Filter Bubbles, Fake News and the Breitbart Effect: How Donald Trump’s Election Exposed the Fissures in American Media
President Donald Trump made frequent, increasingly belligerent, attacks against “the media” a centerpiece of his campaign. Since being elected, he hasn’t let up. He’s openly admitted to waging a “war” against the political press, and called the news media “enemies of the American people.” In January, Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steven Bannon, called the media “the opposition party.” The Trump administration has attempted to insulate itself from criticism by trying to delegitimize critical journalism as inherently biased or, simply, “fake news.”
This rhetoric comes after a campaign during which Trump threatened unprecedented attacks on press freedom. He threatened to sue countless newspapers and journalists who wrote critically about him, warned that, if elected, he would move to “open up libel laws” to expand the reach of these lawsuits, and blacklisted news outlets he viewed as unfair from covering his campaign events.
Journalists are understandably worried about how they will fare under a Trump presidency. And it’s too early to know whether Trump’s threats were sincere, or even feasible.
“Trump is obviously much more open about his hatred for the press — he actively insults them and attempts to turn the public against them. But when we’re talking about leak investigations or surveillance of reporters or even down the line, prosecutions, that naturally will take time to play out,” said Trevor Timm, cofounder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “And we might not know about it — a lot of the stuff can happen in secret for quite a bit before the public finds out. Only time will tell whether the Trump administration actually follows through on these threats.” [All interviews conducted by phone]
Timm said he believes that Trump’s threat to the press will ultimately be determined on how the Justice Department and intelligence agencies treat reporters under his administration.
“He made a big deal in his campaign about threatening to sue news organizations and changing the libel laws, which were disturbing things to say for sure,” Timm said. “But he’s going to have a hard time changing libel law, given that the libel law is the First Amendment itself. What I’m really worried about is increased surveillance of reporters, even more leak prosecutions, and even potentially some sort of prosecution against journalists down the line.”
Trump’s candidacy highlighted broader concerns with the way the press covers politics, however. Political journalists’ default approach to covering a major candidate often allowed Trump’s frequent lies to take root simply because he held to them.
“I think there was a very established model for what happens when a politician lies in a very clear way, which is that lie is clearly exposed by members of the press, and either the politician apologizes or, at least, doesn’t keep repeating the lie over and over again,” Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, said. “Political campaigns have never been known as beacons of truth. None the less, Trump moved outside the boundaries of the borderline lie that could be seen as spin, to just make things up, and didn’t respond the way other politicians did. And I think there is a certain sense in which there is an innate desire on the part of the national press to treat a major party’s candidate with a certain amount of respect, and that created some difficulties.”
Trump’s lies were, furthermore, downplayed by his supporters because the outlets exposing them — primarily, mainstream news outlets — were not considered trustworthy either. According to a report by the Pew Research Center last year, the American public, by and large, does not trust the press. In some ways, this made journalists an easy target. But it may not be that simple.
“I think that one of the most misunderstood aspects of thinking about journalism is the idea that there is very little trust in the media. That’s actually not true. What we’re seeing is widespread polarization and an absolute explosion of media outlets catering to every conceivable point of view,” said Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and media critic for WGBH. “So, if you ask people if they trust the media, the say ‘No!’ But then you ask them what media they use on a regular basis and then you say: ‘Do you trust them?’ and they say ‘Yes!’ So in fact they have a great deal of trust in the media that they use.”
Donald Trump’s rhetoric only served to exacerbate this polarization.
“There was some point during the campaign last year, when it became clear that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, that Republican trust in the media went from low to nonexistent,” Kennedy said. “So you have a situation in which I think many parts of the traditional media are trying to do their normal job covering politics and what’s going on, and Trump supporters in particular have just tuned them out entirely.”
A Dangerous Precedent
Trump’s attempts to marginalize the press have been unprecedented in their heavy-handedness, but they have not been unique in their aims. Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama presided over administrations that confronted the press with new and often hostile restrictions. Every president complains about the press, but in recent American history, presidents appear to have been actively working to marginalize the press.
“I think that [the previous two administrations] certainly laid the groundwork and established a prior precedent that the Trump administration can potentially use against reporters,” Timm said. “The Trump administration can use [their actions] to build their own cases. That’s incredibly worrying. Unfortunately, we’re in a position where the Trump administration has a free hand to [expand on the actions of previous administrations].”
