Election 2016 Lesson for the Media: New Journalistic Norms Needed to Cover Elections

MPSA blog - New Journalistic Norms Needed to Cover Elections

The 2016 U.S. presidential election will stand out in the nation’s collective memory as a highly unusual event for many reasons. It featured two unique candidates, an election campaign that completely overturned the norms set by previous elections, a neglected voter base that showed an unexpectedly strong turnout at the polls, and a national media that missed a huge story.

The media, in particular, have received severe criticism for the role they played in promoting Donald Trump. Faced with a candidate who did not fit the traditional mold of a politician, mainstream media organizations struggled to come up with a plan that would help journalists inform the public while maintaining journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness and balance. Unfortunately, the existing rules of political journalism that favor controversy and poll-centric coverage did not help paint an accurate picture of Trump’s preparedness; instead they helped him win the presidency.

Throughout the campaign, Trump proved to be too much for the media to handle. Right from the primaries season, he made one outrageous comment after another. Given the lack of precedent for inserting commentary into straight news stories, the media simply reported his quotes as facts. Each comment drew enormous amounts of press attention, and when Trump drew criticism for his comments, his campaign issued denials, sparking off another deluge of press coverage. This strategy was hugely successful. During the 2015 campaign season, Trump’s media coverage translated into the equivalent of $55 million worth of ad value for his campaign. In contrast, he spent less than $15 million in ad buys in all media throughout 2015.

Another factor that favored Trump’s campaign was the media’s propensity to cover elections using horserace and game frames. Stories using these frames focus on candidates’ poll numbers and have little accompanying commentary. They are popular because they are less expensive and easier to produce than investigative or long form journalism pieces, but their inclusion comes at the expense of stories focusing on candidates’ issue positions. Given the media’s preference for horserace coverage and with Trump winning primaries and surging ahead in the polls, the resulting media coverage focused almost entirely on Trump and was either positive or neutral in tone throughout 2015. Between June and December of last year, Trump received 34 percent of media coverage, while all other GOP candidates received half this amount or lesser coverage.

After Trump won the Republican nomination in the summer of 2016, several media organizations began looking into his personal and business affairs in greater depth. The result was a series of articles on his failed business ventures, fraud allegations, racism, and his appalling attitude towards women. However, fearing they would be perceived as partisan and biased, the media tried to create a balance in coverage by publishing equal amounts of criticism on the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. They focused on one particular flaw—her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. The result was a flood of media coverage on this issue, which created a false equivalency between the two candidates and portrayed them as equals, though they differed vastly in terms of temperament and experience.

Looking back at the media’s role in the election year, critics have made several suggestions to improve political reporting. First, given the unconventional nature of the Trump candidacy, the media should invest heavily in fact checking and run these as part of daily news coverage on the White House. Second, newspapers should make a consistent effort to include diversity of race, gender, and class in their newsrooms. This will help counter the “coastal bias,” which was a huge factor in causing the media to miss the surge among white working class Trump supporters. Finally, the media should gear up to report on what the president is actually trying to do, rather than focus on his populist tweets, and rally together to resist efforts to delegitimize the press. 

About the Author: Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.

 

Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

Our article – Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information (Now PAR 2015) – is one of a series of three related pieces of research focused on the structural politics of independent agencies. This line of research is part of the Shrinking the State project and set in the context of a reform agenda of the recent UK coalition government (2010-2015). The public policy and public administration questions we address are broadly applicable: in any democratic setting, there is some kind of link between voters and their policy demands, politicians seeking to win elections, and government agencies tasked with producing policy outputs. The elected politicians can, in circumstances dependent on the specific national institutional arrangements, modify the structure of the administrative state. The study of structural politics is all about the consequences of those decisions.

Why “Mass Reorganization”?
Our work fits broadly into the literature on agency termination. This literature is largely American-centric and reflects the question Kaufman (1976) famously asked: “are government organizations immortal”? Recent scholarship (see: Lewis 2002) suggests that they are not, even in the US; rather, agencies are thought to face a hazard of termination over some period of time. Nevertheless, agency termination remains something of a rare event in an American separation-of-powers context relative to what can happen in a high accountability system like the UK.

