Which news sources are the most trustworthy? This seems like a simple question – but in the fake news era, things haven’t been so straightforward. As a result, the public’s level of trust in mass media has fallen to a low of just 32%.
Examining The Trust Spectrum
A new survey helps shed more light on the state of trust in media, revealing the attitudes of 8,728 people in the United States. Administered through 28 media outlets in local markets around the country, the survey asked respondents how trusting they are of the media, whether they financially support news organizations, and which outlets are the most (and least) trustworthy.
Here are results to the question about trustworthiness of specific news sources:
Before we dive into the results, it’s worth noting that respondents were self-selected and tend to skew to the liberal side of the political spectrum. More on this later in the post, but keep it in mind.
High Trust, Low Trust
According to the survey respondents, The Economist is the most trustworthy news source in media.
On the far opposite side of the spectrum? It’s Occupy Democrats, an extreme left advocacy group that claims to be the “new counterbalance to the Republican Tea Party”.
Interestingly, both The Economist and Occupy Democrats have close to the same amount of Facebook likes (8.2 million vs. 6.7 million), which shows that despite polar opposite perceptions, people are willing to grant an audience to both groups.
Also scoring well for trust included outlets such as Reuters, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Guardian. Meanwhile, bad trust scores went to Buzzfeed, Breitbart, Infowars, Yahoo, and The Huffington Post.
Trust By Political Skew
It’s also worth breaking down respondents into groups based on political orientation, to see what differences this can point out regarding trust and the level of financial support being provided to news organizations.
On the following graph, the X-axis shows age groups, while the Y-axis shows levels of trust (higher is more), as well as the number of news organizations respondents claim to financially support (higher is more).
For people that identify as liberals or moderates, trust of news outlets is positively correlated with age. Interestingly, for conservatives, trust in media starts low and seems to decrease with age.
As mentioned earlier, although the sample size was big (>8,000), there are a few biases worth noting:
- Survey respondents were not randomly selected, and voluntarily filled out the survey.
- Survey respondents tended to be geographically near the 28 local newsrooms that made the survey available on their websites.
- In terms of political orientation, the audience skews towards liberals. (See below diagram).
And while the audience may not be fully representative of the American public, the survey definitely does provide interesting insight on trust in media.
The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with Occident. It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no fucking idea what’s going on. But journalistic groupthink is a symptom, not a cause. And when it comes to the cause, there’s another, blunter way to think about the question than screaming bias and conspiracy.
The national media really does work in a bubble, something that wasn’t true as recently as 2008. And the bubble is growing more extreme. Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political. If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a leftist county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most leftist counties.
In a sense, the media bubble reflects an established truth: The places with money get served better than the places without. People in big media cities aren’t just more liberal, they’re also richer: Half of all newspaper and internet publishing employees work in counties where the median household income is far greater than the national median. Commercial media tend to cluster where most of the GDP is created, and that’s the coasts. This is what people hollering about when they denounce the corporatist global media. If current trends continue, and it’s safe to predict they will, national media will continue to expand and concentrate on the coasts, while local and regional media contract.
Lügenpresse lying press is the main source of fake news. There is something wrong with the media, internationally. In Great Britain, they were unable to listen to British people who wanted to Brexit. In the US, they were unable to listen to American people who wanted Trump. The media and journalists stigmatized and labeled the majority of the people idiots and racists.
It is necessary to understand how the media works. First, it is important to abandon conspiracy theories. Many pseudo-experts explain the lack of diversity, the one-sided orientation of information, by pointing to a supposedly oligarchic concentration of TV channels and newspapers in a few hands. This may sometimes be part of the problem, but only marginally. Media corporation owners want content that they can monetize, and much of the time they might not even care about the content. They just want an audience, as big as possible. In the manner of the adage that money does not smell, one might add that the audience has no content.
Journalists live with the daily fear of being not good enough. In this very competitive job, professional recognition comes with scoops and sensational information. To be published on the front page of your own newspaper, to open the news on your own television program, you must bring the killer news, the news that kills all others, and, more importantly, the news that all other media will copy and paste. If you are not that type of journalist, if you are interested in nuance, you do not exist on television, and are relegated to the inside pages of a newspaper, preferably at the bottom.
Good journalists bring killer news, and killer news creates The Trend. Once The Trend is created — that a politician is insane or racist, for example — it is useless to write anything different. The only choice is to join the swarm and bring news that will prove that he is “in fact” even more insane and racist than he was the day before.
In a world where the audience is fragmented between the internet, social media, newspapers, radio and television, the “good,” recognized, journalists are obsessed with creating the hound pack of the day and then enjoying the status of top dog. The more forms of media there are, the more journalists are in competition — inside the same organization and among other forms of media — to print or air the same information. Because in hound-pack logic, there can be only one news item a day — repeated and reprinted infinitely.
The more the competition between journalists and different forms of media, the more information gets homogenized. The competition is not for differentiated information, but for deadline: each journalist is running be the first to bring back the information that all his competitors will have no choice but to reprint and repeat.
Google, Facebook and hundreds of television stations and newspapers are actually fighting for our available time and our attention. The available time is the time not devoted to work, to driving, and to family: a few hours a day. It is a zero-sum game: each second on Facebook is stolen from a newspaper or television station. This fierce competition for our attention dramatically has changed the way information is produced, in television, then in newspapers.