While a president having an adversarial relationship with the press was nothing new, previous administrations acknowledged — or were resigned to the idea — that journalists played a central role in informing the public. The Bush administration dismissed that idea. In 2004, Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta: “In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. . . . I don’t believe [the press has] a check-and-balance function.” And if the press was not performing a civic function, the Bush White House did not believe that journalists were entitled to access any more than other special interest groups. This attitude was immediately evident: in Bush’s first two years in office he held only seven press conferences. By comparison, Bush’s father held 56 press conferences in his first two years in office, and Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, held 29.
The Bush administration bet that it could advance its agenda without having it filtered and scrutinized by the press. And while this was not an uncommon goal for a presidential administration, the Bush White House benefitted from an extremely disciplined staff — leaks and quotes from within the administration that broke from the party line were rare, especially early on — and a media industry that was being disrupted and decentralized by technology. The administration was so confident in its approach that in 2004 an aide ridiculed journalists as members of the “reality-based community” who “believe[d] that solutions emerge from [their] judicious study of discernible reality,” in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind. The aide continued:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The discipline of the Bush administration frustrated political reporters who were accustomed to looking to White House sources and news briefings for stories, which created an environment where the administration could direct coverage by only releasing information it wanted reported. This occurred primarily in two ways: by only speaking to reporters the administration was confident would report what it wanted, and by distributing prepackaged content to outlets that were struggling to create their own.
When he was elected, President Obama vowed that his administration would usher in a new era of transparency. After his reporting on the administration dragged him through a protracted legal battle, New York Times national security reporter James Risen called the administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a decade.” Still, as Obama was leaving office, he continued to insist that his administration had been transparent. And while this has been pointedly disputed by some, Obama has not faced the backlash that either Bush or Trump has for being hostile towards the press.
“Everybody is rightly upset by how the Trump administration is treating the press, but press freedom has been deteriorating for quite a while,” Timm said. “Under the Obama administration, there were several actions taking that were incredibly alarming. There were a record number of leak prosecutions. There were several spying scandals involving the AP, and Fox News, and other outlets, that in some ways were unprecedented and forced journalists to reckon with the fact that the government has an enormous surveillance apparatus that they are not necessarily afraid to use to go after reporters.”
Obama launched an initiative called the Insider Threat Program, which place sweeping, and broadly defined restrictions on the disclosure of government information by any government employee. In a Defense Department memo that (ironically) leaked, employees were warned that “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.” In other words, talking to the press could be considered espionage.
During Obama’s two terms, his administration pursued seven prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act, a law that had only been invoked three times between when it was passed in 1917 and when Obama came into office in 2008. This not only denied journalists access to sources, it allowed the administration to pursue any leak with an unprecedented intensity. In a case like Risen’s — and his case was not unique, Fox reporter James Rosen was dragged into a similar controversy — the administration subpoenaed him to testify in a leak case and reveal his sources. He fought the subpoena until it expired in 2010.
And the administration’s reluctance to let go of government documents did not stop with classified information. According to an analysis by the AP, the Obama administration set a record for withholding FOIA requests.
“Some people were I think, sadly, unable to look past his soaring rhetoric and good words to really look at the underlying actions of his administration and Justice Department,” Timm said. “And that’s really too bad and did a disservice to everyone in the press who cares about these types of rights. Because now, they might be used against them in a more malicious way.”
The Breitbart Effect
Since naming Breitbart Executive Chair Steve Bannon as his campaign manager late in the election and appointing him as Chief Strategist following the election, Donald Trump has been explicitly linked to the right-wing news site Breitbart News. Breitbart has become the most prominent outlet pushing the ideologically insulated, nationalist views that Trump ran on, and as such is one of the most polarizing news sources in the country. Because of Bannon’s involvement, there are obvious ties between Trump’s goals and policies and the arguments advanced by the site. But the evolution of Breitbart under its founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, was crucial to shaping the current right-wing media environment.
In many ways, Andrew Breitbart was a proto-Trump. He built his brand by combining charisma and bombast to attack familiar targets: the mainstream media, big government and “liberal Hollywood. The content of these attacks, though, almost never focused on policy or argument. His criticisms were aimed at what he saw as a liberal culture.
“It’s like when people are like, ‘What do you think we should do on health care?’ I don’t fucking have a clue. It’s too complicated for me,” Breitbart told Christopher Beam for a 2010 profile in Slate. “I’m trying to shift the focus of conservative movement from the narrow — the policy — to a much higher elevation, granting them a greater perspective.”