The British coalition government in 2011 put together a reform proposal comprehensively examining about 400 independent agencies, ultimately removing independence (absorbing into a government department or terminating the function entirely) for 32 percent of them. Making decisions about this many agencies all at once (a “bonfire of the Quangos”) involves termination decisions of a different magnitude than what we have seen in an American context. Thinking through what might be different about these cases can provide useful insights into structural politics across different types of political systems.

Why “Media Attention”?
A decision about agency independence is fundamentally tied to the politics of accountability. A decision to remove independence increases the identification of the government with the outcomes in that policy area. Even if an agency is terminated entirely (removing not just the agency’s independence but also ending functional performance), the government remains responsible for outcomes in that policy domain. Media attention is one way voters can know that an agency exists and get some sense of what it might do. We should expect politicians to think about the media salience, and salience with some particular audiences, of any particular agency when making these kinds of decisions.

Why a “Paradox”?
As media salience increases, we argue that the termination decisions should be less systematic. An agency’s salience with partisan audiences – core or opposition supporters, and those willing to swing either way – should directly impact the political decision, as one might expect. Nevertheless, a high media profile, rather than making outcomes more predictable as information becomes readily available, can actually disrupt the normal way governments learn about agencies; it is one thing if the minister hears about the agency from the professional civil servants, and another if the minister has been reading about the agency in the morning in the newspaper (as any devotee of Yes, Minister well knows).

What can we learn?
Particularly for practitioners, and scholars working in other areas, there may be a tendency to assume that governments simply kill off agencies that do things they do not like. The view we present is more complicated. Given the considerable freedom of choice of governments in high accountability systems like the UK, we see that the predictability of the outcomes changes with total media salience. This suggests that the government is considering carefully, although less systematically, the consequences of their choices with the most commonly mentioned agencies.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Anthony M. Bertelli is a Professor of the Politics of Public Policy and J. Andrew Sinclair is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Public Service at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. Their paper “Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information” was recognized at the 2016 MPSA Conference with the Best Paper in Comparative Policy Award sponsored by the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice (JCPA) and International Comparative Policy Analysis Forum.

Social Media: Great Campaign Tool, but Bad News for Democracy

By now, we have all read about and analyzed Donald Trump’s (in)famous Cinco de Mayo tweet, which featured a picture of him grinning broadly while eating a taco bowl, with the following tweet: “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” Twitter and other media outlets reacted swiftly to the tweet, mostly ridiculing Trump and criticizing his attempt to reach out to Hispanic voters. With his characteristic insult, Trump managed to win yet another news cycle and add to the nearly $2 billion free media advantage he has gathered so far.

 

Trump’s not-so-subtle outreach effort and the publicity it gathered, is an example of the evolving tactics of campaigns in an election year that some media outlets have labeled the “social media election.” Media reports cite polls showing that more and more people are keeping up with the election via social media. Polls also show that twice the number of registered voters follow politicians on social media as compared to 2010. Scholars have found evidence that campaigns are taking advantage of these trends and using social media, especially Twitter, to fundraise, spread information about their candidates, spar with opponents, control the media agenda, and organize volunteers and activists.

Though studies on the impact of social media on elections have found that social media has limited impact on election outcomes, candidates continuously use Twitter as a campaign tool. Election tweets mainly focus on information—facts, issues, opinion and news—and attempt to portray the candidate as an everyday, relatable person. Along with positive, image-building tweets, campaign tweets often use heavy attack appeals, usually juxtaposed with links to external media outlets, to add credibility to these negative tweets.

While social media is undoubtedly helpful for candidates who have low name recognition (usually challengers), these social media campaigns come with a set of unique drawbacks. Platforms like Twitter, where comments trend for very short amounts of time, tend to favor extrovert candidates. Twitter favors candidates who can make the most outrageous comments. Instead of knowledgeable opinions based on facts, Twitter statements are designed to provoke the most number of reactions from followers and journalists.

