Newsnight tries banalysis 2.0 for Prime Ministerial debates
Tag clouds: Not in my name
Comment The obsession of the media and political worlds with pointless info-toys met a new nadir last night, during the webby part of Newsnight's otherwise respectable coverage of the first Prime Ministerial debate.
Reporter Justin Rowlatt was tasked with using the power of "tag clouds" - also known as Wordles - to offer insights into Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg's political philosophies.
Rowlatt: Adrift in alphabet soup
The effort was part of a growing trend in news for "visualisations", which are meant to make complex stories more readily understood, and occasionally do, but more often just waste colour ink or pixels. They're like illustrations, but require less visual talent.
For the uninitiated, a tag cloud is a visual soup of words, usually in a bad font, with the size of each dependent on how many times it is used in the source document or speech. They are employed by many bloggers and, depressingly, some journalists, as a substitute for actual thinking or analysis, which there isn't time for between hearing or reading something and reacting to it on Twitter.
By demolishing what may have been coherent ideas or arguments into a fine rubble, the Newsnight tag clouds were supposed to offer instant comparative political analysis. Instead they made their user look like a spokesman for the Stupid Party. And they always do.
In the interests of political historians, here are the hapless Rowlatt's efforts at web-facilitated insta-terpretation:
So look here, we've got words like - interestingly - 'got'... I suspect that's a mistake. But 'schools', 'economy', 'future' - that's a key word, that's what people expect, to hear the word 'future'.
'Country', I suppose you'd expect that. He's saying 'change', 'together', um, 'great' there. Words I suppose you would expect.
He says 'old'! It's not a word you often associate with campaigns. 'Believe'... 'things', um, interesting word there. Um, and, 'politics'. Words there, I suppose, many that you'd expect in any speech.
In fairness to the Newsnight man, he grew increasingly aware of the farce as the item went on, suppressing embarrassed laughter and moving on sharpish. We'd be surprised if the feature made a reappearance following the second debate next Thursday.
For sentient viewers that would be good news, but fans of tag clouds - they do exist - will be pleased to know that they can make their own here. And in the spirit of meta-pointlessness, here's one of this article. Incisive. ®
Our old friend "shit flash game" made an appearance too.
Not to mention Twitter... anyone who is able to Twitter and watch the debate at the same time evidently isn't paying full attention to either ,and should not have their ignorant opinions broadcast on national TV.
liveblogging the debates
First let’s hear the leader’s opening statements:
Captain Clegg: Hello! I’m different to the Labservatives
Mr Frown: Remember, I just destroyed the economy but the Conservatories are really, really scary
Mr Balloon: Bleep. Thank you for purchasing the Leader-bot 500. I am programmed in over six million forms of public relations.
Courtesy of here: http://millenniumelephant.blogspot.com/2010/04/day-3391-debate-night-we-rule.html
To take a different line...
maybe the problem was the 'expert' rather than the tools.
Doing a word frequency breakdown on the various leaders responses does tell is something about their approaches, if you just interpret the information you're given in the right way.
let's take just the first word Rowlett picked out for each leader.
'got' for Brown - Rowlett reckoned this was a mistake. No it wasn't, it tells us that Brown likes to emphasise what we have, what we've 'got', i.e. what he believes Labour has given us, and also indicates that he likes to use the imperative a lot 'we have got to do this' - or so he believes.
'country' for Cameron - he likes to view issues from a national rather than international angle.
'old' for Clegg - he wants us to do away with the 'old' parties, the 'old' system and he kept emphasising that
The piece didn't work because Rowlett didn't put any effort into it, not because there is anything inherently wrong with word frequency analysis (and a tag cloud is simply a visual representation of that).