The core of his strategy was to discredit the “liberal” mainstream media while providing his followers with an alternative: a separate media universe that promised consumers it would deliver them the news without being colored by the mainstream agenda. It’s the same logic Fox News’ used in touting itself as “fair and balanced” despite the sneers from critics and all evidence to the contrary. In essence, the goal was to convince readers and viewers that those organizations were the only ones they could trust.
“Media is everything. It’s everything,” Breitbart told Beam in the same profile.
Breitbart’s posturing made him an easy target for his opponents. He was indecent and loud and made no apologies for it.
“They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” Breitbart said to Beam.
But while his attitude opened him to criticism from the left, it insulated him from criticism from the only people who mattered: his base. The fact that traditional outlets tried to dismiss him as a lunatic and appeared outraged by his ranting proved his point. That the media seemed more concerned with his bluster than the oppression he was raging against showed that they were elitist purveyors of political correctness. Censure from the New York Times and Media Matters and The Daily Kos was a badge of honor, and it did more to elevate Breitbart’s profile than diminish it. His critics saw Breitbart as a deranged liar; his supporters saw him as the one man brave enough to stand up the a liberal conspiracy that was leaving them progressively marginalized.
Breitbart, of course, was not the first person to take this approach. Rush Limbaugh had been broadcasting since 1984 and Fox News was already a dominant network when Breitbart launched his site in 2007. And Breitbart had worked as Matt Drudge’s second-in-command for a decade on the Drudge Report. But Breitbart was the first to take full advantage of the internet in advancing his cause. According to Chris K. Daley’s book Becoming Breitbart: The Impact of a New Media Revolution, Breitbart launched his site as another conservative aggregator, but was frustrated by the inability of that model to consistently make news. He quickly renovated the site, using the Huffington Post (which Breitbart also, briefly, worked on) as his model. The bulk of the original content that Breitbart published was user generated. That is, it was written by ideologically-motivated authors who were willing to let Breitbart publish their work for little or no pay. He called them “citizen journalists.” Instead of aggregating content, Breitbart was aggregating conservative voices. His site culled writers from blogs and social media and combined them into a news organization that expanded their reach and amplified their impact.
Breitbart’s influence has created a dilemma for journalists who have attempted to provide balanced coverage. Bannon’s position in Trump’s campaign, and now administration, has made Breitbart’s agenda — which prioritizes rage and conspiracies over policy — part of Trump’s platform. Traditional journalists, who instinctively try to present balanced coverage, have been forced to decide between publicizing those radical ideas, and risk legitimizing them, or ignoring concerns that were driving Trump’s candidacy.
“The odd reality of the Trump campaign is that a large number of very conservative pundits and think-tank people and columnists thought that Donald Trump was an abomination and didn’t want anything to do with him,” Benton said. “And that meant that in order to, for example, present a panel where half the people support Trump and half the people oppose Trump, you are drawing on a very limited pool. So you end up with people like Jeffrey Lord, who are given more attention than their stature would normally allot them.”
“Filter Bubbles” and Fake News
Technology has disrupted the environment that traditional news outlets were formed in, and those outlets can no longer control the information readers are consuming. Before the internet, news outlets could set the narrative for their consumers. Those outlets would judge what was newsworthy and, because the amount of news consumers had access to was limited, those judgements would define what readers and watchers learned. In their book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel described this loss of the “gatekeeper” function by writing “the news has become unbundled from the news organization…increasingly we check the news to find out more about the stories we are curious about. We seek the news today, in effect, by story rather than by news organization.”
On its surface, this democratization of the news would appear to benefit consumers. They now have access to a range of voices and beliefs. Narratives can be determined by collective judgements instead of decisions by a few editorial boards. But, Benton noted, this democratization has reduced the influence of traditional news outlets — which, while flawed, abide by strict editorial standards — and increased the influence of hyper-partisan outlets.
“What [the internet] has also has done is taken the sense of authority that the media had and slowly eroded it. Because suddenly The New York Times is just another website, just like Infowars is just another website, or The Daily Kos is just another website. I think that sort of distribution shift helped create the trust shift,” Benton said.
