The New Reality for the Media in the Era of Trump: Adapt or Die
by plantain1998 on April 26, 2017 - 11:43pm
When Trump tweeted that he won the popular vote because “millions voted illegally”, the news media had no trouble parroting his claim. This unfounded allegation made the rounds on media outlets of various political spectrums, but most were not quick to dispute it live (Calderone 2016). In this context, the news media has to reconsider its part in the circulation of these stories, particularly in the context of their role as both watchdogs against abuses of power and gatekeepers to the market of ideas. Some protect the news media’s duty to report on rumours and dubious stories behind the virtue of fairness and complete freedom of press. In contrast, I will argue that the news media has an ethical responsibility to restrict their reporting on unsubstantiated claims, and to otherwise actively disprove them on air. This moral duty stems from the media’s commitment to the truth, the impact of these virulent stories, and the virtues journalists must uphold.
As the Fourth Estate, some argue that the news media has a duty to report on stories circulating in the community, and especially, to report on the most powerful office in the land, the President. This was the defence of Buzzfeed Editor Ben Smith when he made the decision to publish a 35-page document explicitly detailing Donald Trump’s alleged encounter with Russian prostitutes (Warren 2017). However, from a deontological point of view, this decision was entirely immoral. Firstly, the editors at Buzzfeed were essentially using Trump’s name and reputation as a means to garner the attention of more readers and sell more advertisement spots on their website. Conversely, this media enterprise was using a person (Donal Trump) as a means to an end (making money). Secondly, the news media, particularly editors and producers, act as gatekeepers to the market of ideas when deciding which news to publish and how to frame them adequately (Andrews and Caren 2010). These gatekeepers have foremost a duty to the truth, a truth that cannot be robed of its context nor the credibility of its underlying facts. While the Buzzfeed article did run a disclaimer stating that it couldn’t confirm the veracity of the document nor the credibility of the source, this did not absolve them of their ethical duty. Journalists, not readers, must bear the burden of triple checking their sources and discriminating among certain articles as to insure not only the truthfulness of their content, but also to foster this imperative trust between the media and the public. In this case, Buzzfeed not only failed in its role as a gatekeeper, but also used a person as a means to an end and tried relieve themselves of the responsibilities of journalistic integrity.
One of the most essential roles of a reporter is that of the watchdog, firstly warning the general population when individuals in positions of power abuse their authority, and secondly to keep them accountable to the people. Some media ethicists argue that restricting the news media from covering stories with unsubstantiated claims would limit them in this role (Gaare 1977). From a utilitarian perspective, I would argue that in contrary, it is the publication of these stories that leads to a worst outcome overall. Unsurprisingly, the news media has a significant impact on social movements and organizations through media attention, i.e. coverage (Andrews and Caren 2010). Essentially, media attention can alter the real or perceived credibility of the movement, the political agenda surrounding the issue, and public opinion and knowledge. A good example that shows the extent to which media attention can lead to harmful outcomes is the recent Pizzagate scandal. Starting as conspiracy theory, it quickly circulated around social media and culminated to a man entering a Washington pizza place with an assault riffle and firing multiple times (Couts 2016). As the news media gave more and more attention to this bizarre theory, people started demanding a real investigation of these allegations. While the Pizzagate premise is entirely based on coincidental evidence and absurd speculation, devoid of any context, it amassed increasing attention and credibility due to media coverage. Eventually, the Pizzagate scandal not only lead to physical harm, but it also unfairly damaged the reputation of politicians associated with it, such as Hillary Clinton. More broadly, when reporters parrot false or dubious claims on air, even if they denounce them as falsehoods, it leads audiences to take these claims more seriously and compounds these issues.
One of the most important virtues in journalism is fairness. Most journalists strive for a balance in opinions, political spectrums, and even expert testimonies, as this is proven to help mitigate the issue of false consensus and offer viewers with a more accurate picture of public opinion (Wojcieszak 2011). This is what most media ethicists would argue is the reason the news media needs to report on these unsubstantiated claims. Yet, the virtue of fairness in this context fails and there are a number of other virtues that ethically demand reporters to be more discriminatory in their content. Foremost, it is important to reject the idea that the mainstream media is biased in some political leaning or another. In fact, most research agrees that there is no prominent media bias among mainstream media outlets, and the few research that have found such bias maintain a number of inconsistencies among themselves (Eveland and Shah 2003). In this context, the need for balanced reporting has become not only severely overstated, but also damaging. In fact, a recent study found that false balance (presenting contrasting opinions on a non-contentious issue — such as climate change) can actually lead to the appearance of disagreement and can confuse the viewer (Koehler 2016). In that sense, the virtue of fairness fails the driving concept of practical wisdom since it is not suited to the circumstances. Moreover, reporters should be driven by a myriad of other virtues, namely responsibility, consideration and reliability. These virtues are necessary to journalism because of the considerable influence they hold over the population and social organizations. By being more discriminatory towards their sources, reporters demonstrate both consideration and responsibility, by fulfilling their roles as gatekeepers. They also display reliability over the long term if they establish a reputation of maintaining the best quality of content and sources. Evidently, the virtue of fairness does not suit this context, and there is a number of other virtues journalists should rely on.
In conclusion, the news media has a moral responsibility to evaluate more closely sources and content, and to limit themselves from publishing unsubstantiated claims. This is especially relevant in the current political climate of the United States. Decreasing public trust in the news media and an executive branch that alienates and vilify mainstream media outlets, are not characteristics of a strong or healthy democracy. With the first 100 days of the Trump presidency coming to an end, the media must realize its contribution to this new reality and adapt quickly, or perish in silence.
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