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Media organizations face new challenges in covering 2016 election

The pervasiveness of social media, the influence of entertainment- and pop culture, and the push into heretofore uncharted territory have made media coverage of the 2016 presidential election particularly challenging. Image via Flickr

In an election cycle where the media have routinely been called out—blamed either for the rise of Republican nominee Donald Trump or for colluding with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign—many news organizations find themselves facing new challenges in covering the candidates.

At the most recent Myra Kraft Open Classroom discussion, held Wednesday evening and titled, “Covering the election: The role of old and new media,” School of Journalism professors Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey joined Department of Communications Studies professor Carole Bell to make the case that there are several factors that have made coverage of this election unlike any other.

‘The media have a Trump problem’

“The press knows how to handle a typical campaign,” Kennedy said, referring to the 2012 matchup between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and the 2008 clash between Obama and John McCain. “We have a very hard time, however, figuring out how to do balance when there is an asymmetry between the candidates.

“The media have a Trump problem,” he said more bluntly, “and that is, the modern form of political journalism, based on the notion of fundamental balance, cannot work when one candidate is unqualified for reasons of background, temperament, and truthfulness.”

The events of this election cycle, particularly the candidates’ performances during the two debates thus far, have served to illustrate that “Trump has broken the media system,” Kennedy said, quoting New York University media critic Jay Rosen.

The uniqueness of the campaigns has left news organizations with a series of questions they must now answer for themselves, namely, whether to call out candidates if they lie, Kennedy said. “Do we call them lies? It’s problematic because we don’t really know what’s going on in [candidates’] hearts and minds, but we have seen some use of the L-word in this campaign, because when [a falsehood] is pointed out over and over again it must be deliberate at a certain point,” he said.

The modern form of political journalism, based on the notion of fundamental balance, cannot work when one candidate is unqualified for reasons of background, temperament, and truthfulness.
—Dan Kennedy, School of Journalism professor

Citing some of the country’s earliest news outfits as examples, Kennedy also considered whether America should move back to “a more partisan press,” where media companies operate under explicit bias.

‘The cult of celebrity’

According to the experts who spoke on Wednesday, Trump’s candidacy is relatively unmatched in recent decades for reasons beyond his nontraditional campaign.

Bell, who studies the function of pop culture in this election, said, “Entertainment and pop culture are playing a really central role here.”

Referring to a recently unearthed 2005 recording during which Trump can be heard speaking lewdly about women to TV personality Billy Bush, Bell said, “The Billy Bush tape only exists because Donald Trump has been a celebrity for so long. The cult of celebrity made him, and now it’s also threatening to unmake him.”

Before Trump, the only other candidate to rival his particular celebrity status was actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan in 1981, Bell said.

Trump’s success can be attributed in part to a perfect storm of cultural shifts, Bell said, including a proliferation of media platforms and channels, the consolidation of media ownership, and the budgetary squeeze many news organizations now feel.

“The effect of all this is that traditional media and newspapers don’t have the same gatekeeping power they used to have; that’s really been diffused,” she said. “That division between entertainment and news is no longer something we can cling to.”

Additionally, the ratings bump many news outlets got when airing Trump-related content early in the race created a situation where he earned “a record-setting $2 billion worth of free media coverage during the primaries,” Bell said. In February alone, he received $400 million worth of free media coverage, which is equivalent to what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 campaign, according to Bell.

Going direct: Tweets are news

The way information is consumed now is also changing from elections past, something that Wihbey said campaigns are harnessing.

The Billy Bush tape only exists because Donald Trump has been a celebrity for so long. The cult of celebrity made him, and now it’s also threatening to unmake him.
—Carole Bell, Department of Communications Studies professor

“The Trump and Clinton campaigns are strategically focusing on going direct,” as historically social sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook “are becoming mature, and becoming legitimate channels of communication,” he said.

Wihbey cited Pew Research Center data that show roughly one-third of young adults reported learning about the election mostly through social media, while the most popular source for adults older than 29 was the more traditional cable news.

As information is disseminated among greater numbers of platforms, though, both campaigns and news organizations “are finding it difficult to capture eyeballs in any consistent way for any consistent length of time,” Wihbey said.

The best way to cut through the noise, he noted, is to respond immediately to events and developments, a practice that creates a “constant cycle of churn” in the news.

He later pointed out that the increasing reliance on social media may have negative long-term implications. “It has inarguably put a new set of people and groups onto these platforms, and many people have been worried about the degree of harassment, the degree of hate speech proliferating on these platforms,” Wihbey said. “There’s no doubt this is happening. As a society we need to figure it out because the genie is out of the bottle.”

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