While the internet has decentralized news consumption, it’s also dramatically lowered the barriers for news creation. This has created a tornado of information that, if unsorted, will bombard readers with competing narratives that cannot be reconciled. Their response has not been to sort through all these bits of information, but to look for interpreters that can provide them with a coherent overview of what they need to know. These interpretations, however, have split off into different directions, splitting the American public into different realities.
In short, the internet has created an environment where people are more likely to see news that confirms their beliefs. Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe the increasing personalization of the web. When it comes to platforms like Facebook, part of this is the result of human tendency. Pablo Boczkowski, the director of the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University, has researched social media consumption and found that the way people evaluate news they find on social media differs from how they evaluate news they get directly from the media organization that published it.
“What we’ve seen in our research, people tend to assign a higher level of credibility to a contact, say on Facebook, recommending a particular story rather than the story in itself,” Boczkowski said. “People aren’t getting the news from social media because the credibility of news outlets is low. They get the news this way because they’re there already, plus getting information this way is easy, and, on top of that, they have a higher level of trust in the people they know who are in their social network than a source like a news organization.”
Naturally, people are more inclined to trust others they agree with. This is intensified, though, by the way social media platforms are structured. Information services use algorithms to determine what users see. Algorithms are used by sites as varied a Google, Twitter and Netflix, but Facebook has become the platform most criticized for how it determines what users see.
“We do not know a lot about the algorithms in general because they are not open. But, one thing we know, is that the Facebook algorithm privileges [homogeny] over difference. That tends to expose [the user] to people and content that is consistent with their previous clicking behaviors,” Boczkowski said. “If a person is exposed primarily to content that is consistent with what they already believe, and does not challenge those viewpoints with information that is different…that magnifies the echo chamber or filter bubble. It doesn’t create it — those phenomena predate Facebook or any other social platform. But the way the platforms operate tend to contribute to that.”
To oversimplify, Facebook’s algorithm fills users’ newsfeeds with the stories they are most like to “engage” with. That is, the algorithm will prominently display the stories it thinks a user is most likely to click on, comment on, or like, based on what the user has clicked on, commented on, or liked in the past. The algorithm is designed to maximize the amount of time users spend on the site and encourage them to return. That way, users are seeing more ads, and processing those ads in a more agreeable context.
“We normally tend to gravitate to people, viewpoints, etcetera, that are consistent with what we already like. So Facebook, or any other social media platform, is just exploiting and reinforcing that,” Boczkowski said.
According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Facebook users (which accounts for 44 percent of adults in the US) get news from Facebook. So not only are numerous getting news from stories divorced from news organizations, they are getting stories they are predisposed to agree with.
As Benton noted, journalists, who live in their own social-media universes, may not know the extent of the problem because their Facebook feeds look very different than the feeds of Trump voters.
“Journalists have a lot of Facebook friends who are also journalists, or of similar minds to journalists in a lot of ways. So when I look at my Facebook feed, it’s filled with baby pictures and birthday parties and lots of news,” Benton said. “Journalists often assume that news is a much bigger part of Facebook than it actually is. Whereas, for most people, their Facebook experience is wildly different. They’re seeing a bunch of memes about how Obama is a Muslim, or they’re seeing a feed that’s generally devoid of what we would consider news content.”
These conditions created an environment where fake news, one of the early buzzwords of Trump’s presidency, could thrive. Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman, whose reporting helped identify the trend during the election, classified fake news as “false or misleading information” being published by “hyperpartisan” pages. Facebook was ground zero for the distribution of fake news during the 2016 Presidential Election. According to Buzzfeed’s analysis, these Facebook pages quickly attracted more followers than traditional news outlets on Facebook, and saw their content spread to a much wider audience, leading Silverman to conclude that “the best way to attract and grow an audience for political content on the world’s biggest social network is to eschew factual reporting and instead play to partisan biases using false or misleading information that simply tells people what they want to hear.”
And while fake news came from pages on both the left and the right, Buzzfeed found that “right-wing pages were more prone to sharing false or misleading information than left-wing pages.” Beyond that, “the right-wing pages almost never used mainstream news sources, instead pointing to other highly partisan sources of information.” Which does not dismiss the fact that numerous Clinton supporters were consuming misinformation at an alarming rate, but Buzzfeed’s analysis showed that left-wing pages at least drew from mainstream outlets, even if they twisted reports from those outlets into lies and propaganda. Right-wing fake news pages were twisting reports that were already partisan, further distancing Trump supporters from mainstream outlets. The effect of fake news also seemed to be more pronounced on Trump supporters, as John Herman pointed out in an August New York Times Magazine article, because it hewed closer to Trump’s campaign messaging. Again, Trump made anger and conspiracy theories central to his campaign, and though the fake news stories were (usually) too outlandish even for Trump, they often fit with the tone of his campaign.
