Tow Center

The media today: Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.

December 6, 2017

Just after last year’s election, a flurry of criticism alleged that the media treated Hillary Clinton like the next president and Donald Trump like a celebrity curiosity. Between front-page coverage of “her emails” and a willingness to look past early reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia, the navel-gazing focus was on whether we, the media, had done a good enough job reporting on the candidates’ policies, weighing them equally.

Introspection was cut short, however, as the discussion soon pivoted to the role of fake news in swaying the election, and has stayed there ever since—prompted by brilliant reporting from Craig Silverman and his team at BuzzFeed, and constant revelations about the extent of Facebook’s role in false information.

ICYMI: Journalist suspended after making costly error in report

A report out at CJR on Tuesday circles back to the initial question about where the press’s attention was focused in the months leading up to the campaign. Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild, from Microsoft Research, detail both the volume and the content of coverage in mainstream media sources and zero in on The New York Times:

“Only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail. …

In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

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Their piece is detailed and worth exploration, but the bottom line is that, even as the flow of information is determined by these huge tech companies, journalists can’t underestimate the magnitude of their own position and their importance in informing the public.


More on journalism in the digital world:

  • Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a fellow at the Tow Center, and her team conducted a similar analysis, but on how the candidates themselves used social media. Perhaps surprisingly, she found that the Clinton campaign was actually more active on social media than Trump’s—but the two used social media very differently.
  • The Times’s John Herrman helpfully distinguishes the panic of today around the big tech companies from the concerns of the internet past:

“Earlier worries about the reliability of information online — anyone can publish anything! — addressed the emergence of an entire new category of networked communication, evoking anti-populist fears about the spread of television, radio and the printed word; today’s concerns about, for example, state-sponsored disinformation double as criticism of the companies that have annexed our networks: primarily Facebook, Google and Twitter.”


Other notable stories

  • Armstrong Williams, Ben Carson’s business manager and adviser, wants to buy the Washington City Paper, though it’s not clear why. In an interview with The Washington Post, Williams said, ““My goal is to make the City Paper so good people will be saying, ‘Are you sure Armstrong Williams is the owner of this paper?’”

ICYMI: Bad news for Vice, Mashable and BuzzFeed

Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.