One of the problems with our current news cycle is the need to be immediate.
The television needs to give you breaking news not because it is important, but because they do not want you to hear about it from Twitter. People need to tweet their interpretations — in 140 characters or less, thank you very much. And quickly, before it shows up in the blogs.
That critical thought, analysis and editing can get lost in this should prove as no surprise. What needs also be remembered is that — particularly in partisan political debates — making a mistake can undermine otherwise valid arguments that might be made on further reflection.
This effect seems to be out in full force with Britain’s emergency budget, released only yesterday.
Case 1: ITV News
ITV broadcast the budget, and clearly did not want to lose viewers immediately afterwards. So they arranged to have a “man on the street” type panel ready to comment afterwards — four people on different incomes were gathered around a table, were told the impact on their personal finances following the new budget, and were asked to comment.
The participants were clearly not media-savvy, and while vetted by ITV ahead of time, simply were not ready to be put on the spot in front of television cameras. I thought three of the four came off badly.
One of these was a woman from a “low income family”. She was not too much worse off after the budget (in comparison to before), but worse off enough that her family would certainly feel the pinch. The big culprit here was the VAT rate increase — so the presenter asked her about it.
She said something about toys.
I felt badly for her, I really did. Here is somebody with (almost certianly) no media training and no financial training, trying to get some grips on the financial implications of a revised budget only moments after it was announced. It was not hard to see that she was listing things in her head that would be more expensive, and places where she would have to tighten her budget.
It seemed to me that “toys” happened to be what was on her mind in the exact moment that the question was asked. And now, in the minds of many people who watched it, a 2.5% increase in the price of toys will be an immediate association they will make when somebody claims that parents on a low income will be particularly hard hit by the VAT increase.
Her children aside, nobody cares much about her toy budget. They care that the family is clothed and fed and housed. THAT will also be harder. And by virtue of being a flat tax, the VAT increase will take up a much more substantial portion of her budget than it will mine.
But this was lost in the immediate aftermath of the budget — the low income family has spoken, and they are concerned about their toys. Or so it seems.
Was this ITV’s intent? Probably not. They asked the question hoping to hear about how she would struggle and how evil the government was. Or something along those lines. Instead, we learned that toys will be more expensive, and the greater message is somewhat diminshed.
Case 2: The Twitterati
A friend of mine is a frequent blogger, twitterer, podcaster, and purveyer of on-the-spot reporting. He is very much not a fan of the Conservative party, and can honestly be said to dislike the budget.
He also misread or misheard one line.
The budget caps housing subsidies at £400 per week. He thought the stated figure was £400 per month, and sent out messages via Twitter accordingly — painting scenes of abandoned streets out of a horror movie as poor people were forced out of London.
Of course, £400 per week is a rather considerable subsidy — but in provoking people to say so, he has inadvertantly taken the wind out of arguments that might be voiced against having a cap at all.
According to the budget, the cap is set to rise with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), but this could be problematic — housing is only one element of the CPI, and a country-wide CPI figure would not take into account regional disparities in the cost of rent.
A better solution might be to simply re-apply whatever formula they used for the £400 figure to adjust the limit year-on-year. Of course, it might be that they simply decided that £400 sounds “about right”, and there is no formula.
Consider your goal
This is not to say that early is necessarily bad — it depends on your goals.
ITV’s urge to jump the gun made the majority of their panel look bad. We discussed one above, another seemed a little slow, a third a bit nasty.
This was probably not what they wanted — they were looking for people who seemed like the one in the mirror. But they needed people, right there and then. Putting your average person in front of a camera is not a good way to achieve that, though. There is a reason why people “identify” with actors and reality TV stars.
On the other hand, perhaps they just wanted something that would keep viewers from changing the channel. In that case, the idea might have worked.
My friend’s haste provoked me to defend of the cap levels, rather than asking some tough questions about their validitiy — tough questions that ought to be asked. He wanted his readers to ask those questions, but forgot to fact-check first.
Both illustrate the dangers of speaking up before you have had a chance to take in the full picture, and demonstrate how important questions can be derailed because of it.
Sometimes a quick response is the correct thing to do, when it comes to news. Somebody has to get the raw information out there.
And it’s never to early to start your PR spin.
However, when examining the consequences, providing analysis, and giving context, please remember to sit back, fact-check, and think.
ITV had regular people commenting on their changed finances seconds after the election. Do you think these people had a chance to review their budgets and give an informed comment on what they would be giving up?
Not a chance.