None of the reporting done so far has been able to quantify the effect of fake news, and Boczkowski urged caution when considering whether fake news will be a constant in the media environment going forward.
“A question to ask ourselves is: would the result at the top of the ticket been different had we spent as much attention to the [fake news] phenomenon as we are devoting now?” Boczkowski said. “If indeed there has been a substantive transformation, and if indeed it was a significant factor in deciding the electoral contest in the U.S., then we should expect more of this to happen in other parts of the world — and we’re seeing some of that — and even the U.S., for instance in the midterms. But it is still a fairly new phenomenon.”
Benton, however, said he saw further evidence of a divide between the press and its priorities, and a significant chunk of the electorate.
“One thing that I think is very clear is, the average person does not understand or have an appreciation for or really want to get involved with the narrow gradations that we make in the business between different kinds of media,” Benton said. “So even when people see an opinion piece in The New York Times that says ‘Trump is a monster,’ the barrier between column and news story, which seems very clear to us, is not clear to most people. And I think there is a very real sense in which we are seeing the end-stage results of what the internet has done to eliminate all sense of institutional authority.”
The mere presence of fake news feeds Trump’s narrative. But the fake news Trump talks about is very different from the fake news that circulated during the election. For Trump, “fake news” has become a catchall to dismiss any coverage that threatens his agenda or popularity. It’s another way of capitalizing on the widespread distrust of the media. Once people accept that fake news exists, everything they read is suspect. And on social media platforms, where New York Times articles exist alongside articles accusing Hillary Clinton of murder, it becomes difficult for people without a strong sense of media literacy to assess the credibility of an article. Usually, they default to the article they agree with, assuming they ever see an alternative.
Technology alone does not explain the current political polarization. The “filter bubble” effect is exacerbated by ideology. A recent study published by the Columbia Journalism Review, which examined social media sharing patterns, showed that conservative users consumed far more hyper-partisan news during the 2016 election than liberal users. The authors called this effect “asymmetric polarization.”
“Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites,” the authors wrote. “But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.”
Here, again, we see the Breitbart effect. The report noted that the conservative “media sphere” was “anchored around Breitbart.” The years of attempting to challenge and discredit traditional news worked. Trump picked up on this narrative as well; attacks on the press became routine during his rallies and press conferences. Voters supporting Trump believed that the conservative media was the only sphere where their beliefs, and their candidate, would be treated fairly. As a result, they dwelled in a “internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, [that] reinforce[ed] the shared worldview of readers and shield[ed] them from journalism that challenged it.”
Organizations like Breitbart are dedicated to advancing an agenda. This was, and is, especially true for Breitbart given that one of its senior executives was running Trump’s campaign. It makes sense, then, that Trumps fabrications, and scandals, and inconsistencies, which mainstream outlets pointed out frequently, did not affect his popularity. A huge number of Trump voters were living in an information universe that either ignored or explained away these faults.
Beyond that, the study shows that the right-wing media sphere was able to influence what traditional outlets covered. By relentlessly pushing articles about Trump’s main agenda, which the study identifies as immigration and attacks on Hilary Clinton, sites like Breitbart were able to make those issues central to the public debate.
“Coverage of Clinton overwhelmingly focused on emails, followed by the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi,” the authors wrote. “Coverage of Trump included some scandal, but the most prevalent topic of Trump-focused stories was his main substantive agenda item — immigration — and his arguments about jobs and trade also received more attention than his scandals.”
Whether the mainstream media’s coverage of these topics was critical did not matter. All the right-wing sphere needed was for Trump’s issues to remain central narratives, and it could continue to define them to their audience in a way that benefitted Trump.
A Golden Age for Journalism?
Since Donald Trump’s election, several of the media outlets he’s attacked have seen record growth in subscriptions and increased support. Of those publications, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Pro Publica all won Pulitzers in 2017. And Buzzfeed (which Trump called a “failing pile of garbage”) received its first Pulitzer nomination. Amid all that, Trump’s approval rating is struggling to break 40 percent.
