Pack journalism and the corresponding need for skepticism

From Brexit to the U.S. presidential election, it's important to filter what you read in order to reach something approximating the truth

TORONTO, Ont. Sept. 15, 2016/ Troy Media/ – A casual reader of this summer’s media would emerge with two truths, things you could take to the bank. All smart people said so.

One was that the Brexit Armageddon had already descended on the United Kingdom, and its future held nothing but escalating levels of chaos, deprivation, bitter tears and buyer’s remorse.

The other was that the American presidential election was effectively over, the only outstanding questions being the size and sweep of Hillary Clinton’s landslide.

But here we are in September and neither proposition looks quite so ironclad. The U.K.’s August economic numbers were surprisingly healthy. And Clinton’s poll lead has shrunk to within the statistical margin of error.

I’m not saying that the summer’s conventional wisdom will necessarily be upended. But I am saying it was grossly premature.

The bottom line with Brexit – whichever way it goes – won’t be known for several years.

And while a Clinton win is still the safer wager, you’d be well advised not to stake the family home on it.

When virtually everyone sings the same song and opinion bleeds into what’s supposed to be straight reporting, what we have is pack journalism. As originally identified by American journalist Timothy Crouse in his book [popup url=”http://amzn.to/2ccOpN9″ height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]The Boys on the Bus[/popup] about the 1972 presidential election, the phenomenon is characterized by homogeneity, groupthink and a consensus that derives legitimacy from repetition.

There are various reasons for this. One is the natural propensity towards herding. Another is the modern tendency for people to live in self-selected bubbles where acquaintances all have more or less the same viewpoint on important topics.

Whether consciously or not, ideology plays into the latter. If everyone you know believes that the European Union is self-evidently good and that Donald Trump is a wannabe fascist, then topics like Brexit and the presidential election leave no room for variety of perspective.

So how does a person navigate through this?

It comes down to that Latin admonition caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. If you’re reading a piece that sounds selective, biased or tendentious, then it probably is.

If it’s supposed to be an opinion piece, that’s fine. By definition, opinions have a specific point of view. But if it’s labelled as a news story, that’s entirely different.

It also helps to have your own markers for sifting fact from fiction and getting a handle on what’s really going on. I have three such markers for the presidential contest: Ohio, Florida and the debates.

No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and only two Democrats have managed it – Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Barack Obama won the state in 2012 by just under three percentage points and the current polling averages give Clinton a lead of slightly less than that. But if you take one pollster out of the mix, that lead virtually disappears.

If Ohio is essential for Trump, so too is Florida. Every winning Republican as far back as 1928 has carried the state and Trump has no feasible route to the magic 270 electoral votes without it. Obama squeaked it by less than a percentage point in 2012. Right now, it’s essentially tied.

Ohio and Florida aren’t enough to win it for Trump. But if he can take them, the others that he needs are within reach.

Debates invariably generate oceans of attention but ultimately don’t mean anything. The only exceptions were Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon in 1960 and Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter in 1980.

This time, however, there are two wild cards. The first is Trump’s willingness to violate the political correctness boundaries that confine most politicians. The second is Clinton’s health: another extended on-camera coughing spell or “overheating” episode could be deadly.

Finally, a parting word on a media culture that worships at the altar of diversity but sometimes has difficulty with diverse perspectives. The famous 20th century American journalist Walter Lippmann put it best: “When all men think alike, no one thinks very much.”

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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