The more sensational the television news, the larger the audience you get. Transposed to the press, this became: The more sensational the news, the more it is considered relevant. Sensational here means a strategy of packaging headlines and news in a way to mobilize attention and emotion.
We are caught in a frenzy logic amplified by the digital revolution. The reign of emotions is the advent of a society plagued by “emotional captivity, a sensory stimulation… continuum — visual, audio — that mobilizes our emotions at the expense of our thinking. For television and the press, this emotional captivity led to information is not what is important to the reader, but what can attract attention of the greatest number of readers. For the press, what is fit to print is not what is relevant, but what is new and what might please a crowd. If you read the headlines of daily newspapers, it is striking to see that they align with the logic of TV. There is a hierarchy of information that is not necessarily the same as that of television, but that follows the same principle… This does not mean that they are the same topics covered, but the approach is similar. I’ll take a famous one that concerned me — it’s not narcissistic but typical. You had a little column on an attack in Jerusalem. But the biggest title, about the new intellectual reactionaries, majestically occupied the central square of the front page. An attack in Jerusalem is routine! It is important, but we are used to it. While the new reactionary is a new topic, exciting.
This obsession was accelerated by the internet, which has immediacy. About ten years ago, the new breed of digital publishers started to change the news cycle’s pace. Speed and reactivity became the norm. Spurred by a fear of falling behind, under pressure from advertisers and readers, legacy media jumped on that train.
At the newsroom level, no one was thoughtful enough to understand that obsessing over clicks and producing value added news might not be compatible. By the same token, those in charge of the revenue side, waving eloquent Excel spreadsheets, convinced everyone that the page views churn machine actually printed money. They were comforted by sales teams that found much easier to sell eyeballs — regardless of the quality of the brain attached to it, than to demand higher prices for higher quality. Instead of thinking in terms of long term value-building, the ad community embraced the simplistic idea of valuing traffic above audience. This turned out to be an unfortunate choice: both the sell-side and the buy-side realized (too late) that a set of machines were thousands time better at selling and optimizing ad space than a bunch of conventional sales people working from an old-fashioned playbook.
To be The First to Publish the Same News, it is not necessary to hire people from Harvard. You just need to be young, ambitious, and accept a low salary for an extremely competitive job. The only hope in this profession is to become a star. The media is like Hollywood: millions apply, few are chosen. But there is a consequence: because they are young, they often do not take time to evaluate information, think and become cultivated. Because they have to compete against colleagues both inside the same form of media and in other forms of media, they need to move fast and they need to be sensational. Intelligence by itself does not pay.
Journalists are busy with power (political, economic, institutional, cultural). They are busy with prominent people able to do things — people in charge. Powerful people in charge make news. A sentence from the President, the merger of two multinational companies, a murder in the street after a robbery, the latest Hollywood movie, the latest bestseller book… and journalists are overly busy with political consequences of the President’s declarations, the economic consequences of the merger, the police statements after the murder, etc. And day after day, it is, in a way, the same story.
In this system, the media cannot pay attention to the less-prominent, less-visible people. The media do not talk to people on welfare, they do not notice the desertification in France, for instance, or the concentrations of population in big cities. Power lies in big cities and media likewise. Poverty can make a headline when data are officially released, but who cares about what poor people think? They are not in a position to change things, except if they use guns or find a leader and organize themselves in a way to catch attention. In the case of revolt only, they become an element of power, and if they do not, they stay off the radar.
The problem begins when people not on the radar become the majority of the population, and when this majority become dissidents. Then, when the invisible people (in the media sense of the term) engage in the democratic process and protest with a vote, it sounds like a bomb: No one saw it coming! No one could have predicted it!
In Germany, France, Britain, the United States and all big economies, globalization has produced the same consequences. Each of these countries has been divided in two: a network of big wealthy globalized cities vs. poor, downgraded and de-industrialized small cities and rural areas.
The peripheral America who voted Trump stick to the de-industrialized and rural areas, which are also the America of the workers, employees, independent workers or peasants. Those people were yesterday in the heart of the economic machine from where they were banished… France is becoming an American society; there is no reason to escape to the adverse effects of the economic model of globalization.
The network of big and wealthy cities relegated poor white people to the margins of the society, but the same big-city network integrated well millions of immigrants who accepted undesirable jobs and poor housing. Paradoxically, immigrants had a better possibility of finding a good job in big cities than white workers in small cities, especially when the only employer of the area was closing his doors because he could not compete with products coming from China. The real ghetto is not the one you think.
The perception of the dominant classes — journalists above all — is reduced to their immediate field of vision. What remains today of the common classes in big cities are immigrants living in the suburbs, which is to say minorities: in France, they are immigrants from the Maghreb and Africa; in the United States they are rather blacks and latinos.
In globalized countries, poor people of color have replaced poor whites. They replaced them not only in the economy, but also in terms of representation of the poor, as if there are no — or only few — desperately poor whites. According to the media, the only poor who need help, support and attention are immigrants. Other people who are poor — especially whites — do not, for the media, exist. And if they did protest, presumably they would have no right to, because their skin color has supposedly (and often correctly) privileged them.
Then, when anger grows in the peripheral areas or flyover country against uncontrolled immigration, the media become a guilt-machine accusing whites of being racists. Representing the middle and working classes as reactionary or fascist is very convenient. This avoids asking critical questions. When someone is diagnosed as fascist, the priority becomes to re-educate him, not to question the economic organization of the territory where he lives. Anti-fascism has become a weapon for upper social classes.