Considering the factors that allowed Trump to thrive, however, the effect of a “golden age” of journalism may not be as transformative as optimists believe. Following Trump’s election, the narrative among the mainstream press was that it had failed in covering Donald Trump’s candidacy. But this failure was described in conventional terms: news organizations were over reliant on data, resorted to false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton and were too slow to call a lie a lie.
“It’s not the job of the traditional media to guarantee an outcome. Their job is to cover the news, and to cover it very vigorously. It’s very hard to talk about ‘The Media,’” Kennedy said. “I think the failure of television, particularly of cable TV, was very real, and it probably served to help elect Trump because Trump was the major star of all three major news networks all year. But I certainly think that the elite print press, especially the Washington Post, and to a lesser extent the New York Times, did a very good job of covering Trump and exposing his numerous, numerous shortcomings as a candidate.”
And when it comes to the claim that the press wasn’t critical enough of Trump, it’s worth noting that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. It’s true that Trump was able to exploit flaws in the traditional approach to political journalism. But the factors that allowed him to do so may have had less to do with how journalists approached coverage and more to do with the media environment they were operating in. Which is not to say that a lot of what passes for political journalism is moribund, derivative and myopic. But plenty of journalists produced creative, well-reported stories during the election. They just didn’t have the effect they perhaps should have.
“I think his war on the press is working very, very well with the 35 percent who love him. You have is a situation where, paid subscriptions are way up. I think that people are consuming real news at record rates. So you might look at that and say, ‘Gee, he’s faltering,’” Kennedy said. “But we know that 48 percent of the public was appalled when he won, and that number has only grown. So they’re naturally going to be turning to outlets that are doing tough reporting on Trump. But at the same time the support for real news is growing, the support for really partisan news that is pro-Trump, is growing as well. I think we’re in this time when there is an enormous amount of interest in news of all sorts.”
Another common complaint was that the press did not get out and talk to voters in the middle of the country and missed the anger many were feeling towards the establishment. This isn’t incorrect, but the complaint makes it sound like this oversight was the result of a lack of will. The rise of digital media has diminished the size and reach of traditional news outlets. As Benton wrote last year, this has caused major news outlets to retreat and consolidate in New York and on the coasts. The economic hit causing this retreat also means that these outlets have fewer resources to send reporters to every part of the country. Meanwhile, smaller media outlets catering to local communities have proven unable to cope with the economic pressures the digital media environment imposes on them, and more are folding every year. The areas where Trump voters are concentrated are increasingly uncovered, not because journalists have deemed them irrelevant, but because economic realities have pushed news outlets away from them. The concentration of news organizations on the coasts also raises questions about newsroom diversity.
“There is a real sense in which digital media is much less locally centered. That has three effects. One is it’s a lot easier when you’re in New York and DC to cover New York and DC, which means you’re less likely to cover Iowa,” Benton said. “Another level down is, the kind of people you hire in New York and DC are different from the kind of people you would hire in Des Moines. So your staff will be less representative of the broad American public. And even if those first two things weren’t true, it’s a lot more difficult for someone to build a trusting relationship with a media outlet that is not near them. It’s a lot easier to build a relationship with your local outlet than it is to build one with an outlet that is thousands of miles away.”
Given those realities, it’s unlikely that major outlets are going to be able to consistently and effectively cover the middle of the country. And as Benton mentioned, it might not make business sense for them to try to.
“The reality is, if the New York Times decided they were suddenly going to try and reach the median Trump voter, they would become a lot less appealing to the median New York Times reader,” Benton said. “And the New York Times has made a bet that their readers are going to be disproportionally well-off, highly educated people. They’ll say that explicitly. They won’t say the next step, which is that those readers are going to be left of center, on average, and they are going to be in cities like New York and D.C. and Boston, and they are less likely to be in Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City and Topeka. So, there’s a certain sense in which, the people saying that we have to go back and reach this audience are trying to rebuild the old mass-media model that’s already kind of dead.”
None of this, however, means that traditional media is irrelevant. The first few months of Trump’s presidency has proven that investigative reporting can still put pressure on the government.
