Where is the sense in social discourse?

Journalists and politicians don’t speak the same language, says a researcher of social epistemology. This pushes social discourse onto paths leading further and further away from reality, leaving little room for researchers’ insights.

The recently appointed Finnish Government wants to curb public expenses. One of the proposed measures is to increase the size of daycare groups. Is that a good idea?

“If you ask researchers, there’s really nothing to discuss. Not a single expert is in favour of increasing group sizes, but would instead make them smaller,” says Miika Vähämaa, who recently defended his dissertation related to social knowledge.

The Government, in turn, has its list of cuts in mind and recommends making the groups larger. The politicians from the Government parties quickly adopt a common stand.

“Politicians feel they must conform to the party line, but they also have a strong sense of professional pride and commitment to their profession”, Vähämaa says.

Problematic compromise

The media exacerbates the dilemma. When journalists write about daycare, they first ask for the Government’s viewpoint. Then they typically talk to the opposition, which disagrees with the Government. Only after this – if at all – do journalists consult researchers.

“Journalists are driven by a very strong sense of fairness,” Vähämaa explains. “They avoid challenging politicians face-to-face but instead listen to two viewpoints and try to find a compromise between them.”

This also applies to the public debate on daycare, resulting in a compromise between the Government’s and opposition’s opinions, which enjoys no support from either side, much less from researchers.

Teary-eyed ministers  

In his dissertation in the field of social psychology, Vähämaa finds that this phenomenon stems from the policymakers’ and media’s different approaches to information. For politicians, correct information is often equivalent to the party line. Journalists, in turn, look for it by questioning the opinions of all commentators.

According to Vähämaa, this phenomenon is not unique to Finland. His research material includes a survey carried out in nine EU member states, which examined how leading politicians and journalists viewed the emergence of information.

The results were similar everywhere. Politicians felt that the media was uninterested in factual topics or initiatives. It is much easier to capture the media’s attention by talking about your private life.

“Minister-level politicians were nearly in tears during the interviews, explaining how difficult it was for them to get others to listen to their message, despite their best efforts.”

Facts on the table before making interpretations

Based on his research findings, Vähämaa wishes that journalists would give politicians more room; news stories could focus on one thing at a time.

“MPs are very well informed and often have good grounds for their opinions,” says Vähämaa. “The media should listen to them without automatically assuming a hidden agenda. And instead of contacting the opposition, journalists could get in touch with a researcher to investigate the validity of the politician’s opinion.”

Vähämaa recommends that politicians keep in mind that journalists view their interviewee as representing a single opinion.

“If I were to give an interview, I would say straight away that these are the facts I’ve had access to and this is the conclusion I’ve drawn from them,” he says.

It might also be worth mentioning to journalists that you can’t make a politician’s opinion more valuable by blunting it with an opinion from the opposite end of the political spectrum.