An Evolving Media Universe

The ever-evolving media universe offers a wealth of sources of information about the upcoming presidential campaign.  As a news consumer you should try to avail yourself of a number of different sources, including from time to time some you might not normally look at.  Read, view or listen with a critical eye and ear and consider how well the story portrays the reality of a situation or event. 

Be a Discerning News Consumer

Think about where you get your news and information from.  There's a lot of it out there.  One can turn to the wire services, the networks, cable TV, local TV, radio ranging from NPR to conservative talk radio, newspapers, news magazines, opinion magazines, Internet-only news organizations, social media, and individual or group blogs.  Further, the editorial side of a particular news organization may encompass a wide range of talent, including general assignment reporters, beat reporters, editors, producers, photographers, videographers, columnists, feature writers, and maybe even an editorial cartoonist.  The media are diverse—very diverse.  Conservative talk radio presents a very different picture of the world than do mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times or the Washington Post than does Joe or Jill's blog.

Among the factors that affect the quality and quantity of news and election coverage a news outlet presents are the available resources (financial, talent, equipment, and commitment), the needs of advertisers and the audience, established news practices, habits and conventions, the peculiarities of individual media, and technology.  Thus a local newspaper has a set of strengths and weaknesses that differ from those of a major network. 

The Evolving Media Universe Has Inflicted "Tectonic" Changes on Traditional Media with Consequences for the Functioning of Our Democracy

In the old days, people typically turned to television, radio, a newspaper or a magazine for news about the campaign.  On a television network, for example, information is packaged in a variety of ways; there are the flagship evening newscasts, morning shows, magazine programs, Sunday morning newsmaker programs, occasional specials, and so forth.  Similarly, in a newspaper one finds hard news articles, news analysis, long features, lighter, "Style"-type pieces, photographs, columns, editorials, and editorial cartoons. 

Now, the Internet allows any motivated individual to become a publisher.  While some blogs are first-rate, and on top of their subject matter, others don't contribute much beyond echoing what is already out there.  In this information age, stories are linked to and repeated, rapidly circulate in social media and the blogosphere, and are minutely sliced and diced.  Buzz abounds.  A story may garner headlines but ultimately amount to little more than a "tempest in a teapot," while another story of lasting significance receives scant attention.  Readers and viewers must assess the veracity of a story as well as its importance. 
 
A mid-2018 survey (>) from the Pew Research Center found that 44% of U.S. adults prefer to get news from television, 34% online, 14% radio and 7% print.  Another mid-2018 survey (>) from Pew found that 68% of U.S. adults get news on social media, although a majority expect that the news there is inaccurate.

The Pew Research Center's "The State of the News Media" presents the best picture of the American news media.  Past reports describe "tectonic shifts taking place" and these continue to this day.  The Internet has driven much of the change in the news media environment over the past two decades, and has greatly facilitated the proliferation of information.  There are numerous Internet-only news organizations in addition to strong, integral online presences developed by traditional news organizations.  Many popular sources of news and information are relatively recent arrivals, and new players continue to pop up. 

As more and more people acquire their information from the screen of a smartphone or other device, news organizations must present information across different platforms and in different forms.  They must develop content for Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and they produce versions for mobile devices ranging from smartphones to iPads and other tablets.

Print media in particular have been hit by a loss of ad revenues. Pew's fact sheet on newspapers summarizes, "The industry’s financial fortunes and subscriber base have been in decline since the early 2000s, even as website audience traffic has grown for many."  A graph of total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers shows the weekday circulation has fallen to below what it was in 1940.  Advertising revenue decreased by 10% from 2016 to 2017.  An increasing share of revenue is coming from digital advertising, which accounted for about 31% of newspaper advertising revenue in 2017.  Pew reports that 39,210 people worked on the editorial side at newspapers in 2017.  

Like newspapers, magazines have undergone hard times recently, but they still form a valuable part of the media universe.  MPA ("The Association of Magazine Media"), in its Magazine Media Factbook, notes that "more adults 18-29 read magazines (95%) than use Facebook (81%)" and that "magazine media brands are the original (and still most powerful) influencers."  Even the very prominent Time Magazine has not been immune from the difficult environment.  Meredith Corp. acquired Time, Inc. in Jan. 2018, only to sell the magazine to Salesforce.com co-founder billionaire Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne in Sept. 2018.  The respected conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, launched in 1995, ceased publication at the end of 2018 due to a business decision by owner billionaire Philip Anschutz and his Clarity Media Group.

According to Pew, there are "830 local TV stations defined as 'news-producing stations' (i.e., stations that have a news director and are viable, commercial and English-language affiliates in the U.S.)."  Further Pew reports that, "29,000 employees worked as reporters, editors, photographers or film and video editors in broadcast TV newsrooms in 2017."

Digital media have not been immune from financial imperatives.  In early 2019 BuzzFeed, Vice Media, and HuffPost laid off many talented reporters.