“I don’t think that anything will ever sway the 35 percent of the public who thinks that Trump is great,” Kennedy said. “Where I do think journalism makes a difference is, we can see that press coverage has kind of goaded congress into doing a major investigation of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Even during Watergate, Nixon always had his supporters, and the press could only get action up to a point. At a certain point, the system has to kick in. What got Nixon in the end was not the press, it was government investigations. We might be seeing that now. The press definitely led to the congressional investigations of the Russia ties; I think that the press led directly to [Republican Congressman Devin] Nunes having to recuse himself from the investigation. So in that respect, things are working.”
Where do we go from here?
The broader forces that created journalists’ current dilemma with Trump aren’t going to disappear. Nor are they unique to Donald Trump. Media disruption, filter bubbles and political polarization are all factors that traditional journalism, no matter how sharp or rigorous it is, will struggle to correct.
Dan Gilmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, has been urging journalists to make transparency and the promotion of media literacy central to their coverage.
“What I’m contending is that if journalism organizations had been trying to make media news literacy part of their missions, one of the elements of that would have been greater transparency, which I think would have boosted trust along the way,” Gilmor said. “Explaining why and how the journalism was done. I would put on every story, if it’s print — and it’s easier online — a box that says ‘Here are things we don’t know.’ You see that occasionally in breaking news situations, which is progress, but it’s taken a long time to get to this point.”
Trevor Timm said that for journalists who are worried about press freedom, technology can be a powerful tool. Timm’s Freedom of the Press Foundation has created several tools to help journalists protect themselves.
“Part of the reason we were founded is there is a tendency to think of press freedom only in the realm of legal rights. We think that often the battles over press freedom in the 21st century will be around technology, and using technology to protect your sources and not just relying on the courts to protect them,” Timm said. “I think the most important thing journalists can do is learn how to use encryption and anonymization tools to better protect themselves and their sources. Because, ultimately, they may not be able to use the legal system to protect their rights. And using these kinds of digital security tools are now more important than ever.”
Benton said that the best way for journalists to regain trust with a wider audience, is to find ways to connect with them more directly.
“One thing journalists should try to do, is figure out more ways to have direct connections with your audience. To the extent that publications’ relationships with the audience are intermediated by Facebook, where they’re just a site that pops up in one of their feeds occasionally, it’s really hard to build a trust relationship there,” Benton said. “It’s a lot easier to build a trust relationship with a daily email newsletter that has a human voice to it, or a podcast that people listen to and get to understand the personalities talking. People can also have great relationships with a columnist who is expressing his or her point of view. Events where a newspaper stops being a distant thing and becomes actual human beings you can go and have a beer with. I think all of those things that create a tighter relationship with readers are important.”
Heather Bryant, a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford researching effective models for collaboration between journalists, stressed that, going forward, journalists are going to need to collaborate more to work around the limitations media disruption has imposed on individual newsrooms.
“I think one thing that kind of became apparent during the election cycle, and a little bit early in this administration, was that this is very much an administration that has no problem, and actually delights, in leveraging traditional competitive mindsets to sort of pick and choose who covers them,” Bryant said. “And that’s a problem for us; we have to recognize that we’re all in this situation and there’s a job to be done and if we don’t work together, in many ways, we’re not going to be able to adequately do our job.”
Boczkowski said that attempting to bridge a polarized audience will require journalists to expose their audience to new perspectives.
“I think it is really important for the journalism community to try and produce news stories that expose people to different viewpoints. That doesn’t mean to give validity to all sides,” Boczkowski said. “That goes against the grain and isn’t, perhaps, as marketable, but I really think it is part of the public service mission of journalism to do that.”
Dan Kennedy said that political polarization has been a reality for much of American history, and noted that having a partisan press is nothing new.
“I think we had a very unusual situation in this country from the end of World War II until fairly recently, the last few decades maybe, where we had kind of a broad consensus. And part of it was because, I think, that the destructiveness and the unity that came out of World War II united the country in a way it had never been before and probably never will be again,” Kennedy said. “Certainly if look you at the 19th century, I don’t think polarization was any better than it is today — I think the Civil War was probably a good sign that there was some polarization going on. And you had a very partisan press. You really only had this rise of a nonpartisan press in response to a desire to sell advertising to everybody, regardless of who they voted for. What we’ve seen now, is with the rise of cable TV, and with the rise of the internet, is it’s very easy for every faction to establish its own voice and attract adherence to their point of view. Which kind of brings us back to the days when there were 12 or 15 newspapers in every town. So I don’t think there’s a particular solution to it. My hope is, we’re going to be okay anyway, without this broad consensus. But that’s a hope.”