Has the American Media learned Anything Over the Last Four Years?

By Adam DuBard

The 2016 presidential election was a shocking upset by all accounts. Apart from a few outliers, most media pundits and political experts predicted a Hillary Clinton win. Only two significant polls predicted a Donald Trump victory, and Nate Silver, the vaunted pollster guru, gave Trump a 28.6 percent chance at victory. Clinton’s surprising loss led to numerous think pieces by major news outlets ruminating on how they were so overwhelmingly wrong about the election, as well as arguments placing the blame on the media themselves. 

The media always plays significant roles in presidential elections, but their part in 2016 was particularly interesting. As Open Secrets notes, the media analysis firm mediaQuant, Inc., determined that Trump received $5.9 billion in free media coverage from July 2015 to October 2016, while his opponent Clinton received only $2.8 billion. Additionally, as the Columbia Journalism Review points out in a piece highlighting the media’s failures in 2016, a group of Harvard and MIT researchers discovered some significant variances in how both candidates were covered. Significantly, their report found that when Hillary Clinton was mentioned, these sentences were four times as likely to mention scandals related to her as opposed to policy proposals. In contrast, sentences covering Donald Trump were one-and-a-half times more likely to mention policy proposals than scandals.

SAIS professor Charles Stevenson, a former Senate staffer who himself is no stranger to elections, says, “the media was spooked by 2016, and they’re acting spooked in 2020 … [they’re] trying to avoid what they viewed as their mistakes four years ago.” This dynamic was clearly at play even as Joe Biden entered Election Day leading in the polls by much higher margins than Clinton ever did. Many political experts and pollsters remained hesitant to declare an early winner after Trump’s 2016 victory proved many people wrong.

However, the media continues to struggle with how to handle a president who conducts himself as President Trump does. As Professor Stevenson notes, American journalists face an incumbent who is a “master at manipulating the media.” James Fallows highlights in the September issue of The Atlantic what he, and many others, have come to call “both-sides-ism,” or the media’s tendency to aim for unbiased and fair coverage, which often results in false-equivalencies when dealing with a figure like President Trump. “There is certainly no reason to present Trump’s claims on equal footing with other information,” Fallows continues, and others have joined him as attempts to fact-check the president grow increasingly arduous. 

Last week, MSNBC anchor Chuck Todd asked Joe Biden if he was taking the coronavirus pandemic “too seriously.” In contrast, President Trump holds massive rallies during the epidemic, contributing to the spread of the virus, resulting in the deaths of more than 230,000 Americans. In this instance, Fallows’ analysis seems particularly relevant. 

Meanwhile, public trust in American media is faltering. Gallup had polled the American public on their confidence in media coverage since 1968 when 68% of respondents reported trusting the media a great deal or fair amount. However, that number hit a new low of 32% in 2016. While public trust has risen somewhat to 41% as of 2019, this number is still far below the 55% of respondents that trusted the media just twenty years ago in 1999. 

Also of importance is that Americans are consuming news in a growing variety of ways. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted from October to November of 2019, 18% of respondents reported that the most common way they got their news was through social media instead of more traditional outlets. SAIS students also follow this trend, with a slightly stronger lean towards social media. While 43% of SAIS respondents reported primarily receiving their news from traditional newspapers, 36% chose Twitter as their primary news source, with an additional 3% choosing Facebook. Other notable choices were news aggregating apps such as Apple News with 7% of respondents, and podcasts with 8%. 

These trends highlight the rapidly evolving landscape of American media, which plays a massive role in how American elections unfold. As the perception of the media grows increasingly negative, Americans move towards alternative means of consuming their news, which does not necessarily lead to positive developments, as the rise of Qanon and other conspiracy theories show. 

As the results of this momentous election continue to pour in, with more uncertainty than usual surrounding the result due to the coronavirus pandemic and the voting methods, how the media covers the results will be crucial in how the results are perceived. As the president of ABC News, James Goldston, remarked, “we have to get election night right.” While both parties prepare lawsuits around the country in a battle over which ballots will be counted, how the media continues to cover the election will be crucial in forming public perception.  American media outlets have the opportunity to prove that perhaps some lessons have been learned over the last four years. 

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