In fact, social media campaigns may not be beneficial for democracy. Take the example of political discussion. A healthy democracy depends on a free marketplace of ideas. Though Twitter gives users the illusion of interactivity and connectedness with the world, a large portion of this connection and interactivity is scripted and tightly controlled by campaigns. Since campaign managers aim to maintain a tight control on their message, they avoid engaging in genuine deliberation with citizens over social media, as this would make them lose control of the message and force the candidate to take firm policy positions. On one hand, Twitter enables candidates to connect directly with citizens, thereby helping message to reach citizens without the involvement of a third party, but on the other hand, deliberation, if any, remains superficial and confined to 140 characters.

Social media campaigns also minimize the impact of the media’s fact checking function. Candidates can simply ignore the media’s fact checking attempts and repeat erroneous messages to their followers on social media. In an age of increasing polarization and media fragmentation, this could widen the gap between voters on each side and lead to further negativity and loss of political efficacy.

About the Author:  Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.

 

Tough Enough? National Security Issues Could Affect the 2016 U.S. Presidential Race

MPSA_NationalSecurity
NEW YORK CITY – MARCH 2, 2016: Hillary Rodham Clinton affirmed her status as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nominations with a speech at Jacob Javits Center.

Following the November 2015 Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks, and the more recent bombings in Brussels and Pakistan, terrorism threats and national security issues have become one of the most talked about topics in the presidential elections. While Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have hardened their rhetoric and called for bans on Muslim immigrants, increased vigilance in Muslim neighborhoods, and torture for extracting information, Hillary Clinton has maintained a starkly different approach. In her speeches, she has called for reinforcing alliances with other nations, asked for help from the technology sector in fighting terrorism, and expressed sympathy for the victims of the attacks. Her calm, reasoned tone is in sharp contrast to the provocative and incendiary language used by the Republican candidates. This raises the question whether Clinton’s strategy of restraint is useful.

Research on women in politics indicates that when national security issues are at the forefront, voters tend to prefer men candidates to women. As Holman et al. (2016) find, voters show most preference for male Republican leadership and least preference for female Democratic leadership. Anxiety and fear about terrorism encourages voters to employ a gender stereotypic lens to evaluate candidates. According to the gender stereotypes literature, the office of the president is generally considered “male” because historically no woman has ever held the office, and issues such as national security, foreign policy, economy and employment that are associated with the office, are considered male areas of expertise. During times of fear and uncertainty, voters tend to prefer the agentic qualities associated with men than the empathic qualities associated with women.

The Republican Party has often used these stereotypes to their advantage. For example, in the 2014 midterm elections in Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina, the party aired about 60 terrorism related ads, targeted mostly at women Democrat rivals. Similarly, Trump’s ad juxtaposed images of Russian president Vladimir Putin behaving in a threatening manner with Clinton’s femininity to indicate that Clinton is weak and unfit for office solely because of her gender.

Research indicates that women candidates suffer a “double bind” that hinders them from employing toughness in their speech or actions. When women act tough, they’re punished for violating gender stereotypes, but when they hold off on the tough talk, they’re perceived as incompetent.

So far Clinton’s strategy has been to portray herself as a viable alternative to the Republican candidates. Unlike the typical woman candidate, she is a well-known political figure who has held office, established her foreign policy credentials, and enjoys the mainstream media’s support. In her speeches she has been promoting her experience and foreign policy credentials, criticizing her rivals from the Republican Party without using provocative rhetoric, and focusing on finding solutions. This could be an effective strategy in combating stereotypes. Indeed, recent research indicates that gender stereotypes do not hurt the electoral chances of women candidates as much as indicated in previous studies. While the GOP is embroiled in public shows of sexism and irresponsible bluster, voters could perceive Clinton as a welcome alternative. Terrorism and the GOP’s gender war could translate into a win for Clinton.

About the Author:  Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.