How the news media lost the 2016 election
Posted November 18, 2016
To Philadelphia-based digital marketer Jason Bauman, the biggest disappointment of the 2016 election had little to do with who sits in the White House.
For Bauman, 31, it was how disillusioned and skeptical he’s become of news outlets he once trusted.
“What really changed this cycle is that I've become extremely disappointed with the media outlets I used to respect,” Bauman said. “I've seen multiple examples this election of otherwise reputable outlets fall prey to obvious rumors because they didn't want to lose out on the potential traffic that the story might generate.”
Bauman isn’t alone in his distaste for the media this election cycle. The 2016 State of the First Amendment Survey released in June found that just 10 percent of Americans felt the presidential race was being covered accurately. A more recent Quinnipiac University poll released in October found that more than half (55 percent) of likely voters believe the media was biased against then-GOP nominee Donald Trump, while 42 percent say there was no media bias against him.
The evidence of that sentiment is palpable this election, particularly in the Trump camp. At Trump rallies across the country, reporters and photographers are booed and met with angry jeering when they enter the venue, The Washington Post reported.
The attitude has become so hostile amid literal attacks on journalists at rallies in the past year that NPR even put its reporters through “Trump training” to handle threats to their safety. Trump, in statements unprecedented from a candidate for the nation’s highest office, has long expressed mistrust in the media, telling a crowd at an October rally that the media was “stealing” the election from him.
“The media is, indeed, sick, and it’s making our country sick, and we’re going to stop it,” Trump said, though he didn’t elaborate further.
Many media experts are similarly disgusted with 2016 election coverage they say offered little hard-hitting substance until recently.
“In a sense, Trump is right when he says the election is rigged,” said Mark Grabowski, associate communications professor at Adelphi University in Long Island, New York. “Not by voter fraud, but by the so-called Fourth Estate largely serving as a propaganda machine.”
Given both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to engage the news media much beyond rallies and occasional press conferences in favor of social media, some experts wonder how the news media will stay relevant in future elections.
“This could be the last election where mainstream media play a dominant or leading role,” said Canadian and American media ethicist Stephen Ward. “Given what Trump has done on Twitter, I see more and more campaigns running this way in the future, without visiting editorial boards — saying, 'to hell with them, we don’t need them.'”
To change the tide of public enmity rising around them, experts say journalists have a hard road ahead of them that involves acknowledging their largely poor performance during the 2016 campaign.
“It’s only recently they started holding his feet to the fire on anything,” media watchdog group Media Matters CEO Angelo Carusone said. “If the media’s not careful, I see their future role not as a constructive force but as pawns in a larger game.”
How did we get here?
By many media analyst accounts, the current climate of public distrust of the media is unprecedented.
“There have been fractured times in America before,” said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But I’ve never seen such open disdain for the media, at least in my lifetime.”
Yet experts say there are historical parallels for the public and the press being at odds with one another because of political partisanship and bias.
Dating back to Colonial times through the 19th century, newspapers were often the tools of politicians, with no claim to objectivity or passive observation. In the years after the American Revolution, it was commonplace for politicians in both Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party to sponsor newspapers. The goal was to bolster party candidates and communicate specific messages to their supporters. Because of this business arrangement, newspaper publishers and editors often doubled as party spokesmen, according to journalism historian and New York University professor Mitchell Stephens.
It was a pattern that lasted until the 1920s and the era of “muckraking” and “Yellow Journalism,” when large newspapers locked in stiff competition hyped lurid details and unproven facts to attract readers.
The sensationalist papers of the past and the partisan media outlets of today shared a common problem, experts say: economic instability.
The economic circumstances that led to bias and sensationalism aren’t so different from the ones media outlets are grappling with anew now.
“Journalists in those days wanted to report in a serious way, and when they became more (financially) stable, they did,” said Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown professor and author of “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters.” “But as we learned from that era, reporters will (report in a serious way) less if they have to do high-quality journalism as well as whatever the older equivalent to clickbait would be.”
