This is an excerpt from a chapter to appear in a volume edited by Margaret Simons on “new media entrepreneurs”.
What is the bare minimum a citizen needs to know in order to have a reasonable, informed opinion on a major public issue? This is not a trick question. Boiled down to the basics, a citizen needs to know what the issue is, the basic facts, and the key arguments for and against.
Consider negative gearing of real estate investments. Perhaps you think it is wise economic policy, or perhaps you think it an expensive rort. Either way, you really ought to know what negative gearing is (not everybody does.) You should know critical facts such as how much it costs the government each year, who gets the benefits, and what other effects it might have, such as making rental housing more available and affordable. You’d need to be aware of the best arguments for keeping it on one hand, and the best arguments for abolishing it on the other.
Of course, having the bare minimum knowledge does not automatically lead to a reasonable opinion, and ideally a citizen would know much more than the bare minimum about the merits of negative gearing as one component of an efficient, equitable and sustainable taxation system. My point is just that unless you have at least the bare minimum then your opinion is seriously ill-founded.
The trouble is, citizens often don’t have this kind of minimum knowledge. Choose an Australian adult and a major public issue at random and chances are that if they understand the issue at all they will be ignorant of key facts, or misinformed and unaware of major arguments.
For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of negative gearing; indeed I’d even negatively geared the occasional investment. But when I sat down to draft a succinct summary of the pros and cons of negative gearing as a tax policy, I immediately discovered how incomplete and uncertain my knowledge was. It took the better part of a day of reading online, filtering, digesting, sorting and drafting to come up with a short written summary of what I needed to know. Only then did I really appreciate how half-baked my previous views had been.
Now, I will not rehearse here the reasons why this kind of ignorance is a problem for democracy. Nor will I heap blame on the usual suspects. Nor will I hand wave about how the schools, or the government, or the media, or someone should be doing something about it. Finally, I will not indulge any utopian fantasy of a fully informed citizenry.
Rather, I’ll make a simple suggestion.
It is not too hard for someone with suitable expertise to assemble the bare minimum information on a given issue in a short article with a fairly standard structure. You could call this a “backgrounder,” or an “explainer”. I like the phrase “issue clarifier”.
The suggestion is that for all major public issues, these clarifiers be produced and made easily accessible. Then, any interested citizen could rapidly obtain the most essential information on any issue whenever they wanted it. This alone wouldn’t solve the ignorance problem, but it would surely help.
An issue clarifier is a journalistic product. Writing issue clarifiers is a kind of journalism. Doing it well requires broad awareness of the political landscape, the ability to research, analyse and synthesize, and to write succinctly and clearly for a wide audience. In our democratic system, we usually regard journalism as having a special responsibility for keeping the citizenry informed. Since issue clarifiers would obviously be useful in this regard, they should already be a mundane feature of the media landscape.
In short, my suggestion should be redundant. But it is not. Nowhere in the major media can you easily find such clarifiers. Very occasionally, something along these lines appears, but it is quickly lost under the torrents of news, the deluges of opinion, and the tsunamis of mass distraction such as sport, cooking, fashion, celebrity gossip, and so forth.
Why? Partly because issue clarifiers can be a bit dull. They aren’t breaking news; they don’t exploit our appetite for the latest, freshest and most titillating. Unlike opinion pieces, they don’t incite our tribal instincts. Being even-handed, they don’t comfort by stroking our prejudices, or enrage by challenging our convictions. The media survive by attracting attention, and issue clarifiers will generally struggle to compete.
It might also be argued that issue clarifiers are superfluous. The media already provide far more information and debate about major public issues than could ever be conveyed in a short issue clarifiers. Why add to this abundance?
It was once said that there are two ways to keep decision makers in the dark. One way is providing too little information; the other is providing too much. Similarly, the vast quantity of fast-changing news and vigorous debate in the media may actually be counterproductive, with respect to the goal of helping the public be basically well-informed on most major issues. Rather than educating, the net effect may be to bewilder and alienate; or to leave people under the illusion that they have much better knowledge than they do.
This can be seen as a market failure. There’s an obvious public good, the provision of issue clarifiers, not being addressed by “business as usual” in the Australian media. So, following the adage that a problem is merely a situation which has not yet been turned to your advantage, there is also here an opportunity. Can a new media player t this empty niche?
This is one way of looking at the YourView project…
I really liked this post. When working as a detective in the Hong Kong police I often had to do this kind of research, providing the background for the judge and, in more serious cases, jury. We were obliged to provide “just the facts”. In complex issues we had to download a lot of information from subject matter experts and present it in a way the layman could grasp.
One nice thing about criminal trials was “agreed facts”, where the prosecution and defence formally agreed on certain issues. I fear the chances of getting agreed facts in general debate would very low.
PS – what happened to your summary of negative gearing? Hasn’t appeared in Wikipedia as Negative gearing (Australia) by any chance?
Ironically, the general skills required for the production of such explainers is becoming much more widespread, with whole businesses here in Australia established for producing these in an accessible video format.
It strikes me that one area that desperately needs such explainers is the medical and dental profession, which generally does a very poor job of communicating risk in a consummable way.
Justin, two interesting points, both of which are calling out for some elaboration…