The 2016 presidential election, crowded with candidates in a circus-like atmosphere, is serving as a type of stress test for the U.S. news media. Can journalists, often viewed as members of the U.S. government’s fourth unofficial branch, manage the task of accurately and neutrally informing American voters of the positions of the many candidates that are running for president this time?
However, in order to achieve this simple-sounding feat, journalists must resist two major innate urges: giving in to the greedy lust for easy clicks and bending coverage to fit their own personal political biases or financial interests.
Billionaire Donald Trump’s celebrity campaign exposes media outlets who favor ratings and clicks over reporting the news, as Trump’s reality TV popularity has given the stiff and stodgy world of electoral politics an Access Hollywood-style makeover and a new audience hungry for gossip about the billionaire real estate investor’s latest controversies. Unfortunately, the U.S. media appears to be failing that aspect of the 2016 stress test, as Trump’s out-sized popularity has led to him obtaining “the overwhelming majority of [the 2016 presidential election’s] news coverage,” as University of Texas at Arlington political science professor Rebecca Deen told BBC News.
Journalists will obviously seek out content that attracts readers and viewers, as that is the nature of the news marketplace, but there is a difference between making sure to cover the hottest stories and choosing only to cover candidates that are already bringing in big ratings prior to even receiving coverage on their positions.
On the other hand, the vast array of different candidates in the 2016 race has placed a spotlight on the various biases that appear to burden different networks.
Fox News was criticized by conservatives, who likely believe that the news organization has cozy ties with the Republican National Committee, for posing what they saw as left wing attacks as questions at the network’s Aug. 6, 2015 Republican presidential debate in what was seen as an effort to disrupt outsider candidates like Carson and Trump and to put conservative candidates on the defensive. Fox has also drawn criticism for repeatedly leaving Sen. Rand Paul’s name off of on-screen graphics ranking candidates by their poll numbers, an issue that also plagued former Congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.
CNN has drawn criticism from Bernie Sanders supporters for pointlessly declaring Hillary Clinton the winner of Democratic presidential debates immediately upon their conclusion based often on arbitrary metrics, leading some observers to conclude that the network seems to unofficially favor the candidacy of Clinton over Sanders. Sen. Jim Webb accused the cable news channel of rigging the Democratic debates for Clinton and Sanders. CNN, which many perceive as left-leaning, also openly admitted to planning more divisive and combative debate questions for Republicans than it did for Democrats.
Biases exist and always will because all journalists are human and have them. However, good journalists should admit their biases and work hard not to let them poison their coverage of facts and ruin their credibility in the eyes of neutral observers.
Also, media outlets are sometimes guilty of manipulating the playing field in the presidential race for their own convenience. As an example, news networks drew criticism from Republican activists for trying to winnow down the large field of GOP candidates prior to presidential debates based on early poll numbers, thus denying some lesser-known but serious candidates a platform to ever promote their candidacy in the first place.
It is not the media’s job to choose which candidates get to outline their policies to voters. It is the media’s job to neutrally publicize the views of all of those candidates and to let voters in the fifty states winnow the field down in the voting booth.
When Fox Business cut Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina from the main stage of its Jan. 14 debate to the undercard, some accused the network of reducing the number of candidates on the main stage in an effort to prevent the undercard stage from being cut from the program due to a lack of available candidates, potentially putting advertising dollars at risk.
Ultimately, the U.S. news media as a whole should be judged on its coverage of the presidential race based on whether voters have been equipped with the information necessary to look at all of the candidates on the ballot on election day and choose the one whose positions line up best with their own personal views. It should not be a press release service for journalists’ favorite campaigns’ talking points, a public relations firm selling the viewpoints of the political establishment, or a ratings-and-clicks-obsessed tabloid detailing the latest celebrity gossip.
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