“Yellow Journalism” only fell out of practice amid the adoption of a stable business model — reader subscriptions, Carusone said. Back then, newspapers depended on distributors (often newsboys) buying the paper in bulk and selling them on the street. Often, if the news wasn’t “exciting” enough, papers didn’t sell, leading to over-the-top headlines Carusone likens to the clickbait of today.
“People then understood this was tabloid journalism, but it still influenced public opinion,” Carusone said. “Today, we all know what clickbait is, but we still consume it and internalize it. So much of the media environment we’re seeing now is governed by economic uncertainty in the news business.”
Along with advertising, subscriptions were largely what sustained news outlets until the advent of the internet, which upended the classified section. This economic uncertainty matters because in an environment where traditional journalism must compete with false, misleading or partisan outlets online, facts often fall by the wayside, fueling public polarization.
“There’s been a development in media and in the public where the facts simply don’t matter or they’re disregarded. That’s why you see such a rise in fact-checking this election,” Ward said. “When you see a citizenry that has that mindset, you should worry for democracy.”
A partisan mirror
Although economic instability may harm the quality of news coverage, experts say there is a relationship between growing political polarization and the perception of media bias.
Ladd argues that because politics have become so polarized, it’s harder for the public and journalists to hash out what the facts are. As more media outlets accept certain facts and others reject them — think of CNN accepting climate change as a fact, whereas Fox News questions its existence — media outlets become more fragmented, which can inadvertently lead to polarization.
“The more fragmented (the news media) become, the more partisan it gets, because politicians now have differing beliefs about what the facts are, and they get people mad at the other side’s media,” Ladd said. “For example, what is employment rate? Is the economy growing? Is deficit shrinking? Those are basic facts nobody agrees on anymore.”
This wasn’t always such a problem, Carusone said, because Americans used to have a common touchstone for information.
“It used to be that there was a nightly newscast that everyone participated in that gave people a common reference point that formed a factual baseline to form your opinions on. We’ve lost that shared experience and that shared understanding of the facts,” Carusone said. “(The media) lost the willingness to call out things as unprecedented, false and destructive. So, if you understand the system well, you can game the media.”
When news outlets don’t agree on the facts, the result is what Ward calls an “unholy mix” of journalism and social media. Today, people may walk away from a newscast unsure of what the facts are, and platforms like social media don’t bother to filter out posts that spread biased or false information. If the information people find on social media aligns with their worldview, Culver says it’s human nature to believe it whether it’s true or not — leaving little room for argument.
“When we don’t slow down to consider where the information we get, especially via social media, comes from, we fall victim to this urge to say, ‘Aha! This confirms what I’ve thought all along,’” Culver said. “The more we move away from deliberation as citizens, the more dangerous this becomes, because you can literally filter out news items online that challenge your views and spread content that simply reinforces your worldview.”
On sites like Facebook, users can filter their news feeds to only include outlets that report what the user believes. That worries Ward, who says such filters make Americans lose their grasp on the key to a healthy democracy: understanding multiple perspectives of a problem.
“It’s so important to understand people of other perspectives. If we stick with media that just reinforces us, we don’t get that and that’s worrying,” Ward said. “We are so fragmented in the way we approach issues these days online. At some point, as a society, we have got to come together.”
How that could happen is an open question. For the media, some experts espouse a “back to basics” approach of simply reporting the facts without interpretation. Others, like Ward, say the future of journalism depends on whether American society can learn to civilly debate again, and not writing off or filtering out voices they disagree with. As The Atlantic put it just before the election, “Americans Don't Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing.”
If Americans don’t like what they see in the news media today, Ward asks them to remember that news outlets act as a mirror for society. If the picture looks skewed or biased, perhaps Americans should look inside themselves and ask if they need to change.
“You can’t blame all this on the big, bad media. The news media reflects society and its citizens don’t want to complicate their worldviews. They don’t want facts, they want slogans,” Ward said. “The theory of a popular democracy lies in whether its citizens want to rationally exchange and debate. That’s not what I see here. I see people who want to win an argument at any cost.”