Theresa May has pulled the trigger and the country faces a second general election in as many years on June 8th. The country also faces 8 weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage as manifestos are published, TV debates are staged and battle buses tour the country. This election will be a challenge for the media as well as politicians following election coverage in 2015 which was highly criticised and had minimal coverage of actual issues.
This election cycle which has been brought forward three years by Theresa May will be a test for the media, particularly television media which is still the most common way the public consumes politics, to see if lessons have been learned. Although social media is a growing influence, as witnessed in Trump’s election victory, the traditional media still plays a major role and therefore it must perform to exacting standards.
The lessons from 2015
The media has for a long period of time taken a more sensationalist, magazine style approach to the reporting of news. The in-depth reports replaced by comments from public on the street and the heavy subjects replaced with celebrity stories. During the 2015 general election campaign this change to news publication manifested itself in a horse race style analysis of polling, extensive reporting on who might join who in coalition and even debates on candidates personal style and personalities, rather than any reporting on policies or plans.
The first five weeks of election coverage in 2015 saw less than half of time spent covering policies including those on health, the economy and education. The BBC spent the most time reporting on policies (48.6%) followed by Channel 4 and ITV with 43.8% and 40.2% respectively. Sky News spent just 34.8% of its election news covering policy matters while Channel 5 news gave policy just 31.1% of its time.
In the latter few weeks of the campaign policy was still not the biggest area for TV news coverage. Instead focus fell on who would be the winners and losers of the campaign and which parties might join others in coalitions, these areas of discussion accounted for almost a quarter (22.7%) of all TV news. Topic areas covered by the news also fell short of expectations, the NHS received around 1% of all TV news coverage for most of the election campaign period and education did not make the top 10 topics covered, despite the NHS and education ranking 1st and 4th respectively as the most important issues for the electorate.
What has to change?
This kind of personality focused, lightweight and magazine style coverage of intensely important topics can not be allowed to happen again. An over-emphasis on polling, a focus on candidates and which party might work with another does not make for informative television. The media must give more focus to what the parties say, or plan to do, on hot button issues like the NHS, education and the economy, especially with the knife edge state these public services find themselves in currently.
After the fake news epidemic and mistruths of 2016 the public are crying out for coverage that offers not just balance but gives facts and hard truths on the main issues. News should not be focused purely on polling and who is predicted to perform a particular way in a particular area, instead policies should be reported and predictions made on how they might affect an area positively or negatively.
Although elections globally have often had a focus on personalities and leaders, there is a balance to strike between informing a country who is running and more importantly what ideas they are running with. When the BBC was founded it was established with three main aims, to inform, educate and entertain. In recent years news has swung too much towards entertainment, using polling and personalities to turn elections in to a political version of the X Factor. In the general election of June 2017 it is time the media reported politics as it should be reported, with facts, statistics, plans and ideas, only time will tell if this actually happens.