Since the left has succumbed to free market ideology, we are in a process where old distinctions do not work. Left and Right are transferable, which explains why white workers are not voting socialist but for anti-immigration far-right parties. There remains, therefore, only one thing for the Left to do to keep their Leftish posture: to fight against a fascism that does not exist.
Brexit, Trump, and Italy’s referendum were a victory for millions of citizens from the working class against the elites, who seem to have become increasingly disconnected from them. They were also a victory for millions of people totally disconnected from the mainstream media, people liberated from political correctness, people liberated from ready-made answers and thinking. Trump understood this disconnect so well that he has not even held a press conference since his victory, telling the press without a word that he does not need them. During the campaign, in fact, Trump spoke to very few from the media: He made his own media: tweeting every day, obliging the mainstream media to amplify his words. The more the lying media treating him as a liar, the more he was trusted.
Democracy depends for its survival on journalists doing correctly the job for which they are paid: reporting facts and not stigmatizing people who do not resemble them. It is not the noble duty of journalists to prevent things from happening. Just report facts, propose analysis, and let people think for themselves.
As is often the case with the mainstream media, they’re all too keen on bandwagon-jumping. Thus, when a story gets some traction, the media will milk it and mold it and drag it out for as long as possible, exploiting and exhausting every possible angle. Invariably, this will result in a barrage of tenuous stories being reframed as further testimony to the gravity of an issue.
Many of the liberal solutions adopted or aspired to in the early years of democratic transition have been abandoned or undermined in the countries under consideration. Some governments in these new democracies adopted sophisticated new methods for controlling journalists and information flows, sometimes to the point where the demarcation line between so-called democratic and authoritarian regimes becomes blurred.
Traditional forms of coercion and corruptive practices are not abandoned either, making it difficult for the media to scrutinize politicians and civil servants. It is not by chance that foreign investors have progressively abandoned the media field in some of the new democracies: they have seen their investments generating fewer and fewer profits, while pressures from politicians and governments have become more intrusive.
The media are not just innocent victims of political and economic manipulation. Rather than acting as an independent watchdog and provider of non-biased information, they have often sided with their business or political patrons, indulging in propaganda, misinformation, or even smears. Manifestations of journalists’ intense or even “intimate” relationships with politicians and media owners abound. Informality prevails over formal normative and procedural frameworks and those informal networks are maintaining and even increasing their importance.
The media and democracy condition each other. Democracy cannot thrive without a free and vibrant media, but the opposite is also true. Democratic deficiencies make it impossible for the media to function properly. Examples of these corrupting interdependencies abound in new democracies, blurring the line between democracy, autocracy and despotism.
However, despite all the deficiencies and problems new democracies reveal the persistent quest for transparency, for equal treatment under the law, for plurality and independence in the world of the media. Media freedom may well be compromised by vested economic interests, political manipulation and cultural habits, but it remains a cherished value in all the countries under consideration.
Free media system independent of political interference is vital for democracy, and yet politicians in different parts of the world try to control information flows. Young and emerging democracies are particularly vulnerable to media capture by political and corporate interests because of their fragile institutions, polarized civil society and transnational economic pressures. However, we know very little about these young and often deficient democracies in different parts of the world. Most of the existing literature concentrates on the United States, Great Britain or Germany and their experiences are anything but universal. Most of the new democracies lack the socio-economic conditions and institutional structures that characterized the evolution of media in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Politicization of the state represents one distinctive and often troubling feature identified in new democracies. Business parallelism represents another common feature, with some media owners actively engaged in politics and in business at the same time. Media ownership in these countries is quite fuzzy and not sufficiently transparent. Journalists are often underfunded, poorly trained, divided and disoriented. All this makes it difficult for the media to act as independent and unbiased providers of information.
Numerous deficiencies in democratic structures make it difficult for the media to perform properly. A weak state, hegemonic and volatile at the same time, dysfunctional parties, and unconsolidated democratic procedures, all lead to media capture by political and corporate interests. Continuously changing institutional structures produce uncertainty in the field of journalism and prevent the establishment of clear professional norms and routines.
Political and journalistic cultures in the countries under consideration often reveal basic features of civilizational incompetence: the lack of respect for law, institutionalized evasions of rules, distrust of authorities, double standards of talk and conduct, glorification of tradition, idealization of the West or the North. They lead to lax and non-transparent Potemkin institutions, economies of favors, hidden advertising (also known as pens for hire), the practice of compromat (i.e. smearing political or business competitors), and ordinary corruption in some cases.
Multi-million-dollar advertising money has long been an unspoken filter for Western news media coverage. If the news conflicts with advertising interests then it is simply dropped.
It’s time to change the core beliefs — or mental models — of media and entertainment companies if they want to survive, and thrive in the age of platforms and networks that are built around us and our ability to create, produce and generate content. From our perspective, the deeply held beliefs that historically drove success for media and entertainment are being upended in a world that has both models — institutionally generated content on their platforms and user generated content that thrive on online platforms.
Companies have entrenched immune systems — organizational systems that were built to resist change, especially shifts forced upon them by digital platforms and networks that are eating their world, such as Uber, Airbnb, YouTube or Snapchat. Media and entertainment companies are no different.
