Last night, I participated in a panel discussion focused in part upon the role of the press in the 2016 election cycle.
In my brief introductory remarks, I began by noting that the course in Media and Public Policy that I teach every two years requires an entirely new syllabus every time I teach it, because the media environment and the way we citizens get our information is constantly changing.
I also emphasized the difference between MEDIA and JOURNALISM. We are marinating in media, but we are losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. And I ticked off some of what I see as the consequences of this new reality:
- The competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill—far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy.
- That same competition has given us sports and gossip and opinion—often wildly inaccurate– rather than the watchdog journalism that informs citizens. It’s cheaper to produce, and (let’s be honest) those are the things people click on and watch.
- We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The reporters with institutional memory who produced it are gone. There’s virtually no coverage of either the Indiana statehouse or the City-County building—instead we get the “beer beat,” telling us where to party on the weekend.
- Most troubling of all is the “filter bubble.” The Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.” Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
As I tell my students, the sad state of journalism is ultimately our fault. The media is giving us what sells. If a naked Kardashian gets more clicks than articles about school vouchers, naked Kardashians are what we’ll get. When Donald Trump’s inane insults and kindergarten antics make money for the media, the media gives us nonstop Trump.
How all this will affect the 2016 elections is anyone’s guess, but a recent report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center isn’t comforting.
The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.
The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.
Now, if Clinton’s negative coverage consisted of actual news, emerging information that had not already been exhaustively covered, that would be appropriate. But as the report notes,
Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. Of the eight news outlets in our study, Fox News easily led the way. Clinton received 291 negative reports on Fox, compared with only 39 positive ones, most of which were in the context of poll results that showed her with a wide lead….
What accounts for Clinton’s negative coverage? One reason is the schizophrenic quality of journalists’ coverage of a “front-running” candidate. It is the story of a candidate with a solid lead, which is the main source of the candidate’s “good news.” There is, however, a less positive aspect to a frontrunner’s story. The candidate is typically described as overly calculating and cautious—the implication is that the candidate is withholding something from the voters. And if the frontrunner loses support in the polls—a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls—the narrative tilts negative.
We voters have to rely on the media for our information about the candidates. But in this media environment, in this time and place, we need to be very careful consumers of what passes for news.