Story by Andra Brichacek. Video by Ryan Lund and Aaron Nelson. Photos by Schaeffer Bonner and Karly DeWees.
Ask Donald Trump and he’ll tell you journalists wield a lot of power over the U.S. political process.
It’s true that the media have played an important role in politics since the First Amendment established freedom of the press as a cornerstone of American democracy. Voters need information to make educated decisions, and it’s journalists’ job to give it to them.
But can the media really alter the outcome of an election?
In addition to widespread voter fraud, which most experts agree would be impossible to accomplish, Trump is alleging the the election has been “rigged” through biased media coverage. Recent shifts in the media landscape have changed how the press interacts with candidates, campaigns and the voting public. And, at a time when trust in the media is at an all-time low, the fourth estate has come under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle for its coverage of the 2016 elections.
To find out what the research says about media’s evolving role in the elections process, we talked to three scholars from the UO School of Journalism and Communication.
1. To cover or not to cover
The first way journalists get involved in elections is by choosing which candidates to cover and how much. Those choices alone can have a huge effect on voter perceptions.
“As hard as it is to believe, the biggest thing that drives elections is simple name recognition,” said Regina Lawrence, executive director of the UO SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center and George S. Turnbull Portland Center. “Research has shown that some candidates can be literally left invisible because they can’t win enough interest from the media.”
Lawrence, a nationally recognized expert on political communication and the co-author of “Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House: Gender Politics and the Media on the Campaign Trail” and “When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina,” said this effect was most noticeable during the Republican primaries, when Trump generated an outsized proportion of the media coverage.
“He was able to get the equivalent of massive advertising buys without having to spend much money,” Lawrence said.
For the media, this disproportionate coverage was driven more by economics than political bias. In a competitive 24/7 news cycle, news organizations publish stories that will drive traffic. And, thanks to his preexisting fame and ability to generate controversy, those stories were often about Trump.
Did all the free press make a difference? Because this year’s Republican primaries had such a large field, Trump’s ability to stand out in the crowd likely played a significant role in his nomination.
2. Bias, scripts and the polarization of America
Research reveals that many major media outlets attract partisan audiences, which reflects political biases in their coverage. Again, this phenomenon is motivated by business: Since today’s news consumers can get the basic facts from a quick internet search, many publications have differentiated themselves by shifting from straight news to context and analysis.
Unfortunately, the media’s growing political schisms seem to be driving polarization in the populace as well.
“Selective exposure is the tendency many of us have to seek out news sources that don’t fundamentally challenge what we believe about the world,” said Lawrence. “We know there’s a relationship between selective exposure and the growing divide in political attitudes in this country. And that gap is clearly related to the rise of more partisan media sources.”
Aside from ideological bias, according to Lawrence, journalists across outlets also perpetuate biased views by distilling complex campaigns and issues into simplified “scripts.”
One popular election-coverage script is the “horserace” or “game frame” narrative. “We know from decades of research that the mainstream media tend to see elections through the prism of competition,” said Lawrence. “Campaigns get covered a lot like sports events, with an emphasis on who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s up, who’s down, how they are moving ahead or behind in the polls.”
The media also perpetuate character-based scripts. “For example, in 2000, the script for Al Gore was that he was a pompous bore, and the script for George W. Bush was that he wasn’t very smart,” said Lawrence.
In this year’s presidential race, the narratives that Clinton is a corrupt politician and Trump is a racist, misogynist outsider have dominated election coverage.
3. Social media: Echo chamber and direct line to the masses
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Americans get their news via social media platforms. What they might not realize is that the news they see is heavily filtered.
“What we see on Facebook is dictated by algorithms that decide what you see based on what you like and dislike, what you comment on and click on,” said SOJC Assistant Professor Nicole Dahmen, who researches and blogs about visual communication and social media in politics. “Rather than getting a diversity of perspectives that contribute to political discourse, we see an echo chamber.”
On the other hand, social media gives users more direct access to candidates than ever before. “With social media, voters may believe they have an intimate relationship with a candidate they will probably never meet in person,” said Lawrence.
And candidates have unprecedented control over the images they present. “Social media allow candidates a direct means by which to communicate with the voting public, thereby bypassing the news media as a gatekeeper,” Dahmen said.
