If The Post got a nickel every time the media were blamed for the rise of Donald Trump, it probably would have discovered the first workable business model for digital journalism.
Pundits love to make this claim — that the media’s obsessive coverage of the Trump campaign led to his unexpected party nomination and his continued participation in the race. And there certainly is an element of truth to the narrative: As Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) complained on MSNBC last month: “The media gave (Trump) $2 billion worth of free press. I mean, look, you guys have a lot of responsibility for this. You know it, too.”
The media’s failings regarding primary coverage will undoubtedly continue to be discussed throughout the next year — and of course, that’s welcome. These criticisms come at a pivotal moment for journalism: The majority of the public have a smartphone and, consequently, instant access to the news. Given this backdrop, is it time to revisit journalism’s ethical responsibilities when it comes to issues of national importance?
For a long time, the conventional wisdom among political scientists is that the amount of coverage a candidate will get relies on the “rule of anticipated importance” — members of the media try to gauge how much interest the public has in candidates to figure out how important they will be in the future and then divvy up reporting resources accordingly. After all, there’s only so much print space or air time available and only so many reporters to deploy onto the campaign trail.
This line of logic hasn’t changed, but how we gauge public interest has shifted as the focus of media outlets has increasingly moved to their online operations. Suddenly, reporters are in an election cycle where they can automatically see how many readers are clicking through stories. And as might be predicted, the most outrageous ones — like the assertion that immigrants are “bringing drugs … they’re rapists” — get the most clicks.
The concern is that this produces a positive feedback loop: The more readers click on a story, the more likely reporters will be to cover that same candidate — which then pulls in more readership. What does this mean for how people understand the presidential race? Maybe it legitimizes more extreme candidates. Maybe it rallies a candidate’s base against the media for spending too much time on the gaffe of the day. Or maybe the effect is effectively null and pundits are reading too much into what’s happening in the election today.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the argument that Trump was given undue advantage from the media. His media coverage has been overwhelmingly negative, despite jumps in the polls. Plus, it’s important to note that Trump gave the media an extraordinary level of access — and still does. He regularly makes appearances in news interviews — both in person and over the phone — while Hillary Clinton recently reached her 200th day since holding a news conference. As Paul Waldman noted, if elections were decided solely on how much coverage a candidate gets, Trump would be winning big time (which of course, he’s not).
Still, the questions the media needs to consider go beyond election coverage. How much weight should news outlets give reader interest when deciding what to cover? If a story — about Cecil the lion or the color of a dress, for example — generates a lot of discussion, is the media obligated to spend as much time on it as other, more pressing content? And if readers don’t seem to be interested in a story with substance — such as the civil war in Yemen, for example — should outlets assign it fewer resources?
These aren’t new questions by any means, but they become more important as newsrooms shrink and the demand for coverage increases. How will the changing media landscape impact the quality of content? Will important coverage fall through the cracks, especially at the local level? To what extent should consumers be held accountable for how journalism has been transformed?
Over the next few days we’ll hear from: