Since the First Amendment established freedom of the press as a keystone to American democracy, the media has increasingly played an integral and defining role on the political landscape.
Knowledge is power, so goes the old adage. Voters rely on educated guessing a great deal in an election cycle and the media’s job, in principle, is to serve up objective information in aid of the selection process.
However, practice and reality don’t always meet amicably. Even in principle, objectivity is a lofty goal at the best of times but never more so today. When many journalists, news anchors, opinionated talk-show hosts – all those that dominate airwaves barely bother to conceal glaring bias; and when largely unregulated social media platforms act as disrupters in society by allowing filtered and unverified news to slip in between the cracks, creating echo chambers wherein political discourse and diversity of opinions cease to exist.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that trust in the media is at an all-time low? That social media companies have come under fire for the unconscionable disregard of their social responsibility.
In the debate whether media can influence the elections, there’s plenty of evidence that it most certainly can.
Coverage of mainstream media is one of the first ways media has influenced elections in the past and still continues to do so. Coverage is key, specifically which candidate it chooses to cover predominantly irrespective of whether that coverage is positive or negative. And no candidate, arguably, has understood how to better manipulate this dynamic than president Donald Trump. Taking advantage of it in 2016 and continuing to do so ahead of the 2020 US Elections.
Regina Lawrence, executive director of the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Centre and author of Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House: Gender Politics and the Media on the Campaign Trail, puts it quite simply down to name recognition.
“As hard as it is to believe, the biggest thing that drives elections is simple name recognition,” said Lawrence. Adding that “research has shown that some candidates can be left literally invisible because they can’t win enough interest from the media.”
Lawrence notes this effect as being most noticeable during the 2016 Republican primaries, when Trump generated the lion’s share of media coverage, which in reality is the equivalent of massive advertising buys without actually investing money directly into any advertising.
One can argue whether coverage is inherently motivated by bias or economics, the latter of which encompasses TV ratings and viewership that is intrinsically fundamental in a networks’ business model. But an undercurrent to that debate is the obvious rise of partisan media, making sweeping in-roads in recent years with polarising political bias in its coverage.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who’s recently slipped in the race to the White House according to the oddsmakers, is repeatedly being portrayed as “senile” and “incompetent” with media outlets favorable to the Trump administration. Some are going so far as to float the idea he’s a radical “leftist” that will destroy America and the principles it stands for.
On the flipside, Trump, who’s nosing ahead of Joe Biden in the odds to win the 2020 US Elections, for the first time since early June, is being described as “unfit” for the presidency and an “ogre” and “bully.”
More recently, the narrative has taken a decidedly sinister twist, as accusations of “racism” have even been levied at the president on account of his controversial response to the on-going social upheaval and Black Lives Matter protests.
When the media sings from the same hymn sheet, perpetuating provocative narrative, and indulges in character-assassinations, the ramifications are bound to have political significance.
Furthermore, the media often exacerbates the juxtaposing ideologies of both parties and their respective candidates by portraying the process of electioneering as some kind of a sports competition. aided along by numerous national polls trotted out to show where a candidate stands in the eyes of the public and, in turn, the race.
“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,” said Lawrence.
Finally, social media is a platform that is open to everyone, including political candidates. It’s no secret Donald Trump is active on social media, firing Tweets at regular intervals and engaging with his base as well as the wider public, though it may be to his detriment as calls to ban Trump from Twitter are growing.
But a recent study revealed that American’s are turning more frequently to social media for their daily dose of news, which is a whole other kettle of fish as far as media goes. What news – if it can even be called such because of the overwhelming amount of subjective content floating in its ethers – is viewed on social media is largely influenced by algorithms rather than a concentrated objective dissemination of current news. That in itself has a controlling effect in manipulating the flow of conversation.
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