4. A picture is worth 1,000 words
For most people, visuals carry an even more powerful impact than words on a page.
“Visual communication research has shown that images, especially of political candidates, convey emotions, actions, realism and credibility,” said Dahmen. “These images form a lasting impression in the mind of the voting public.”
The photos news organizations choose to publish and such factors as their size and layout can also influence voter perceptions — and reveal possible bias.
“Look at how different newspapers across the country presented the story of the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female candidate from a major party,” said Dahmen. “Some led with a dominant photograph of Hillary that positioned her in a favorable light. Some led with an image of her husband. And other newspapers led with an image of Donald Trump.”
Published images also become part of the permanent record preserved on the internet. “Trump may claim he didn’t mock a reporter with a disability,” Dahmen said, “but we have evidence in the form of a video and photographs showing that he did.”
5. Data journalism: Fact-checking, polls and the self-perpetuating cycle
“Organizations like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org are doing good-quality journalism that isn’t just following the new, shiny story of the day,” Lawrence said. “They’re asking tough questions about what candidates are saying and testing them against the available record. But because of selective exposure, research suggests fact-checks will not necessarily change somebody’s mind.”
While fact-checkers focus attention on the candidates’ stands on the issues, data analysis tools can perpetuate the media’s heavy attention on the horserace.
“One of the most notable developments in the data journalism space are tools to make predictions about the outcomes of elections,” said Damian Radcliffe, the SOJC’s Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism and co-editor of “Data Journalism: Inside the Global Future.” “The most prominent example of this is the work done by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.”
Much of the data Silver crunches come from polls, one of the most common topics of election coverage. “Polls influence voter perceptions,” Lawrence said. “And we know that how candidates are doing in the polls can then influence the type of coverage they get.”
The media flock to the front-runners. And the more coverage those candidates get, the higher they tend to climb in the polls — a dynamic that can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle.
6. Watchdogs of democracy
As of this writing, the story of the 2016 elections is not yet complete — and neither is the media’s role in it.
“Given the claims Trump has been making about rigged elections, I expect journalists to watch voting very carefully,” said Lawrence. “Of course, that’s a very large task with so many polling places across the country.”
To face that challenge, ProPublica has launched Electionland to cover “access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote.” The SOJC is one of 13 J-schools nationwide participating in the project.
“Around 85 students have volunteered to participate in a special newsroom on Election Day,” said Radcliffe, faculty lead for Electionland. “We’ll be monitoring social media to find interesting stories of things happening across the West Coast. If we find issues people are talking about, we’ll try to verify. And if necessary, we’ll escalate them to the newsroom in New York to be explored in more detail.”
At least one thing hasn’t changed: Monitoring the workings of power to deliver the full story to the people is still the most important part of the journalist’s job description.
Andra Brichacek is the SOJC Communication team’s writer and editor. She has nearly 20 years’ experience creating content for print and online media and has specialized in education since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @andramere.
Ryan Lund is a senior double-majoring in cinema studies and journalism, with a minor in business administration. This is his first year as a digital content creator, with a specialization in videography and video editing, for the SOJC Communications office. He has also worked extensively with the Science and Memory project. Follow Ryan on Instagram and Twitter @RynoLund, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at NorthFern Productions.
Aaron Nelson is a senior studying journalism at the SOJC with a focus in photo and multimedia journalism. He currently works as a photographer for the Daily Emerald and has freelanced for KVAL. He has also held previous internships with Scout Recruiting and the music-review website Daily-Beat.
Schaeffer Bonner is a graduate student in the SOJC’s Multimedia Journalism Master’s program at the SOJC in Portland. He previously worked six years as a photojournalist for ABC affiliate KAKE-10 in Wichita, Kansas. His coverage of breaking news has also been featured on ABC NewsOne and World News Now. Schaeffer is a veteran of the United States Air Force.
Karly DeWees is a design intern for the SOJC Communications office. She will be graduating in December 2016 with honors and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in advertising. During her time in the SOJC, she honed her photography skills shooting macro photos in Alaska for the Science and Memory project and local sports games for KVAL.com. You can view her work at karlydewees.com.