To be sure, they have done a lot in recent years — consider the ‘TV Everywhere’ initiative in 2009 by Time Warner and Comcast to put cable video content across platforms, as well as creation of so-called over-the-top providers like Hulu (owned by broadcasters), HBO GO and CBS All Access. But their position remains precarious. Just look at Netflix’s rise. It has more than fifty million U.S. subscribers — almost a hundred million worldwide — more than double that of Comcast in the U.S., the nation’s largest cable operator.
Sports, entertainment, broadcasting and publishing companies that cling to the old way of doing things will continue to lose ground. Premium content, such as the great sports franchises of the NFL, NBA and MLB, will remain valuable. As would telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon that provide a vast, national network. Those at risk are companies that rely mostly on their own content, and not the content of their network using extensible and scalable digital platforms to give users a place to share their own creations.
The same is true for entertainment. While there will always be an appetite for professionally produced content, increasingly, these networks act as a megaphone that lets users’ voices be heard — both as co-creators and network contributors. The real question is this: What will the future look like when it comes to ownership? No one knows as cord-cutting takes place and everyone becomes his or her own broadcaster and fantasy sports team owner, a result of building platforms and networks where we are at the center.
The future of entertainment, publishing, sports and broadcasting industries is now firmly in our hands. We now have the tools, platforms and capabilities to do what we want, whenever we want — and that means, we can read what we want on the run, watch what we want at any time whether it’s entertainment or video-chatting with friends or family.
Today’s technologies offer freedom from the routines of yesterday — including sitting and watching NFL games, TV or cable channels, as we have the choice to work more at our own schedule, versus a media company’s schedule, thanks to on-demand and user-generated programing. If media and entertainment companies want to stay relevant and valuable in the future, they will need to build a strong relationship with us, and give us a place in their programming and on their networks — or else, we might just spend all of our time on venitism blog.
The U.S. media has come under intense scrutiny, with analysts, politicians, and even journalists themselves accusing it of bias and sensationalism — of having failed us — in its coverage of the presidential election. Critics across the political spectrum have said that fake news and cyberattacks played a big role in determining the course of events. The prevailing logic has an “if only” tenor: If only the media had been less swayed by shocking stories, if only bias in the media had been purged, and if only fake news had been eliminated and cyberattacks curtailed, the outcome would have been different. The presidential transition has been marked by the same attitude: if only the media were less distractible and headlines more accurate.
Thinking that way is tempting, but it misses the mark. The media did exactly what it was designed to do, given the incentives that govern it. It’s not that the media sets out to be sensationalist; its business model leads it in that direction. Charges of bias don’t make the bias real; it often lies in the eye of the beholder. Fake news and cyberattacks are triggers, not causes. The issues that confront us are structural.
To the question, If the media were to cover the election again, with the benefit of hindsight, could we expect anything different? my answer is a sobering no. This is for two reasons: the way news is produced and amplified (the supply side) and the way consumers process news (the demand side).
Political campaigns are marketing campaigns, messages aimed at selling a product. Like marketers, politicians obsess over messaging (what journalists would call “content”) and a few key metrics that historically have determined success: amount of television advertising, number of “foot soldiers,” intensity of get-out-the-vote operations, and voter demographics. But in the last two contests in which Hillary Clinton has participated, the 2008 primary and the 2016 election, she won on most of these metrics — and lost the elections.
Two developments bear noting. First, and most obvious, traditional media is no longer the only way to spread the word. Any candidate can communicate directly and instantly with millions of people. Media companies are experiencing an extreme form of competition that comes with digital technologies: Everyone is a media company today.
Second, and even more significant, social media is distinct from traditional media in that it connects users to each other. This means that messages can spread far more easily and quickly (compare how often you share a TV ad and a tweet).
The best product doesn’t always win. Even if you have the best product or candidate, if you run a hub-and-spokes campaign, you’ll attract followers one by one. Create a product or candidate that connects users, and your message — and advantage — will spread rapidly. Apple learned this the hard way. For 20 years, starting in 1984, the Macintosh was superior to any PC. Yet by 2004 its market share was down to 3%. Apple had a great product, but Microsoft had a network of connected users. Because more people used PCs, and wrote software for them, they became the default choice for nearly everyone.
Many organizations and entrepreneurs miss this lesson. Focus only on creating the best content or product, and you can lose because of untapped user connections — a phenomenon I call the “content trap.” It explains why firms that have anchored their strategies to content have ceded digital leadership to those that have focused on connections.
Consider the Scandinavian media firm Schibsted, which engineered an impressive digital transformation through a philosophy of connectedness. It focused its efforts on earning a majority share of Europe’s digital classified advertising market (a product that connects buyers and sellers). It then shifted its news focus from great content to content rooted in the question “Can we help readers help each other?” During the volcanic ash crisis of 2010, what it offered wasn’t prize-winning stories about the roots of the eruption or its health implications, but an app (Hitchhiker’s Central) that allowed readers to share travel plans and offer rides to each other. Similarly, during the 2016 election, many American voters found journalistic content less relevant than what they were experiencing in their own lives.
Bigger marketing budgets may not pay off. In a digital world full of product clutter, the best marketing campaigns spend nearly nothing. JC Penney spent no money on television advertising during the 2015 Super Bowl, yet its “mittens” campaign was one of the most watched. The campaign relied solely on Twitter and went viral by virtue of intentional spelling mistakes. Once a “connected” product draws in users, those users effectively become the sales force. Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb are all examples of this. Donald Trump spent only half of what Clinton did during the campaign.
