There has never been a crucial time to reexamine the extent of the media’s role in influencing public opinion and the State’s national politics. Arguably, the role of the media has been evolving and its influence on political discourse in an age driven by TV ratings and website traffic. The media has gone above and beyond its mandate of reporting on political news, to acting as a tool for ‘social engineering’ or what is simply known as framing or influencing public opinion. While social engineering is a technique mainly used to take advantage of human behavior, news media outlets are using their platforms to discern information that they think their viewers want to hear in order to increase TV ratings or news website traffic. The implications to democratic processes such as elections and various political policies can be analyzed by using the two dominant poles of the media – left leaning and right wing media. Coverage of political information, becomes less about the best interests for the consumer of the news and more about what is politically and ideologically expedient.

It is safe to argue that the 2016 United States Presidential campaign coverage by both print and television news media resurfaced the old age question- can the media affect the outcome of an election and influence policy decisions. The media’s coverage of both Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was driven by the need for ratings. Donald Trump was the candidate that influenced TV ratings to skyrocket because of his ‘reality TV’ driven presidential campaign. Therefore, the media was drawn to covering Trump at the expense of Secretary Clinton. In a competitive 24/7 news cycle, news organizations publish stories that will drive traffic and, thanks to his preexisting fame and ability to generate controversy, those stories were often about Trump. The media fell into a trap whereby its goal was no longer to be objective and to serve as a platform that folks get information from about the different policies of the candidates. The ‘reality TV’ driven coverage had given rise to false equivalences and ‘whataboutisms’ that did not end during the 2016 Presidential campaign but are still persisting in the coverage of the current political climate.

The manner in which the television and print media covers politics influences the opinions of the public. Therefore, if journalists fail to challenge politicians or aspiring politicians as they did with the Bush administration’s arguments for the invasion of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib controversy, a deficiency in factual information results. By looking at the faults the media did when it came to disseminating information and influencing public opinion in 2016, the media has learnt nothing from their faults leading to “Mission Accomplished”. Even though there are journalists who rightly covered the misinformation around the Iraq war in 2003 and during the 2016 Presidential campaign, there still remains a need in political media to avoid distractions such as rating and website traffic. Ratings and website traffic, jeopardizes the role of the media as a branch that is meant to correctly and effectively report on political matters without biases informed by right/left political divides. Research reveals that many major media outlets attract partisan audiences, which reflects political biases in their coverage.

Instead of major media outlets reporting on political facts to their audiences without bias, they are now offering coverage that is drawn on partisan lines. The main stream media has become politicized with audiences who are left/right leaning subscribing to media outlets that are also left/right leaning. This has created an environment in which, what was once a free impartial press being driven by the need to please their audiences at the expense of factual reporting. When the media is drawn between partisan lines due to the polarization that exists in politics, the mandate of a free and independent press suffers. To some extent, this leads to fake news because political partisans would believe anything from the media outlet they feel drawn to based on their political ideology. Simply put, it is time that the media closes the gap between satisfying its consumers for the sake of partisan politics or political ideology and return to an independent press. 

The spillage of partisanship in the media does not only threaten the independence of the media but challenges the survival of a vibrant democracy. In the US, media outlets such as Fox news have become a mouthpiece for spreading disinformation, non-facts for the Trump White House, and an exact equal of the state run news agencies in North Korea (Korean Central Television) and Russia (Channel One, Russia One & RT). This has led scholars to differentiate mainstream or detached media outlets, which prize balance, fairness, and objectivity, from partisan outlets, where stories are ‘framed, spun, and slanted so that certain political agendas are advanced’. In both Russia and North Korea, state run news agencies are a rubber stamp for the rulers and mostly offers staller cult-like coverage of the leaders.  The same can be said about Fox news, which has been covering Mr. Trump through partisan bias. Partisan bias now operates more like racism than mere political disagreement, and this widespread prejudice could have serious consequences for American democracy. Even though, some mainstream media news outlets have an equal distribution of viewers and political coverage, the left or right political divide is still existent.

It has become apparent that consumers of the news when they do not particularly think the coverage is favorable to a political party or person they support; they label the coverage as fake news. Politicians and political commentators are also falling into this trap. Mr. Trump has continued to call CNN and MSNBC purveyors of fake news while applauding Fox news as the medium that has America’s best interests. Just because a news report is not favorable to one’s political opinions does not mean that the news is fake. It is now the duty of the media to avoid being driven by viewership based on political lines. The failure to do so would encourage extremism in politics and a general dislike or distrust of the media.  The government and the media should be separated, even though journalists might hold political opinions this should not inform or cloud the coverage. In a democracy, news channels are not and should not be for the president and by the president. Partisan media contributes to gridlock in any liberal state’s politics, affects public opinion and influences government policy.

Image: Creative Commons

Ian Fleming, B.A. and M.A. in International Politics by the University of South Africa.  His areas of interest include nuclear proliferation, the conduct of negotiations, the role of power in diplomatic negotiations, terrorism and the influence of social media on International and national politics. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and he is the Vice Chair of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.