. It really wouldnt bother me if more of these so called respected journos ended up being sacked. If they move to twitter I can permanently block them so I am spared their offensive views. I do take some comfort when I see their low readership numbers & use this as context to their skewed polls – perhaps it means our country isnt as despairing as I think it is. I will just keep reminding myself that less people read the press than comment on twitter. I see much more positive & truthful things on twitter. This gives me hope.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Bernadette

It’s pretty easy to permanently block the Australian or the SMH. What I can’t figure out is how to block those annoying real-estate advertisement papers that keep landing in my driveway, or turn up scattered over the local footpaths. If nothing else, they can keep the weeds down when used in the garden.

Bernadette
Bernadette
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Only if you are disciplined does that work. Every couple of days I say I will not read any of their stories, I blocked SMH & the Oz on twitter, then others post links & I end up reading them & become enraged all over again. I then go to Google news & inevitably will get sucking in by a heading & read it & wish I hadn’t. I guess I am an optimist – I keep hoping one day I’ll read their stories & feel pleasantly surprised by their good nature & balanced views.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago

It must be very modern to live without context.
The only thing I learn from these fiascos is that voting shouldn’t be compulsory.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Voting is not compulsory, nor will it ever be. Turning up and getting your name marked off is the rule, but even that is not actually compulsory — the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, and it is their conscientious belief so the government sucks it up (so I’m told, I’m not myself a JW).

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Actually voting itself IS compulsory. See Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 s245.

Moreover, what you have to do to vote is effectively defined by s240 (number each square on the ballot paper consecutively starting with 1).

However, because of the secret ballot requirements (especially ss233 and 323) it is effectively impossible to prove whether any voter actually voted (as opposed to merely attended, got their name marked off and collected a ballot paper). Thus Tel is legally wrong but practically right.

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago

You know Tel , it is a vibe thing.