What we’ve learned about journalism from the US election campaign

This campaign has had the curious distinction of distilling every societal ill, every misguided notion, every petty personal slight, every speck of racism, nationalism, fear, hatred and vitriol into a single event. For the duration of the campaign we’ve seen the parties daring to sink to new lows of questionable moral standards and, in one camp in particular, grasping at facts that are not only not even ‘truthy’, but with so little basis in reality they’ve almost come full circle again. Assessing Hitler’s methods during WWII, the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) wrote, “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” It’s shocking how relevant that line seems today.

At the center of this game of rough and tumble are, of course, those relaying this information and misinformation. This campaign has become the perfect microcosm for the plight of journalism, and just as we’ve been watching with horror as it unfolds, so too have we realized that it has shone a light upon problems inherent in our field, which, if not checked, could become so entrenched as to be dangerous. Pessimists may argue that that ship has sailed, but if we can take anything from this election it’s that never has the thirst for information been more present – or so quickly satiated – as it has been here. Perhaps there’s a desire for information, even if some of that information we’ve seen in the past months has been far from sacrosanct.

Here are some things we’ve noticed.

Who’s advocating support DOES matter

As I started to write this, an interview on Newsnight with Evan Davis and Susan Sarandon had just aired. Sarandon, an actor never shy of speaking her mind on current affairs and social justice issues, is the latest in a series of high-profile people speaking out against the main party candidates and calling on people to look consciously at the alternatives. In the weeks before this, Robert De Niro published a seething attack on Trump, his rage barely contained within the pixels it inhabited. Earlier in the year, Harrison Ford briefly excited conservatives when a photograph surfaced apparently demonstrating his support for the Republican nominee. The picture was, of course, a doctored one, proving once again how easy it is to have an idea, the access to Photoshop and a Twitter account to stir up the political landscape into a barely-digestible soup. Even if the context doesn’t make sense, people will believe it for long enough for it to make an impression.

newsroom-big-1Editorial analytics and the democratization of the newsroom

Last week Digiday reported on the rise of celebrity ‘growth hacking’, the strategy whereby news organizations are paying celebrities to share their content, premised on the idea that those individuals’ social reach is greater than the publications’. “When Mic shared a story about convicted rapist Brock Turner on its own Facebook page,” the article ran “it gathered about 7,700 reactions and was shared 4,400 times. When [George] Takei shared that same story the next day, it got nearly three times as many reactions — over 22,000 — and drove over 5,000 shares.”

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that Ms Sarandon or any of the above are being paid to share articles and soundbites, but rather stressing that in an age where news is spread not only through traditional broadcast and print journalism means but through other less formal channels, the added power of social media can be quite significant.

In simple terms of celebrity endorsements and what they add to the number of people within their respective candidate’s reach on Twitter, Clinton’s vocal celebrity supporters add an additional 195.6 million Twitter followers to her own bullhorn. Trump’s, by comparison, is at ‘just’ 21 million. That’s a lot of people, and that’s a massive responsibility for the people doing the shouting.

Why is this significant? Well, simply put, it’s a matter of credibility.

“Even when [Walter Cronkite] signed off in his final broadcast, I think that broadcast drew 18-20 million viewers. That kind of audience and that kind of trust in a journalist, I can’t imagine that being equalled,” said Doug Anderson, a former director of the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU, last week on what would have been Cronkite’s 100th birthday.

gallup-poll-us-trust-in-journalists-2016

We’re in an age where celebrities often inspire greater degrees of trust than the politicians they endorse – and more, too, than the journalists that report it. We’re used now to seeing those celebrities in multiple contexts, and in doing so often feel we have an insight into their convictions through their other brand associations and their actions. So, when Susan Sarandon and Robert De Niro rail passionately against the main party candidates, many will sit up and listen.

As to what this has to do with journalism and content, well it just makes our job all the more difficult – and yet never so important.

It’s hard to counter emotional reaction and opinion based on gut feeling

You need only cast half an eye over coverage of this election to see the extent that emotive arguments have driven support on both sides of the political divide.

“It is the ethos of Facebook, of virality as the surrogate for knowledge” – Sam Tanenhaus

“It is the ethos of Facebook, of virality as the surrogate for knowledge,” observed Sam Tanenhaus in an excellent article for Prospect recently. Political arguments, evidence-based claims, and, yes, reason all seem to take a back seat if somebody has a strong emotional response to an issue, and this being the case, it is extremely difficult to engage in meaningful discussion or hold any hope of reversing opinion with them.

The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper attended a Trump rally during the campaign and spoke with various supporters of the Republican nominee. Judicious editing and satirical context aside, the worrying point of the section was that the people interviewed for it professed quite happily to have no interest whatsoever in any hard facts: their minds were made up, no questions needed.

Even accounting for the nature and remit of the show in question, and even accepting that those views may not be representative of the Republican body politic at large, it’s nevertheless evident that in certain situations, the public may well have had – as British politician Michael Gove, has said – “enough of experts”. They’ve abandoned any pretence of a continuous narrative, even in the face of blatant contradiction, as one Trump supporter at a rally uttered supportive words about Mr Trump’s wife, Melania: “She’s an immigrant. To me, that means that Donald Trump doesn’t care if you were born in America”. Even if you only pay cursory attention to Trump’s attacks on President Obama, you’ll certainly be familiar with his dogged assertion that the current president may be hiding something about his birth certificate – it’s pick and choose politics run amok, and among Trump’s more vocal and hardened supporters, people don’t seem to have a problem with that.

