The 2016 United States Presidential Election ushered in a new era of media coverage, and perhaps influence, for potential Presidential candidates. Not only did the media cover the regular press conferences and speeches, but also past and present social media posts from the candidates. This phenomenon of media influence on political process has been known and studied since the 1960 Presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
Some would argue this era of social media within politics had already begun earlier with President Barack Obama using social platforms to get his messages across. It was the 2016 election that will change the media's coverage of elections forever. The media is defined in this context as print (such as newspaper or magazines), television and radio news bulletins, photographs, and even 'new' media such as Twitter and other social platforms. This article will explore how the media can influence an election result through coverage/non-coverage, bias, and social media, as well as explore the implications of these processes on the political process.
The news media decides what to cover in their programming and what agenda or talking points to include—this is an undeniable fact. A presidential candidate such as Bernie Sanders could easily argue that his unsuccessful election campaign was due to the lack of mainstream media coverage. Compared to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the process of becoming Presidential nominees for their respective parties, the media coverage of Bernie Sanders was severely lacking. This claim was somewhat confirmed in a study by Harvard University in which they discovered that Republican candidates Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson received more mainstream media coverage than Sanders in the 2015 lead up to the nomination. Also, Hillary Clinton (Sanders' direct competition) received three times more coverage than Sanders did during this same period. Although Sanders' coverage increased significantly during the debates, the tone of reports about Sanders was overwhelmingly negative towards the end of 2015.
Sanders himself claimed that corporate media's values and principles are profit driven instead of being an unbiased observer of the political process in the United States. In contrast, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were always seen as the two top-dogs of their respective parties well before the nominees were announced, and their coverage was significantly higher than any other candidate from either party. An interesting observation is the fact that any mainstream media coverage, good or bad, may influence an election result.
Media bias can be hard to determine and observe underneath the scripted presentation and glossy appearance of a news program. Journalists may seem like unbiased observers, but they are often told what and when to report on a certain topic. An example of one news organization that has been routinely accused of bias is Fox News. The media as a whole has shifted towards a model of analysis and opinion, rather than straight news, which can now be found easily with an internet search. Hypothetically, if the owner of a media organization has financial interests in a particular company or business, there will more than likely be no negative coverage of that company at all.
In another study from Harvard University, the mainstream media coverage of President Trump's first 100 days was examined. Fox News had significantly more positive coverage than negative coverage (52% negative coverage compared to 80% negative coverage by other networks). This kind of bias has the power to influence political beliefs and even more importantly, the power to change people's minds when they enter the voting booth. In other academic studies of the media, Fox News viewers have been found to believe outright lies such as the fact Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11. One can also link President Trump's incredibly low approval rating to the constant negative media coverage from other networks besides Fox.
Election candidates now have the power to control their message through social media, bypassing the gatekeepers of the traditional press. The use of platforms such as Twitter allows an individual to maintain their talking points and agenda without being quoted out of context by the news media. In the lead up to any modern-day election, online engagement and media have become increasingly important and influential. Take one look at a major news broadcast today and it is almost a guarantee that a social media post (negative or positive) will be a part of the presentation. Pew Research Center conducted a 2016 study that showed 62% of adults in the United States get the majority of their news from social media. Not only is this worrisome due to the lack of diversity within the Facebook news feed algorithm, but due to this algorithm, the individual will usually receive information that is in line with their current political beliefs. This process is known as an echo chamber and will serve to reinforce views rather than offer new information or alternative methods or ideas.
The consequences of media influence on future elections are very murky and unknown due to the rise and pervasiveness of social media as a reporting and communication tool. These online platforms allow consumers to receive news 24 hours a day which has lead to more of an opinion and commentary based news industry. The fact that candidate for office can directly communicate with their base without leaving the house and creating a theatrical news conference is a massive shift from traditional media practices and routines.
Traditional media coverage remains a critical tool for information, but due to coverage/non-coverage bias, and social media, among other factors, these institutions may have an increasingly less significant role in future elections.