The Scottish Referendum: 10 lessons for journalism

Scotland voted no….

The Scottish referendum will live long in the memory of the journalists who covered it. But as the dust settles and the devolution negotiations kick on, I’ve pulled together a list of things the referendum can teach us about political journalism and where it’s heading….

1. Votes which make a difference: Why such a high turnout in Scotland when elsewhere in the country councils struggle to reach even 20% engagement at election time? The scale of the decision is obviously one huge factor, but surely so too was the fact that tangible change would follow regardless of which way the vote went.

To that end, there’s a big question for both the Press and those who seek to be elected: How do you make elections matter to the people who vote? For politicians, the answer lies in being more transparent about what they do. For the media, it’s about accountability – and holding people to account for their decisions. Asking each party for a manifesto on what they’d do if they got control of a Town Hall, or what they’d fight for regardless, would be a good starting place.

2. Politics, not personalities: While there were two obvious personalities are the front of the respective campaigns, there was little in the media about personalities within the camps, or fallings out, or off-the-record briefings. Apart from murmurs of discontent after the first referendum debate from the SNP, then muted grumblings from the better together campaign when the Yes side momentarily took a poll lead, the focus was on the matter at hand: Independence.

I suspect that was because of the importance of the decision, and the fact it was taking place away from the bubble of Westminster. It certainly seemed a more engaging way to cover a vote.

The Sunday Herald said yes – but does a newspaper really make up minds?

3. Does it really matter how a paper thinks you should vote? I’d argue the Scottish referendum was the vote which proved the answer to that question is: No. There was a lot of fuss made about the Sunday Herald’s decision to support the yes campaign, and then niggles about the fact few others made their opinions clearly known.

I think the Daily Record (disclaimer: Part of the company I work for) got such a close vote spot on – it expressed a view, but sought to set the agenda not through directing people how to vote, but by holding those seeking the votes to account. First it offered each side the chance to edit the front end of the newspaper, then it set the agenda again when it pushed the Westminster camp on what new devolution powers could be on offer.

A Daily Record front page: Agenda-setting and balanced

4. Public debates: The leader debates ahead of the 2010 general election skewed all national coverage of the elections, and focused the minds of the Westminster elite far too much. Maybe that’s because they were new, but (Mrs Duffy permitting) they drew the election back into the Westminster bubble. The two debates North of the Border didn’t really dominate the campaign at all – although they were focal points.

5. More public debates: The Stornoway Gazette held a town hall meeting to debate the yes/no issues with local people. The vote in the room was split – but there were 200 people there. If civic journalism such as local government is to have a place in the future of news, it needs to engage people. This was a brilliant way of doing it.

6. The first truly social media election?: 2010 was supposed to be the first election won or lost on social media. I suspect the vote this year was the first time the media saw the true impact of social media. Looking at data from afar, Facebook posts relating to the referendum were driving unusually high traffic to local news sites, while on election night itself Facebook and Twitter combined to, at times, become the biggest referrers of traffic to sites. If ever there was proof that big, planned news events are watched by many through social streams, this is it.

7. Oh, and Google: Jokes about Google+ to one side, two Google Hangouts I watched showed how useful they can be for discussing political events in an engaging way. One was on WalesOnline and the other was on the Scotsman on the night the polls closed. Both showed just what can be achieved with a well-planned Hangout.

8. Keep data visualisations simple: Jeremy Vine, data visualisations aren’t exclusively yours any more. And I think most newsrooms would tell him he could keep the ones he’s got, as they were so darn complicated to follow. This was the first time I’d seen instant visualisations being widely used to paint pictures. The Record had an easy-to-use map of Scotland which changed colour as the night wore on, while the Scotsman made good use of simple pie charts to keep tally of pre-election polls.

9. Humour: In the week running up the vote, the Daily Record manned a 24/7 live blog of events. It worked very well, not just because it was informative, but because it was easy to read too, and not afraid to inject a bit of humour into proceedings. Political journalism can be too stuffy at times – the Record’s live blog certainly wasn’t.

10. And finally… This vote was perhaps the first where alternative news websites really made an impact. Could that mean more make an impact in future elections? Maybe – especially as in smaller communities, it is becoming increasingly common to find hyperlocal sites which out perform traditional media. This mini-documentary from The Drum makes for fascinating viewing:

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