Expectations matter. In connected worlds, expectations about future growth affect what current users choose; people want to be on a winning platform. This has led to a strategy known as vaporware, a term for when firms announce strengths they may not possess or supposedly imminent product launches to draw users. Consider Trump’s first words in the June 2015 announcement of his candidacy: “Wow. Whoa. That is some group of people. Thousands.…This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this.” This wasn’t just a campaign message; it was an effort to shape expectations and trigger connectedness.
The first phase of a marketing campaign is deciding how and where to spend your marketing dollars. The second is influencing how your message gets amplified. One of the most important mechanisms for this is traditional media — so-called “earned media coverage.” You can spend a lot in the first phase and get little amplification in the second, or vice versa.
Recycling the same message won’t earn amplification. And in today’s media environment, even “normal” news doesn’t break through information clutter; big, surprising events do. The media’s bias toward big events stems from three features of its economics:
Fixed costs. The cost of covering a golf tournament doesn’t depend on whether Tiger Woods plays. But if he does, ratings — and revenue — double. The same phenomenon affects decisions about covering news stories or political rallies.
An advertising-based model. Advertising (and other indirect charges like cable operator fees) are central to the economics of most news media, and this creates a bias whereby the number of viewers is more important than whether viewers like the coverage. (What matters is that you watch news coverage, not whether you are ready to throw a chair at it out of disgust.) Fixed costs have always been central to the economics of media. Advertising came later — and when it did, in the early 20th century, news became more sensational. That’s hardly surprising: The main metric by which news outlets are judged is the ratings they command, the page views they get, or the copies they sell.
Spillovers. A big event in media and entertainment doesn’t just draw viewers to the event itself; it also entices viewers to consume follow-on or related products (and a company’s previous products, too). People who watch a television program are far more likely to watch the next program on that channel, for example.
Each of these factors, individually, means that ratings or page views — the size of the audience — matter a lot for media firms. Together, they lead to a fixation on ratings to the exclusion of almost anything else. Competition further reinforces this dynamic, making audience size the metric by which media firms are measured. The outcome is a “ratings bubble” within which companies operate.
Big-event bias is even more pronounced in entertainment worlds, where getting noticed has gotten increasingly hard over time. This explains the trend toward spinoffs, sequels, and franchises in broadcast television and movies (viewers are already familiar with the basic story) and big-name authors in books (they generate publicity) and why successful sports franchises tend to get even more successful over time (they draw lots of viewers, which allows them to spend more on star players, who draw even more viewers). Success might have more to do with awareness than with quality. When the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith published A Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013, the novel sold about 1,500 copies in the first month. After the author was revealed to be Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, sales rose to over one million.
Piggybacking on big events has allowed certain media companies to grow over time. Fox News, for instance, entered the seemingly mature cable market in 1996 and experienced notable upticks in viewers after “big news” events — the 2000 election, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the start of the war in Iraq. When an event drew viewers to cable news in general, Fox’s ratings grew along with the other networks’. But more of the viewers who tuned into Fox stayed with it after the event had passed when they realized the network’s coverage was different.
In political campaigns, big events arise in one of three ways. The first is sporadically and unpredictably, as with the San Bernardino shooting or the Access Hollywood tape. The timing of such surprises can be particularly fortuitous or damaging (see: James Comey). The second is through name recognition. Events become more newsworthy if they’re accompanied by a big name. The third is by being created. Steve Jobs understood this more than most technology executives, which is why he elevated product launches to an art form: Every media firm had to cover a new Apple release. And Trump understood this more than any other candidate: Every time he made a provocative comment on a new subject, the news outlets covered it.
These forces help explain why Trump got so much more media coverage than, say, Bernie Sanders, who touted a similarly antiestablishment, populist message. Populism and inequality aren’t news; calling Mexican immigrants rapists and vowing to build a wall are. So Sanders’s brand of populism wasn’t news; Trump’s was. The reason was rooted in media economics, not in the effort or preferences of journalists and programming executives. A combination of fixed costs, an advertising-reliant model, and spillovers produced a staggering difference in earned media coverage during the primaries: $2 billion for Trump and $300 million for Sanders. Television advertising, where Clinton had a huge leg up on both, hardly seemed to matter at all.
Competition and private firms operating in their self-interest typically lead to well-functioning markets. But that’s not always what happens. A well-known exception occurs when externalities exist — side effects on other people or firms that aren’t usually accounted for by private actors. (Canonical examples are cigarette smoking or pollution, or a store manager in a large retail chain pursuing actions that benefit his individual store but damage the parent company’s brand.) In situations like these, following your self-interest (in this case, as a media firm) doesn’t necessarily further the collective good, or even your own.
In 2009 Netflix needed high-quality content to grow its streaming business. It could get that content only from Hollywood studios. The studios had seen Netflix grow its DVD business for a decade, and now, with a stronger bargaining position in the streaming market — the first-sale doctrine that allowed any DVD owner to resell did not apply to streaming — they could have chosen not to license to Netflix and nipped it in the bud. But they granted licenses, and Netflix soon became the giant they hadn’t wanted to see arise. Why did the studios act against their own interests?
If they could have collectively agreed not to license to Netflix, the result would have been different. But they couldn’t. At first only Viacom relented, licensing archived Beavis and Butt-head episodes. One show, it reasoned, could not a streaming giant make. But then everyone followed that logic.
