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Local Matters

I start my day at about 0600 most mornings. Porridge, fruit and a cup of black tea are prepared and sit on my study desk. Alternating between their having my attention and my reading the world's media. That extends from the four local papers which target areas in my constituency to some of our national papers, London-based dailies and a few international titles.

A good and honest media are a vital part of a fair society. That doesn't mean that I object to papers having an editorial view of the political world which is not my own as long as they are honest about the view they hold or even advocate for. If I had my way, and I don't expect to any time soon, I would require a statement of their political philosophy to be carried on the front page immediately below their mastheads.

But, you might say, surely most readers know how their daily reading materials align with their views. Perhaps, perhaps not.

I have this recollection, one of many things I can't immediately lay my hands on, that an academic study of the influence of print media on the 1997 Westminster election that brought Tony Blair to power found some unexpected results. In particular, in relation to the Daily Express.

Any objective observer would conclude that it was a paper that advocated the Conservative cause. For example, it devoted the whole of its front page on election day to urging its readers to vote against Labour and for the Tories. But the study found that a majority of its readers thought it was a Labour paper. How so?

It is probably about how we read papers. Indeed how I read the online media each day - I'll come back to that.

When we read a book, we generally start at page 1 and continue reading each page in sequence until we reach the plot's denouement, if it's fiction, on the last few pages.

Papers are different. The sports enthusiast starts on the back page, except FT readers who have to search for their sports fix, and read forward. The front page may be skipped altogether by such readers, or at best given a cursory glance before the paper is put aside.

Not every reader will make reading the editorial column a priority even though the editor may devote a disproportionate amount of time to it.

So we dot around picking up stories that, unless one understands the psychology of the reader, seemingly are chosen at random. But we are driven by two things. The heading above the story will have been written to draw us in. Because it was almost always not written by the journalist or commentator who wrote the piece, but rather by a sub-editor, it likely picks out something "headline-grabbing" rather than being a balanced insight to the main points in what follows.

En passant, one might care to note how often politicians, including myself, get wound up by the headline rather than the story.

The April edition of "Communications of the ACM" popped through our letter-box this week (Disclosure: I am a Professional Member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)). The headline of one article, "A Taxonomy of Automated Assistants", signalled to me almost at once that I would wish to read it.

If it were in a more popular daily newspaper, the article is written to be accessible to the informed lay reader and would not need to be changed, it might be headlined, "Is Artificial Intelligence software Really Intelligent?".

There is the phenomenon called confirmation bias that means we automatically "see" the things we are familiar with, or agree with, over the unfamiliar or disagreeable. Headlines attempt to align with audiences.

I sometimes - I am alone in this? - fail to see at first glance the word "not" in a sentence because I had a previous position, or a previous assumption, about the subject of it.

Only when I am a couple of sentences further on, and puzzled by the thrust of what I am now reading, do I return and discover that I had misread something earlier.

The best journalists and commentators write in a way that requires little re-reading and is informative, clear and concise. And despite the best efforts of newspaper proprietors, and the too-common failures on their part to adapt to the changed habits of readers, there are still good writers employed by this shrunken industry out there.

But like the rest of us, they are stuck at home, cut off from the friendly gossip that might lead to a story. Denied the opportunity to observe the world around them, changed as it will be for them as for all of us, and with reduced opportunities to comment on the real world that their readers see.

One of my constituents, I believe them to be a supporter of another political party rather than my own, but friendly, contacted me quite a few weeks ago to ask that I stop tweeting exclusively about COVID-19 every morning while I read the papers. It was too depressing.

It was a wake-up call. My confirmation bias had me going straight to the "virus stories". Given the necessary focus that political systems have to have on the subject, hardly surprising. But a priority for me now is to try and find stories that inspire and inform and which are COVID-19 free. There aren't many.

And yet I think my constituent's plea represented a more general desire to get a glimpse of the "new normal" which we might expect to come after the pandemic. A world where the virus has probably not yet been eliminated, but where its effects are no longer dominant.

The widely praised, across the political spectrum, paper from our government, "COVID-19 - A Framework for Decision Making" has a section on the future that points at issues we need to consider. It has been downloaded over 400,000 times. There is clearly a wish to engage and help form our future.

Meantime the most important journalists for public morale are the ones who find stories that lift our spirits. Let's have more of them, please.

Local media is the place that still focuses on our local heroes. Good news stories dominate. Can I suggest that national media journalists take out a few more subscriptions to local papers and, giving credit where credit is due, work up the local stories for wider audiences?

Our local press is now running on frayed shoestrings. Let's see if we can give them a wee lift?

Local never mattered more.

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