The Changing Landscape of American Journalism

Woodward and Bernstein
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate Scandal.

Hamby (2013) explains that during elections, journalists need access to  candidates for good reporting and that the mainstream media has become increasingly restricted from this privilege. When reporters spend time with the candidates, they develop richer stories and share “key insights about a candidate” (Hamby, 2013, p. 4) through conversations, body language and other personal observations. Hamby (2013) explains that many news organizations and networks cannot afford to pay journalists and camera crews to follow political campaigns. Additionally, the investment is a gamble if the news organization has the “wrong audience” because Hamby (2013) claims that candidates are more likely to cooperate with organizations that have the biggest audiences or internet traffic. They are also more inclined to work with journalists who will cast them in a positive light.

The digital era is changing the landscape of journalism. The internet allows reporters to send and publish content in a matter of minutes, creating a highly-competitive atmosphere. This means that not only are journalists required to gather information and report stories, they are also expected to be the photographer, camera person, and producer. Hamby argues that digital media platforms like Twitter, Politico, and Buzzfeed, have become increasingly influential with politicians and the American public. As a result, newspapers have been transformed into news organizations that promote a vast array of content through multiple online platforms. Hamby (2013) explains that despite the media’s enhanced ability to publish stories on more platforms than ever, the Pew Research Center found that political candidates and “their allies—spokespeople, cable news surrogates, Super PACs and the like—were the source for about half of the prevailing narratives about the campaigns in the press” (p. 33).

cell phone reporting
News reporting in the Digital Age

There is less incentive for journalists to check the credibility of their sources or stories because there are few, if any, ramifications. Journalists escape responsibility by using disclaimers that they do not endorse their retweets or that their account is personal and not affiliated with their news organization. Hamby believes that these behaviors reflect a decline in journalistic values. Many reporters, having a narrow perspective of a campaign, tend to make small and seemingly insignificant matters into newsworthy events. Restricting journalists from gaining access to politicians significantly limits the the topics they can cover. This has lead to journalists writing about trivial and superficial matters like a candidate’s appearance or sense of fashion. Smart phones allow reporters to discreetly record audio, video, and images, blurring the distinction between ‘on the record’ and ‘off the record’ statements. As a result, politicians are hesitant in trusting members of the press and the competitive nature of journalism continues to pressure reporters  on being the first to break a story. The problem with being first is that it comes with the risk of being incorrect.

This reading made me think of a segment (about 1 minute, 55 seconds into the video) on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver where he exposes the inaccuracies of a Fox News story surrounding the migrant and refugee crisis.

The news station broadcasted a video that depicts refugees on a train singing “Allah is great” with a caption reading “Terrorists Inbound?” During the video’s broadcast, the Fox News anchor explained to the audience that the network is not saying that the individuals shown in the video are terrorists or affiliated with terror groups, but wanted to show how many migrants are Muslim. John Oliver ridicules the disclaimer, arguing that Fox News cannot deny casting the people in the video as terrorists when they deliberately paired it with a caption reading “Terrorists Inbound?” Furthermore, Oliver explains that the video is five years old and was posted on YouTube- before the migrant crisis- in 2010. This means Fox News used outdated footage of a group of Muslim people singing on a train and manipulated the context to create a more sensationalized story. I thought this was a great example of how quickly the mainstream media can report a story without checking their facts or sources. Aside from John Oliver’s segment and other news sources that followed up on the story, I did not find any news showing that Fox News apologized or even commented on their inaccurate and outdated report.

Can we really prevent the media from broadcasting false or misleading information? How can we hold media organizations accountable for the stories they publish? Can you think of an example where a media organization took responsibility for publishing biased or incorrect information? If so, how did they handle the situation?

References

Hamby, P. (2013). Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Discussion Paper Series, 1-95.

Advertisements

The power of narrative in political campaigns

Most in the general public consume political campaign messages ad nauseam as we get closer to an election cycle, but have they stopped to think campaign messages are geared a certain way? The answer is simple: Voters want someone they personally identify and connect with.

According to an article published by The Economist in 2012, the author explains a narrative for a political candidate “…is the emergent product of an informal consensus among journalists and commentators. If each journalist is disposed to tell the story a different way, no consensus will emerge and there will be no one dominant narrative.” Conversely, if they both look at the candidate through the same prism as they are trying to be portrayed, there is a dominant narrative.

During the 2012 United States presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and his campaign staff made sure they avoided the national press corps, who would follow him around wherever he went because they are trying to get some insight behind Romney. They did not want to play into the dominant narrative of Romney being stiff, unrelatable and having the propensity to give the wrong kind of soundbite. According to Loiaconi (2015), a well-crafted television advertisement can move public opinion, but not shift the narrative too much. In today’s world, we let a candidate’s narrative play out social media. Twitter is an effective social tool because of its brief 140-character messages, the public’s propensity to react to every soundbite and the power and influence of hashtags to spark discussions, debates and online communities, according to Shirky (2008).

Hamby (2013) illustrated that as the national press corps’ collective frustrations grew with each avoidance by Romney and his campaign staff, journalists turned to cynicism, thereby mocking the Romney campaign, producing their own hashtags and becoming a part of the narrative the national media was trying to portray about Romney. While countless journalists, including those who were on the campaign trail with Romney in 2012, admitted the might have went too far by essentially inserting themselves into the narrative, it marks a changing of the guard for how campaign narratives are constructed and managed. Loiaconi (2015) explains “[c]ampaign narratives are to some extent driven by the complicated relationship between journalists, their audiences, and the candidates they cover.”

As we look to the 2016 election cycle, every viable candidate and campaign staff are turning to social media to construct and bolster their dominant campaign narrative or narratives. To exemplify this, one only needs to look at presidential candidate Donald Trump. Billed as a political outsider and the vigor to “Make America Great Again”, Trump has been lauded by the left to become a viable candidate in the crowded Republican primary race. No matter what thinks about the legitimacy of his candidacy, campaign or tactics, he has used Twitter quite effectively to get his campaign narrative and platform out there for the world to see. Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor and former consultant in politics credits this to an oversimplification of political communication. Berkovitz explains “Trump tweets something and all of a sudden that’s the scroll bar on cable news for an hour…How pathetic is that? 140 characters and that’s your lead.” Twitter, by its nature, is geared towards producing soundbites in the soundbite culture we live in, as explained by Hamby (2013). It is also true because of the way people want to consume short blurbs of information online, rather than long paragraphs. Short blurbs of concise information are seen as valuable because they are informative and convenient.

Once a candidate’s projected narrative is out there, it is not up them how it is received or whether it takes hold as the dominant narrative. In this way, a candidate’s narrative is akin to a brand’s identity, where it is co-created by the company and the consumer because it is just as much a part of their lives than it is to the company. Nowadays, this is usually negated and mediated through consumer engagement with the brand on the website and on social media. In Trump’s case, this is where his campaign has fallen a bit short. Whether it was Trump’s Twitter fight with a Modern Family writer, Fox News Channel contributor Michelle Malkin or media mogul Arianna Huffington, the feuds and potshots, both directed at him and ones that he fires back, detracts from his campaign’s messages and trivializes his campaign narrative.

How important do you think dominant narratives are to the 2016 presidential candidates?