Media narratives: A field experiment and ‘litmus test’

There’s a simple cognitive game you can play which helps you to see clearly the dominant media political ‘narratives’ in the world.

And we’ve all just been provided with a great excuse to play that cognitive game right here in New Zealand.

By the way, it’s so easy – harmless – that you can even ‘try this at home’.

How’s it done?

Well, all you have to do is invert characters and events.

Take today’s release of Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics‘.

Instead of a book coming out by an investigative journalist that casts the government and its Prime Minister, John Key, as players in a sick world of ‘Dirty Politics’ try to imagine a very similar but very different event: one in which a book casting the current leader of the opposition in the same light had actually come out.

With this simple role-reversal guess, just for a moment, what you would be hearing, seeing and reading in the media. What might you expect?

Let’s be a bit more specific so that you get the idea.

In this upside-down world, it has been found that Matt McCarten, Chief Press Secretary for David Cunliffe, has been actively feeding political blog The Standard with stories and tidbits from the Labour Party research unit that smear Labour’s political opponents.

Would you be more likely to hear (a) or (b) from our political journalists and commentators in the nation’s media? Be honest now. And think about the main ‘narrative’ you’d hear:

(a) “Well, it isn’t clear yet that McCarten was actually involved in the way claimed in the book but, even if he is, there seems to be no hard evidence that Mr Cunliffe would have known anything about this. McCarten may have just gone rogue so Cunliffe could hardly be blamed for not knowing what was going on. If no such hard evidence turns up then, being perfectly frank, it’s not clear that this will inflict much damage at all on Cunliffe. And while we journalists in the ‘belt way’ might think it’s a bit exciting – heh, I don’t think the public will be changing their votes over this.”

(b) “Look, I suppose it’s possible that Cunliffe knew nothing about this but, when you think about everything else that’s been happening lately, it definitely looks a bit shady and, to be honest, I don’t see how he could continue in his position in the light of these revelations. Remember, McCarten was someone hand-picked by Cunliffe who he was clearly relying on to improve his fortunes. At the very least you’d have to say that Cunliffe has appalling judgment over his staff selections – which, let’s face it, is not what anyone’s looking for in a political leader. And, at the worst … well, as I say I don’t see how he can survive.”

Yes, whatever else it provides over the coming weeks, Nicky Hager’s latest book is also providing us with a kind of ‘field experiment’ into media political commentary.

It’s an experiment that should allow all of us to detect and identify the ‘narratives’ or ‘underlying story-lines’ that  political journalists and commentators in New Zealand are currently using to ‘mediate’ (as media do, of course) our understanding of what is going on in politics.

These narratives aren’t the same as the, perhaps simplistic, notion of personal political bias affecting political news reporting and analysis. They’re much more important.

The narratives are the reasonably enduring ‘angles’ to which political journalists generally conform and which they bring to  bear on the day’s political events. Importantly, that conformity allows a degree of peer acceptability to any analysis and, perhaps even more importantly, allows immediate, though cognitively lazy, linkages to be made with other stories that share the same narrative thread.

One of the great advantages, for journalists, of aligning with such dominant narratives is that it makes their reporting and analysis jobs that much easier. When working to tight deadlines that must be enormously useful.

One of the great disadvantages, for the rest of us, is that these narratives restrict our understanding of events and squeeze those events into a straitjacket – sometimes at risk of incoherence and stunning illogicality – that makes us all feel like we’re going a little mad. That is, we all start collectively to lose contact with reality as the narrative becomes reality’s far more influential proxy.

Over the next few days as you read the reactions and commentary to the revelations in ‘Dirty Politics’ please feel free to take part in this ‘field experiment’ and make use of the simple ‘litmus test’ provided above.

You should find the narratives suddenly jump out at you like one of those magic picture images.

Good luck.

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2 Responses to Media narratives: A field experiment and ‘litmus test’

  1. Pingback: Cameron Slater dirties John Key (or vice versa?) « The Standard The Standard

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