Tag Archives: media

Journalism and the 2016 Election

Wednesday evening, the ACLU of Indiana hosted one of its “First Wednesday” programs. These are brief, hour and a half presentations focused on current civil liberties issues. This one was titled “Election 2016 and the Media: Free Press or Free for All?”

John Ketzenberger moderated the panel, which consisted of two television reporters, Russ McQuaid and Marc Mullins, the opinion editor of the Indianapolis Star, Tim Swarens, and Mary Beth Schneider, who recently left her job at the Star, where she had been their long-time statehouse reporter.

Rather than focusing on the coverage of the 2016 election, as the title had suggested, the panel mostly bemoaned the challenges of today’s media environment, particularly the impact of digital media on longstanding business models. In response to an audience question (posed by my husband), they did agree that Trump had “played” the press to his advantage for much of the election cycle.

Despite the focus on the challenges posed by the Internet, most of the conversation avoided recognition of the actual state of traditional media. At one point, one of the broadcast representatives did note that media companies had become too dependent upon young reporters with little experience in lieu of (more expensive) seasoned journalists. But there was absolutely no discussion of the constant, punishing newsroom layoffs by Gannett, the loss of reporters like Mary Beth whose work was informed by institutional memory and deep knowledge, and the utter lack of print coverage of state and local government.

At times, Tim Swarens seemed almost delusional. He made the point that newspapers can gain/keep readership if they provide consistent, high-quality journalism (no argument there), then repeatedly and proudly claimed that the current iteration of the Star produces such journalism. There was no acknowledgment of the evisceration of the paper’s news staff, the dwindling ratio of actual news to sports and entertainment coverage, the virtual absence of reporting that used to be routine–stories about school board meetings, City-County Council committee deliberations, agency decisions and the like. (On the rare occasion that there are such reports, they tend to lack the context and background necessary to understand their significance.)

Our local business paper, the Indianapolis Business Journal, actually does a much better job on that front, recognizing that area businesses need to know what their government is doing.

The panel did recognize that the frantic competition for “clicks” and eyeballs too often drives coverage, posing a danger to the accuracy and completeness of stories.

I certainly don’t have a remedy for the very real problems journalism faces in an era of rampant on-line news and propaganda, declining revenues and outmoded business models. But I do know two things: 1) Americans need reputable news sources that tell us not just what we want to know, but what we need to know; and 2) you can’t fix a problem if you refuse to admit you have it.

Media Matters

If there is one observation about American politics that everyone agrees on–whether they are left, right or center–  it’s that the electorate is deeply polarized.

There are a number of theories about why political actors are unable to agree on even the most pedestrian and formerly uncontroversial issues. A recent study suggests that our fragmented media environment has a lot to do with it.

In “Income Inequality, Media Fragmentation, and Increased Political Polarization,” published in Contemporary Economic Policy, August 2016, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas looked for evidence that media fragmentation plays a bigger role in polarization than income inequality. They looked at variables across six decades: indexes of polarization in the U.S. House and in the Senate, family income data from the Census Bureau and the percentage of Americans with cable or satellite television. The data confirmed that polarization has increased rapidly since the 1980s, but did not point to a cause.

Two of their findings:

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”

Other research has reached similar conclusions.The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014, including five key takeaways. In 2016, Pew also looked at ideological gaps between people with different education backgrounds.

As the Journalists’ Resource notes,

Harvard University Professor Thomas Patterson’s book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage 2013), describes, among other things, how in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rescinded the Fairness Doctrine, giving rise to extremely slanted radio and then cable news talk shows. The Fairness Doctrine, Patterson writes, “had discouraged the airing of partisan talk shows by requiring stations that did so to offer a balanced lineup of liberal and conservative programs. Once the requirement was eliminated, hundreds of stations launched talk shows of their choosing, the most successful of which had a conservative slant.”

People who consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to believe the truth even when they are presented with clear evidence they are wrong, according to research published in 2016 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and flagged by the Poynter Institute.

When America is going through a particularly nasty period, it’s often comforting to remind ourselves that “we’ve been here before.” (Think civil war, the 60s, etc.) But we haven’t had social media and the internet during previous rough patches. We haven’t been able to choose our realities, insulate ourselves in our preferred “bubbles” and shut out inconvenient facts.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think that makes a big difference….



“Facts Don’t Win Elections”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently reflected upon the disconnect between crime statistics and popular beliefs about violent crime.

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.

There are several explanations that can be offered for that disconnect, but undoubtedly, the media bears considerable responsibility. Not only do news sources–particularly television news–focus on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but the number of movies and popular television shows that feature crime fighters of one sort or another (everything from the multiple versions of Law and Order and NCIS to lawyer shows to cops and robbers) sometimes seem to dwarf other kinds of subject matter.

It isn’t just that the media report so prominently on local crime incidents. In the age of globalization, we see reports from all around the world. Did a bomb go off in a London subway? It makes the evening news. Was someone murdered in Paris? It makes the evening news. The impression is that danger lurks everywhere.

It isn’t all that innocent, however, as Brayton points out.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

Facts. Evidence. Reality. Next to a good story, I guess they don’t stand much of a chance.

Politics and the Press–Redux

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.

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.