It wasn’t that the content providers didn’t see what was happening; it was that they couldn’t coordinate. It’s why newspapers let Google crawl their content for Google News. It’s why they handed content to Facebook for its Instant Articles format last year.
So, too, with the recent political campaign. If every media outlet had ignored Trump’s rallies and rhetoric, it would have paid handsomely for one outlet to cover them. But once one did cover them, no others could afford not to.
These events coalesced dramatically toward the end of the campaign, when Trump announced a press conference in which he would ostensibly make a major announcement about President Obama’s birth certificate (a lie that he had prolonged that had found traction in media coverage several years back). Nearly every media outlet showed up. How could they not cover a major announcement by a presidential candidate? But it was a sham — there was no real announcement, other than that there would be no more announcements on the subject.
This is the prisoner’s dilemma of reporting amid competition: Following your self-interest does not always further the collective good. The situation generated one of the most dispiritingly candid statements ever from a media executive: Early in 2016, when the head of CBS was asked about the disproportionate attention given to Trump, he quipped, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
The network wasn’t alone. Cable news outlets enjoyed similar gains in 2016, marking it as their best year ever. Meanwhile, public trust in the press reached its lowest level in history.
One of the longest-standing debates in marketing is not whether advertising works, but how it does. One view is that marketing persuades consumers to purchase. Hear a song once, and you may not like it; hear it repeatedly, and you’ll start to, regardless of how good or bad it is (hence the phrase “all publicity is good publicity”). Others argue that marketing merely increases awareness without altering beliefs. By this reasoning, repeated exposure to a song that doesn’t match your taste might make you less likely to buy it.
Does media reporting change what we believe, or do our preferences shape what media we choose to watch in the first place?
Most research indicates that the latter is central: Our preexisting preferences largely determine what media we watch. One of the most reliable findings in the study of television entertainment is that viewers watch programs whose characters are like themselves. Older people watch shows featuring older characters, younger viewers watch shows featuring younger ones; the same goes for gender, ethnicity, and income. A similar effect is seen in news: We watch outlets whose reporting is consistent with our beliefs. Viewers who identify with the right are more likely to watch Fox, while left-leaning people are more likely to watch MSNBC. Similar differences apply to intra-network program choices, since programs on the same network can differ in their positioning.
These patterns in news-watching would be puzzling if all that news providers did was provide verifiably objective information. But like entertainment programs, news programs and channels differ in their positioning, in the way they report information (often referred to as slant), and in what information they report (agenda setting). News positioning matters — viewers watch news programs and channels whose positions match their tastes and beliefs.
This pattern of sorting on beliefs is amplified over time by various additional factors. The first is competition among media, which has increased as digital technologies have led to a vast number of new media outlets, each catering to more-niche tastes. The second is viewers’ confirmation bias, which leads us to reject valid information that is not consistent with our beliefs. Confirmation bias is deeply rooted in human behavior. It affects not just how we process information but who we associate with, creating “filter bubbles.” These bubbles are further reinforced by website algorithms designed to personalize the information we receive based on our past behaviors. Persuasive effects of the media also serve to solidify these bubbles. (And even small persuasive effects can have large effects in close elections.)
Each factor increases viewer polarization, which on certain measures has reached unprecedented levels. Together, they shape how we respond to bias in the media. Consider the debate over left and right media bias, which goes back several decades and has grown in intensity over time. Part of what makes discussions of bias so thorny is that we almost never agree on what bias is. Both the debate and studies tend to focus on what the media reports — on content. But studies show that content is not the only place where bias lives. In experiments, when two people with different beliefs view exactly the same content, their perceptions of bias differ.
Add it all up, and the implications are profound.
First, we watch what we believe, but what we don’t watch, we don’t believe. This is the effect of sorting based on beliefs.
Second, negative coverage can have unintended consequences. Hear a source you don’t trust, and when it reports something inconsistent with your beliefs, you’ll discount that thing even more. (The rare exception is when events are incontrovertibly verifiable — for example, the question of who said what on the Access Hollywood tape.) During the election season, more newspapers endorsed Clinton than any presidential candidate in U.S history. Papers with a tradition of endorsing Republicans endorsed her; papers with a tradition of not endorsing a candidate did, too. But none of it mattered; editorial content was essentially irrelevant.
Third, and for the same reason, charges of media bias can actually help an outlet. The more your favorite channel is alleged to be biased by people you disagree with, the more you’ll watch it. Trump wasn’t the first to see this phenomenon: In Fox News’s early days, senior executives often acknowledged that charges of bias appeared to help them. And it isn’t specific to right-leaning voters. After the election, when Trump tweeted complaints about the New York Times and Vanity Fair, both outlets saw a rise in subscriptions. Charges of bias harden beliefs and reinforce polarization.
Particularly sobering is that all this has nothing do with the much-lamented problem of fake news. Get rid of all verifiably fake news, as Facebook and others certainly should, and filter bubbles, polarization, and charges of media bias will remain.
Three forces combine to create the media coverage of political campaigns we observe today: connected media, which spreads messages faster than traditional media; fixed costs and advertising-reliant business models in traditional media, which amplify sensational messages; and viewers’ news consumption patterns, which leads to people sorting across media outlets based on their beliefs and makes messages they already agree with far more effective. Each reinforces the others. Without these enabling factors, even the best marketing campaign would go nowhere, and fake news or leaked information from cyberattacks would have little effect.