The Problem of Fake News
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter came of age as a source of political information during the 2012 campaign.  Facebook posts and tweets from candidates, campaign staff and reporters covering the campaigns provide interested voters with immediate, timely accounts.  What is missing is journalistic vetting.  In a world where verifiable truths must compete with alternative facts, trust—a cornerstone of democracy—is undermined.  While social media offer the potential of creating a more informed public, there is also the danger they are contributing to a more misinformed public by magnifying and promoting the spread of false and misleading information.  This was evident in the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 campaign, which a Jan. 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment noted included "overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or 'trolls.'”  Donald Trump's use of Twitter was a central part of his 2016 campaign.  There was no need for media middlemen as voters could go direct to the source.  President Trump has made condemnations of "fake news" one of the hallmarks of his presidency, but a strong case can be made that he has an unparalleled record of making false and misleading claims (>).  

Google, Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to reign in fake news with mixed results (>).  In March 2018 Google announced its Google News Initiative, pledging $300 million over three years to "elevate and strengthen quality journalism; evolve business models to drive sustainable growth; and empower news organizations trhough technological innovation (>)."  Facebook's position is that, "Although we didn’t do enough to anticipate some of these risks, we’ve now made fundamental changes (>)."  Facebook has a three-part strategy for countering what it calls "false news": "removing accounts and content that violates our policies; reducing the spread of false news and inauthentic content; and informing our community with additional context (>)."  An Oct. 2018 study of Twitter found that "of the 100 accounts that were most active in spreading fake news in the months before the [2016] election—the large majority clearly engaged in 'spammy behavior' that violates Twitter’s rules—more than 90 were still active as of spring 2018 (>).   

Bias
Depending on the ideological biases of the publisher and staff, news may be slanted toward or against various viewpoints.  Biases can be obvious or subtle, ranging from use of loaded language to story selection.  Conservatives have long derided the mainstream media for presenting a one-sided picture of events.  In Jan. 2019 the Pew Research Center reported "almost three-quarters of Republicans feel misunderstood by the news media (>)."  On the other hand some of the conservative media seem downright sycophantic; FOX News has been described as "the right-wing echo chamber."  Conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity talk to the conservative base.  For all the Limbaughs and Hannitys there are at the same time the Rachel Maddows and Van Joneses.  (For more on bias see Media Bias/Fact Check, Media Research Center and Media Matters for America).

Charges of liberal or conservative bias attract attention, but there are other biases.  A major underlying bias at almost any news organization is simply limited resources.  Newsroom diversity—including people of color and women—at all levels has increasingly become a concern.  There is also the shiny object effect.  In 2015-16 candidate Donald Trump's over-the-top style and pronouncements were a magnet for media attention, giving him a significant advantage over the 16 other candidates vying for the Republican nomination.  Top tier major party candidates are guaranteed coverage, even of their trivial activities, while longshot or third party candidates typically have a hard time getting coverage. 

From a Campaign's Point of View

The proliferation of media presents both a challenge and an opportunity for campaigns as they seek to communicate their messages.  They must be able to assess and respond to requests from national political reporters as well as local bloggers.  Some interviewers throw softball questions and others take a more hard-nosed approach.  Campaigns not only reach out to the news media through traditional press staff, they have new media staff producing information, graphics, videos that supporters will spread to friends and acquaintances through social media.

Organization and Focus

A campaign unfolds along a fixed chronological path, with clear markers along the way, and there are only so many approaches a news organization can take in covering it.  There are, however, huge differences in the quality and consistency of campaign and election coverage.

For many news organizations, the election may not be a major focus until Election Day approaches.  Stories about the campaign appear haphazardly here and there.  A news organization can help its readers or viewers better understand the campaign if it provides some order to its coverage, for example by running its campaign stories in a consistent place or on specific days of the week and by using a recognizable graphic to draw attention to them.  Regular series of articles can also helpful. 

Candidate Profiles

At different stages in the campaign, news organizations may produce in-depth profiles of the major candidates.  Early feature-length magazine profiles can be particularly influential in helping a potential candidate or candidate establish credibility.  After the field has taken shape, an outlet may run a set or series of candidate profiles, perhaps in the summer or a couple of months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.  After the primaries are over, heading into the conventions, the soon-to-be nominees are profiled again.  Finally, toward the close of the fall campaign, some news organizations may run a final profile.  A noteworthy example from television is Frontline's "The Choice."  Writing or producing a candidate profile is a real art.  Consider what anecdote is used to begin the profile, who among the candidate's realm of acquaintances is interviewed, what images are used, and how well the profile captures the essence of the subject. 

