federal election
Google Search results, Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Crikey)

Elections were once painted by the press pack as the journalistic equivalent of David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Look, there! See the leader on his high horse surmounting obstacles on the way to victory, with the press bus just behind, out of the picture.

The media painted the grand narrative of an election. Now, there’s hardly a single election at all. Instead, we have a whole lot of elections going on at the same time and journalists are struggling to adapt. We need to be painting Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights — a complex portrait of small delights and despair. This is not something you can do from the bus. 

By getting off the bus, journalists are starting to pick up some of the tools needed to paint this vast landscape: the parties’ targeted Facebook ads, Twitter trends, Google search results and data points like the surge in registration and early voting. 

The Guardian, for example, has released a database of political Facebook ads. The ads’ contents are not different to the themes of the public campaign; rather, they are sharpened for target groups and adapted to their interests. This past weekend Labor seems to be heavily promoting its pensioner dental scheme (presumably to pensioners), while the Liberal Party is promoting individual bits of government expenditure in particular electorates. While the ads are public, the targets are not — although The Guardian is attempting to crowdsource this data from its readers.

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The under-reported Google search trends give a picture of how voters are engaging with issues in real -time — and it’s a very different picture to the mainstream media narrative. People aren’t searching the federal budget surplus. They’re not particularly interested in candidates’ old social media posts. They’re not even reading about soft corruption bubbles. People are consistently searching around issues of employment.

The Google report suggests voters are engaging with Labor’s weekly campaign themes. For example, in the week before Easter when Labor was talking healthcare and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the top two search topics were healthcare and Indigenous Australians. This past weekend? Climate change.

Do these search trends matter? There’s a strong argument to suggest they were the most reliable predictors of both Brexit and Trump. 

Of course, it’s not all about online campaigning and data journalism. And some journalists are using storytelling well to paint their part of the whole. The Warringah campaign is being covered as part byelection and part microcosm (and, yes, part grand narrative). This helps understand how campaigns are experienced locally, and how the major parties are struggling to keep up. Garry Maddox’s Sydney Morning Herald report on the NSW seat of Robertson told us more about the complex lived experiences of public candidates than any number of analyses of social media posts.

Other journalistic skills are being used less wisely. In Saturday’s paper, the SMH used its access to elite opinion to, once again, give a platform to the views of Steve Bannon via Peter Hartcher — this time, on the Australian election. Thanks for that.

But too much of the journalistic response to this new world has been to shout at social media while crafting a narrative about a disengaged electorate — as if people disengaging from political reporting must mean they’re disengaging with politics rather than the reporting itself. 

And there’s an eagerness to hang on to the one traditional media narrative that still has some power: the visuals on the evening news. Here, Morrison has more success in presenting an action-man persona all the way up to the moment in the Sky-sponsored People’s Forum last Friday night when he took that action right into Shorten’s physical space.

This narrow metric has shaped the media narrative of who’s winning and who’s losing the campaign. It’s not a bad metric — it would have predicted Abbott’s surprise success in 2010 — but it needs to be leavened better with all the other digital data that we now have to draw on.  

Of course, there’s something romantic in the grand narrative (as Guy Rundle wrote last week) but it’s just not how Australians are experiencing their own particular campaign.