I followed with interest the news coverage leading up to the Scottish independence referendum, and my worst thoughts about the media were confirmed yet again. Bad news is all that matters – even if it means stretching reality to meet the whimsical standards of Alice in Wonderland.
With polls indicating the referendum was close, the media groupthink was the yes-side for Scottish independence was going to win. But, if it really were close, why would they not conclude the no-side for the status quo would win? A no-victory was actually the more logical choice because it was the safer vote, and safe usually wins when a stark choice is put before voters in a referendum.
But reporting on a probable no-vote is much more boring, even if that meant pretending the yes-side was going to win. An anticipated yes-vote for independence made for exciting headlines and the media engaged in this game of pretend for almost two weeks.
In Canada, of course, there was special meaning. Not even five months after the Canadian media buried Quebec separatism following the devastating defeat of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in April, suddenly there was a revival movement underway with the scenario that an independence vote in Scotland would mean the separatists would be back in business in Quebec. It was as if the election in April had never happened and, worse, it was as if the post-election commentary had never been written.
The funny thing was the PQ was back in the news only because the Canadian media put them there. Imagine, there was going to be political upheaval in the boring old United Kingdom and there was a Canadian angle far too good to pass up. After all, it meant possible political upheaval here as well.
But the upheaval was in the minds (or hopes) of the journalists and their editors. I often wonder if the media hope for drastic or dramatic events to happen just so they will have a better story.
Now, you might think that’s a strange thought to hear from someone who spent almost 30 years as a journalist, and I actually don’t think journalists hope drastic events will happen. But their noses have a natural way of unconsciously leading them there. They learn early that their stories have to have a certain edge or their editors will peg their stories as boring and they will never see daylight.
When people complain they were quoted out of context, it is often a circumstance of the journalist creating the edge he or she needs to make a story. Mundane, ordinary news is not news. In the news business, it has to be all black or white. Shades of grey are not worth noting or reporting.
Predicting and reporting on the United Kingdom’s staying together fits in the grey boring category, so why bother telling that story, even if it is, at a minimum, an equally probable outcome.
On September 18, referendum day in Scotland, I watched the CTV National News at 10:00 pm. By then, ballot counting was well underway, but the final result wouldn’t be in for several hours.
The newscast included several reports leaning to the conclusion that something extraordinary was happening in Scotland and that Quebec separatists were watching closely. The problem was the early results, which indicated a sure defeat for the Scottish nationalists, did not match the numerous referendum-related reports in the newscast.
The newscast was obviously prepared in advance of the referendum results, and the editorial thinking was fixated on the premise the yes-side would win, or could win, with a significant slant towards the would-win. It was one of those times the media was caught with their pants down.
When the no-side won with a significant 55 per cent margin, the story was reported in Canada for a couple of days and then it disappeared. The hype was gone. Reality set in. The United Kingdom remained united. What a surprise!
Perhaps the real surprise is that so many people allowed themselves to pretend otherwise.