Issues

During the Fall 2016 presidential campaign there was shockingly little reporting on the issues.  The Tyndall Report looked at network news coverage and concluded in an Oct. 24, 2016 post, "With just two weeks to go, issues coverage this year has been virtually non-existent (>)."  The progressive Media Matters for America noted, "It seems clear that the media’s abandonment of issues coverage benefits Trump since his campaign has done very little to outline the candidate’s core beliefs. Clinton, by contrast, has done the opposite (>)."  (See also: Kevin Bowe's film Democracy Through the Looking Glass. >

It is relatively easy to report on campaign strategies and tactics, daily charges and countercharges and the latest poll results.  More difficult is the task of explaining "the issues" in a fresh and understandable way.  To untangle complex problems such as retirement security or tax policy, to lay out the candidates' proposals for addressing them, and to make it all relevant requires a great deal of research and thought from the reporter.  Even after all that work, readers may, given human nature, skip over the well-written story on trade policy to find out about the most recent candidate controversy.  

Polling

The media are firmly addicted to polls and devote substantial resources to conducting them.  Political reporters argue that polling data can suggest stories and provide useful insights.  For example if poll numbers show a candidate is weak among particular demographic groups, the reporter might do a story about why this is so.  Sometimes however it seems that reporting poll numbers is a substitute for providing explanation of complex issues.  Horserace coverage adds nothing to understanding of the candidates and issues. 

Looking at the polling results from 2016, the national polls actually came fairly close to predicting the outcome in terms of Clinton winning the popular vote, but there were problems with state polls, which were off significantly in many cases.  The bottom line, as noted in a Nov. 9, 2016 press release from the American Association for Public Opinion Research, was, "The polls clearly got it wrong this time and Donald J. Trump is the projected winner in the Electoral College."  In May 2017 AAPOR issued an excellent report which found, "National polls were actually quite accurate. But at the state level, the poll errors were quite large."  In particular the report notes an underestimation of support for Trump in the upper Midwest.  The report cites "real late change in voter preference [to Trump] and the failure of many polls to adjust their weights for the over-representation of college graduates, who tended to favor Clinton in key states.” The report also devotes considerable attention to addressing the "Shy Trump" hypothesis, but finds no evidence to support it.
AAPOR - An Evaluation of 2016 Election Polls in the United States (May 4, 2017). 
See also: www.PollingReport.com-2020

Accountability

One important function of the media is to attempt to reign in politicians' and campaigns' tendency to bend or distort the truth.  Examples include Glenn Kessler's "Fact Checker" blog at The Washington Post and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.  Many news organizations also run ad watches.  These analyze the accuracy and fairness of candidates' claims and may provide broader information about where an ad fits in a campaign's strategy.  Ad watches have generally had a positive effect.  Campaigns now release their ads with documented fact sheets.  However, in the case of emotion-tugging "feel good" ads, doing an ad watch may be comparable to trying to dissect a soap bubble.

On the Scene

During the pre-primary and primary period, major news organizations typically have a team of reporters who are assigned to cover the major candidates; depending on available resources top candidates may have dedicated reporters.  The networks establish a team of digital journalists or embeds.

 In the fall, the major party campaigns have typically instituted a "protective pool" arrangement to ensure that reporters will be on hand to cover any activities by the candidate.  The same kind of arrangement is in place to cover the President at the White House.  The protective pool typically includes wire reporters, a wire photographer, a TV crew (rotation among ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC), and a newspaper print reporter.  In 2016 the lack of a protective pool was a source of considerable friction between the campaigns and news organizations (+).  Donald Trump typically flew on his own plane without the travelling press.  When Hillary Clinton became unsteady on Sept. 11 and was wisked away, the media were kept in the dark as to her whereabouts.

Media on Media

A number of news organizations have writers or reporters who focus specifically on media, or even on media and politics. This type of reporting can be quite enlightening, reminding the audience that news presents only a version of reality; it is the product of many individuals' efforts and perceptions.  As another example, some newspapers have a weekly "Magazine Reader" type section which draws attention to feature articles; this can be an invaluable service for busy readers. 

Endorsements

In the closing month of the campaign, many newspapers make endorsements.  One of the most astounding aspects of the 2016 general election campaign was the unprecedented and overwhelming number of newspaper editorials favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  Wikipedia found that Hillary Clinton received endorsements of 243 dailies and 148 weeklies compared to 20 dailies and 6 weeklies for Trump (>).  Newspaper endorsements may cause a significant difference in less-publicized races where voters are not familiar with the candidates or the specifics of a ballot initiative, but at the presidential level they clearly do not have much impact.  That is not to say a newspaper endorsement has no effect.  When candidates are striving for credibility in the pre-primary period or the early primaries or seeking to persuade swing voters in the fall a newspaper endorsement may count for something.  A newspaper's endorsement is generally decided by the editorial board, although sometimes the publisher may weigh in.  Some newspapers have a policy of not making endorsements, at least at the presidential level.  Examining the reasoning used in various papers' endorsements can offer clear insights into the candidates' strengths and weaknesses. 

Branding

Just as campaigns vie for support from voters, news organizations seek to gain loyalty of viewers, readers and web surfers.  Promos on their own pages or broadcasts, or ads placed in other media, highlight programming and news personalities and establish brand identity.

Many Other Aspects

There are many other aspects of campaign coverage to consider.  As an exercise, take a specific campaign event, such as a speech or a rally, and compare how a number of different news organizations cover it.

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