“Consistency of information has taken a back seat to emotive reasoning, even when those contradictions and inconsistencies are inches from your nose”

This isn’t intended to poke fun at campaign inconsistencies, but to drive home a point: consistency of information has taken a back seat to emotive reasoning, even when those contradictions and inconsistencies are inches from your nose. In an interview on BBC’s World At One radio show, the novelist Marilynne Robinson commented that these people, “have poured their indignation into the sort of vessels that were waiting,” and it’s hard to put it more plainly than that: what we’re seeing are people pinning their colors to the nearest mast that matches, content and accuracy be damned.

Confirmation bias does nothing to promote inter-political dialogue and discussion, but it does pay well

“The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.” Wise words from The New York Times’ Emma Roller in an article recently, and something that probably rings true for anyone getting their campaign updates from a social media feed, where it can sometimes be difficult to find any arguments or articles countering your own views (or the views of the articles you’ve been reading).

The dangerous precedent that this has set is, as Ken Stern wrote in Vanity Fair this week, that publishers, in their need to satisfy audience appetites, will increasingly be drawn to stories that cement, rather than challenge their audience’s world view. Risk of deviating from this sure-fire win is likely only to lose them valuable readers, and as we all know, attention is the most prized attainment of any newspaper.

“The best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters”

There’s another potential issue here too: just as anyone sitting at the large table in a publishing company must keep an eye on the bottom line, so too are other observers of reader habits noticing that there’s money to be made in creating content to quench the thirst for articles that support those world views.

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In Veles, Macedonia, entrepreneurial spirits are cottoning onto the fact that there’s money to be made from peddling the kind of the stories that the folks in the above video might find engaging. “Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.” Here, as reported on Buzzfeed, 140 American political websites have been launched within the past year, all hoping to capitalize on the Trumpsian thirst for the preposterous and the unsubstantiated. They’re in no way wedded to the idea of politics as the modus operandi: they just notice that it generates a revenue stream and once this falls away, like all good reactionaries, they’ll try something else.

It’s time to reexamine the responsibilities of journalists and the remit of journalism in general

There is surely no coincidence that writing for the overriding purpose of revenue and the sharp decline and distrust in journalism are inextricably linked.

“It’s as if somehow their propensity for facts and the truth detracts from some kind of authenticity”

Much of the rhetoric coming from the Trump camp has been along the lines that, somehow, fact-checking only furthers an establishment agenda: an establishment who cannot and should not be trusted, as if somehow their propensity for facts and the truth detracts from some kind of authenticity. Ken Stern, who is in fact the CEO of NPR and may well have opinions worth listening to concerning the state of the media, has stated: “Many media consumers now perceive our political struggle as being disputed between establishment members and outsiders, somewhat divorced from political perspective.”

A photo by Vladimir Kudinov. unsplash.com/photos/KBX9XHk266sAnalytics vs editorial gut instinct: which should we trust?

The particularly troublesome part of the current backlash against the media, the general tone of the campaign and the degree of partisan political fervor is – in a perverse twist of fate – partly a result of the media itself. Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Milwaukee who acknowledges the conservative media’s influence in the anti-Hillary press, says: “at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there”. He’s right: Trump’s persistence in claiming that the ‘mainstream media’ – The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal – are somehow riding around in Clinton’s corrupt pocket might sound, to many, like the desperate, petty cries of a man losing his grip on the Presidential race, but tellingly it also belies another truth, that for a part of the population those claims start to echo their own feelings of social injustice and a disconnect with those wielding the power to change.

The only way back is surely a slow one. The pernicious combination of confirmation bias and money has to be overturned and it’s not going to be particularly easy for the people who’ve come to enjoy that particular revenue stream. The same public who bay for transparency, apparently feel repelled by it when it’s presented to them in news form, criticizing it for being too mainstream, too much a tool of the establishment. But at its very core, journalism is surely about telling stories which need to be heard – particularly if they have been muted, for whatever reason. The idea that skirting an issue so as to avoid criticism – or even more simply – to avoid a low level of page views, and publish something instead that appeals to a baser, emotive instinct, sits badly with this writer for sure. We quoted Joe Amditis on these pages a while ago, and his thoughts bear repeating now: the remit of journalism is “to find and tell the stories nobody’s even thinking about yet”. Of course there are revenue streams to think about, and with the report in The New York Times that several leading papers are having to initiate some fairly radical staff changes, thinking in terms of ‘product’, though anathema to the idealistic reporter, is now a harsh reality.

“But what is product, really?” asks Jeff Jarvis. “It’s editorial. It’s making what we give to the public. It’s advocating for and serving the public. It’s building trust and value with the public.”

What we should have in common, surely, is a healthy regard for due process, accuracy and analysis. Let us be unimpeachable, even if the opposition is baying for the impeachment of the other’s candidate.

In the meantime, for Pete’s sake, just get out and vote.

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