Fair questions have been raised about the lack of investigative journalism early in the campaign, false equivalencies in reporting, and the use of paid campaign operatives as experts on television news. But digital technology and business incentives exerted more influence over the media coverage than editorial decisions and missing voices did. The ratings bubble had as much impact as filter bubbles did. The forces at work here — the search for profitability, competition, and self-interest — are things we embrace as profoundly American.
Competition in the media leads to efficiency as well as to checks and balances — all good things. But it fails to internalize the externalities from profitable but sensational coverage. It leads to differentiation and more voices (also good, and what’s been the focus of regulatory efforts) but also to fragmentation, polarization, and less-penetrable filter bubbles (dangerous).
It’s tempting to stretch the analysis between marketing and politics too far. They are different in important respects. Most notable, in marketing you can win through strategies that exploit the big-event bias of media (through attention-grabbing rhetoric) and the beliefs of consumers (through allegations that discredit your competitors). These strategies draw in consumers who are right for your brand. But in presidential politics, the same approach is incredibly risky because when you win, you serve everyone, not just those who “purchased your product.” Despite these differences, the same economics of information supply-and-demand that shape digital strategies in business are doing so in politics.
Which leads to my conclusion: Even if we could somehow push “reset,” we would have to expect the same sort of coverage that we got. The problems are too deep and structural for anything else.
What’s the way forward? There are no easy answers to the question. This analysis mainly points to solutions that won’t work. Voluntary efforts at restraint by well-meaning journalists won’t work, because of advertising-based business models and competition. Eliminating fake news won’t change the fact that voters ignore ideas contrary to their beliefs. And it won’t solve the media’s structural challenges or change its incentives. Media companies, their regulators, and their customers — all of us — have to look for ways to confront these challenges. The stakes could not be higher.
Between 2008 and 2016, the media were unapologetic about their adoration of President Barack Obama. Now, they are energized by their thorough loathing of President Donald Trump. In tragic fashion, the hubris of deifying Obama has now come full circle to the nemesis of demonizing Trump. The common denominator of the two extremes is the abandonment of disinterested reporting.
When Obama announced his candidacy for president in 2007, the media relinquished pretenses of objectivity. The progressive Obama, who had the most partisan record in the U.S. Senate after less than four years in office, appeared to progressive journalists to have come from central casting: glib and charismatic, an Ivy-League pedigree, mixed racial ancestry, a power marriage to a Harvard-trained black lawyer, and an exotic name resonant of multicultural fides.
By comparison, even the would-be first female president Hillary Clinton seemed staid. In the 2008 general election, moderate Republican John McCain—once the darling of the liberal press during his bid to sidetrack George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries—was reduced to a cranky spoiler of the nation’s rare chance to be saved by the messianic Obama from the Bush era’s legacy of war, economic crisis, and callousness.
In the 2008 campaign, reporters ignored the close and disturbing relationships between the mostly unknown Obama and a cast of unsavory characters: his racist and anti-Semitic pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the neighborhood confidant and former terrorist Bill Ayers, and the wheeler-dealer and soon-to-be felon Tony Rezko.
Instead, journalists quickly started worshipping candidate Obama in a manner never quite seen before, not even in the days of the iconic liberal presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas declared Obama to be a deity (“Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.”) His very words were able to make the leg of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews “tingle.” His pants’ crease proved for David Brooks a talisman of his future greatness, along with the fact that the mellifluent Obama “talks like us.”
While a few journalists were aware of their cult-like worship, most were hooked and competed to outdo one another with embarrassing hagiographic praise. Upon election, Obama was summarily declared by one presidential historian and television pundit to the smartest man with the highest IQ ever to have been president.
Obama himself channeled the veneration, variously promising in god-like fashion to cool the planet and lower the seas, remarking that his own multifaceted expertise was greater than that of all of the various specialists who ran his campaign. For the next eight years, the media largely ignored what might charitably be called an historic overextension of presidential power and scandal not seen since the days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. A clique of journalists set up a private chat group, JournoList, through which they could channel ideas to promote the Obama progressive agenda.
Freed from most press scrutiny, the Obama administration surveilled Associated Press reporters accused of leaks and monitored the communications of Fox News’s White House Correspondent James Rosen. In a variety of scandals, UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice lied repeatedly about the Benghazi catastrophe, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap, the Iran deal, and the supposed destruction of weapons of mass destruction by the Assad government in Syria. Meanwhile, Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch faced inquiries about massaging the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Close advisors such as Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power faced congressional inquiries into whether some in the administration had requested improper surveillance reports of political opponents, unmasked their names, and illegally leaked them to the press—a story that the media overlooked.
Most Obama foreign policy initiatives proved disappointments: reset with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the bombing of Libya resulting in postwar chaos, the withdrawal of all U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq, the faux redlines with Syria, failed “strategic patience” with North Korea, writing off the ISIS terrorist caliphate as “Jayvees,” and the expansion of Chinese bases into the South China Sea.
At home, Obama was the first president in recent history never to have achieved three percent economic growth, as labor non-participation rose and median family incomes fell. The media largely ignored a series of scandals, as if investigating them might endanger the Obama progressive moment: the politicization of the IRS, FBI, and Justice Department; ICE reduced to de facto irrelevance; fraud at the VA; overreach at EPA; and incompetence at the Secret Service and GSA.
