Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Trumping the Media

Say what you will about Donald Trump and his run for the White House, the man knows how to use the media effectively—and he's beating it at its own game.

He comes out with several Tweets each day to add his word on a given topic and people listen—both his supporters and his critics. He gets himself on the news nearly every day, too, and this is all free publicity. As a result, people are excited about this year’s presidential election, and they are responding in unprecedented numbers at the primaries and caucuses.

How does he do it? Dr. Sandra Borden, professor of communication, explains Trump's media savvy with an eye toward history and an ear on what's moving the public.

“Trump is a natural outcome of several trends in mass media that have been accumulating over the past 30 years and converged in this moment,” she said.

For example, the media have increasingly focused on celebrity news. At one time, shows about the stars and their personalities and lives shown on “Entertainment Tonight” were not considered journalism. Now, such formats and content have been embedded into the news model.

“Donald Trump is a prominent and highly successful and wealthy businessman,” said Borden. “He also is a reality TV show star. We’re used to the media focusing on personality, and he knows how to cater to this aspect of the media culture.”

The 2007-08 writer’s strike was instrumental in the increased reliance of TV networks and cable stations on reality television. Since they needed to fill air time, they turned to unscripted shows that were cheaper to produce and proved popular with viewers.

Secondly, when it comes to presidential elections, the media tend to focus on the horse race: who’s ahead and by how much. Polling is incorporated into this coverage, some done by polling groups and some by the TV networks themselves.

“The logic of this is that the candidate who is ahead deserves more coverage, and once again, the issues are of less importance,” said Borden.

Dr. Sandra Borden
Campaigns realize that “messaging” is the most important way to promote their candidates. They stage “pseudo-events” as part of their strategic positioning of their candidates, which take place in the form of press conferences and rallies. The candidates, then, deliver “canned information” and sound bites that repeat their message over and over again.

“By not digging into the complexity of the issues, the media plays into these ploys,” said Borden. “These ‘pseudo-events’ are spectacle and they’re cheap, easy and predictable ways for the media to cover the candidates.”

In truth, it costs money to pay journalists to gather news and analyze it in the 24-7 news cycle. Political campaigns are wise to this and play to the media’s priorities. Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's deputy chief of staff,  first utilized this approach of creating a candidate's image and side-stepping substance in the 1984 presidential re-election campaign.

So why does Trump get more coverage than Hillary Clinton, who is ahead in the Democratic race?

“Journalism has certain conventions,” said Borden. “News is not about 'dog bites man' stories but rather about 'man bites dog' stories. Everyone thinks they know Hillary Clinton, and it’s difficult for her to break out of that narrative. However, Bernie Sanders has no pre-existing narrative, so he is news—especially since he is 74 years old and a self-proclaimed socialist.”

In truth, important public issues are difficult to cover. They rarely have just one cause or a simple, “magic“ bullet solution. And to give issues thorough coverage would have been even more complicated in a such a large Republican field—17 in all.

“Campaigns know how the media work, so they give the media what they are looking for to fit their routines and conventions,” said Borden. “That’s why the debates became personality contests with prepared speeches and comebacks made for the media to pick up and repeat.

“Journalists who strive to be objective often avoid covering issues in favor of covering events. Events are less ambiguous in content and require less analysis—and cost.”

Alternative media cover policy issues, she said, but they are more slanted toward their political leanings on both the Left and the Right.

“The audience plays a role in this view of news, too, and the Internet has influenced people’s attention span as well as their ability to get information on anything they want. Some of that information is authentic and some of it is questionable. Being informed takes a lot of effort.”

Young people don't typically read the news every day, Borden continued. Instead, they use their Facebook feeds for information. This produces a certain tunnel vision where they consume only certain stories they and their friends find interesting.

Meanwhile, the general public often doesn’t read to the bottom of a story, even a great story, she said. They don’t compare their sources of information. In this way, the public ends up complicit in its relationship with the media.

Borden, whose research includes communication ethics, is very concerned about the future of our democracy if it lacks good journalism.

“Some people make the argument that journalism has always been written for a small, attentive audience,” said Borden. “However, as many people as possible should be informed citizens and not just the news junkies. If we want to maximize our democratic participation, everyone has to pay attention to the issues and policy positions of our candidates.”

However, Borden does see a ray of hope.

“Sometimes it takes a dramatic turn of events to make people pay attention,” she said. “Something like the terrorist attack in Brussels can bring the political conversation back to substantive policy questions, though terrorism is an issue that also can turn on emotions.”

Those who vote will decide the election whether they are up on the candidates’ positions on the issues or not, she said.

“There’s no secret gathering among the media to corrupt politics,” said Borden. “Journalists are an idealistic breed who really do care about the political process. They are political junkies, but that doesn’t come across when they are pressured to produce stories on the 24-7 news cycle, work on tighter deadlines, fill up air time and web space. This is not deliberate. It is not a conspiracy. It is the logical conclusion to all these things that drive the media.”

However, the media can’t just be about winning, entertainment and ratings either. Elections should be about ideas, she said.

“The media, the political campaigns and the citizens all need to do their parts,” said Borden. “The good news is that, if everyone does his/her part, the job gets done.”

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