Rather than appreciate such media obsequiousness, Obama sometimes showed near contempt for toadyish reporters, joking about his positive press coverage and joshing how he got the Nobel Peace Prize without much accomplishment. His deputy National Security Advisor and would-be novelist Ben Rhodes contemptuously manipulated and then wrote off young foreign correspondents as know-nothings—despite the fact they had helped the administration obfuscate the dangerous implications of Obama’s Iran deal through what Rhodes called an “echo chamber” of administration-fed talking points.
Former speech writers Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett joked on television how they had easily deluded the public on the downsides of Obamacare. Special advisor Jonathan Gruber laughed at the “stupidity of the American voter” who was easily deceived by the administration and media about the nature of Obamacare. Again, the common denominator was an expectation that the press was not a public watchdog but an enabler of the Obama agenda.
By the time of 2016 presidential race, the media had lost their credibility as disinterested guardians of objective truth. And while Hillary Clinton in 2016 was no Barack Obama in 2008, reporters still gave her special privileges. CNN talking-head Donna Brazile fed debate questions to the Clinton campaign prior to a Clinton-Sanders televised debate. And the John Podesta Wikileaks trove revealed that a number of marquee reporters were openly colluding with Clinton to defeat Trump.
Once the media crossed the Rubicon of partisanship, there was no turning back. The unchecked ebullience that they had showed for Obama has now been replaced by an undisguised hatred for Donald Trump. Just as journalists saw no negative repercussions in their adoration of Obama, they are now able to denigrate the conservative populist Trump without consequences. Arrogance plays a role: the media feel that they displayed power in getting Obama elected and now they wager that they can also ensure Trump’s defeat, or at least derail his presidency
The liberal Harvard Kennedy School and Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy issued a report recently showing how the media has established a “new standard” of negativity in presidential reporting. It noted that the aggregate news stories from the first 100 days of the Trump administration were about 80% critical. Some networks such as CNN aired 93% negative coverage of the president.
CNN was forced to fire three reporters for creating fictional news about the Trump administration. Some of its anchors and hosts used scatology to denigrate the president. CNN’s New Year’s host Kathy Griffin was fired at the end of May 2017, for holding up a facsimile of the decapitated head of Trump. Some producers were caught on tape bragging about CNN’s biases against Trump and the stupidity of the voters who elected him.
Media hosts and commentators have been lavish in their coverage of progressive efforts to subvert Trump—whether it was getting the Electoral College to deny Trump the presidency; the attempts to overturn the voting results in three states Trump won; the move to impeach him or remove him by the 25th Amendment; or to find him guilty of obstruction of justice or collusion with the Russians.
Some exasperated journalists have been at least intellectually honest enough to admit that the profession should no longer adhere to traditional norms of disinterested presidential reporting in the post-Obama age. According to Christiane Amanpour, Carl Bernstein, Jorge Ramos, and Jim Rutenberg, the singular menace of the Trump presidency demands open anti-Trump advocacy, without the veneer of unbiased reporting.
What caused the media’s Trump meltdown? There were a variety reasons.
Trump represents everything that the media despise: a crude reality-TV billionaire without military or political experience, whose orange skin, combed over dyed blond hair, sharp Queens accent, and confrontational attitude seemed vulgar and crass.
The nexus between beltway politics and the media, often cemented through marriages and familial relationships, recoiled that an outsider like Trump sought not just to overturn the Obama agenda but to do so unapologetically and with the same executive orders that Obama himself had bragged about in his “pen and phone” ultimata to make laws without the help of the Congress.
Moreover, Trump campaigned on an us/them, red-state/blue-state dichotomy. He smashed the proverbial Democratic blue wall—a fact that caused great unease to liberal journalists who sensed that half the country found their coastal progressive culture not just foreign but apparently hypocritical and elitist.
In addition, the current generation of marquee reporters was schooled at the major journalism schools by veterans of the 1960s, when the “new” journalism saw progressive political activism—opposition to the Vietnam War and the promotion of civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism—as the proper counterweight to traditional and supposedly regressive American values.
Postmodernism—the theory that there are no absolute facts or eternal truths, only interpretations based on power machinations—seeped out from university English departments into the larger elite culture. Such relativism may explain the epidemic of fake news accounts and plagiarism as alternative “narratives” rather than simple untruths. Buzzfeed, for example, published the infamous fake Steele file, a lurid dossier of oppositional research against the Trump campaign, even though it admitted it could not confirm the veracity of the salacious accusations against Trump. But who was to say that the accusations were any more true or false than any other? In such anything-goes fashion, Politico’s Julia Joffe channeled the vulgarity of television celebrities like Steven Colbert and Bill Maher in suggesting an incestuous relationship between the president and his daughter.
Trump was neither shy nor decorous in punching back, ridiculing the appearance of on-air talking heads, relegating them to back of the room slots at press conferences, and going over the head of the media through often crude ad hominem tweets. Although polls (whose reliability remains questionable after the 2016 election) rarely showed figures higher than forty percent for Trump, the media is held in even less regard, with about two-thirds of those polled expressing their disapproval of journalists.
If the media became unhinged in the adulatory Obama years through hubris, it might have earned back its respect and professionalism by covering Trump in even-handed fashion. But Nemesis does not work that way: those it destroys, it first makes mad.