Apparently this is the week that people have gotten together to write think pieces about how “the media” is confused and outraged by Donald Trump’s frequent lying. Trump’s bogus claim that Whites are more likely to be shot by Blacks than Whites caused NBC’s Meet the Press staff to call Trump “the post truth 2016 candidate”. Both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards have made similar complaints. Even Matt Taibbi wrote a think piece in Rolling Stone about the growth of lying in the campaign:
Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.
How could campaign news go off the rails so badly in 2015? Most explanations start with Donald Trump as an individual. Because he is outside the mainstream political system and independently wealthy, he does not need to rely on the resources that political parties or traditional news coverage can offer a candidate. Trump is free to say what he wants. On the other hand, I am not surprised in the least that a candidate has built a campaign largely on identity and personality, while bypassing traditional media as much as possible. I wrote the following seven months ago – before Trump started his campaign – as a concluding prediction to my dissertation:
One possible trajectory is that identity politics continue to become a larger part of online political discourse, as media sites cater to audience demand. New media sites have incentives for outrage and other first person narratives, which dovetail with discussions of identity and belonging. Traditional media sites may show a similar kind of selection bias – treating individual statements from candidates about identity politics as more newsworthy – while maintaining an objective presentation of these statements. Candidates may embrace identity politics as a way to stand out in primaries. In this scenario, both sides may harden around issues of identity. People who use social media to express identity politics may develop a “ragehole” – similar to a journalist’s newshole, these social media users produce a certain number of posts on identity per week. These posts mainly criticize perceived transgressors. Social media users who often post about identity may seek out like-minded individuals and purge opposing partisans from their social networks. People who do not enjoy identifying with either echo chamber may get sick of the mudslinging. They may compare friends filling the “ragehole” at a relatively constant rate to a car alarm that is constantly ringing, and decide their only option is to walk away from following the political process. The cycle would reinforce itself, as the only people left following politics are people who enjoy identifying with a side and some of the mudslinging.
Donald Trump’s campaign could not appear in a vacuum. Remember he considered running in 2012 but dropped out with little impact on the race. Thankfully, even famed media critics like Jay Rosen are starting to draw from organizational sociology. He argues there is heavy institutional isomorphism, drawing from DiMaggio and Powell’s famous paper in organizational theory. Reporters in large national news organizations have similar training, they often move from one job to another within the same field of leading US news organizations, therefore we would expect conformity. Rosen goes on to say:
“DiMaggio and Powell note that isomorphism is especially likely in institutions with ambiguous or unclear goals. That describes the teams of reporters, editors and producers who create most of the campaign coverage we see.”
Unfortunately, Rosen doesn’t really get what organizational theorists means by “goal ambiguity.” Like a lot of things in academia, this has a specific technical meaning. Journalists know they want to cover “newsworthy” stories and attract a large audience. But how do we define newsworthiness? Its actually one of the hardest things for journalists to do. This is what “goal ambiguity” means. Rosen is far off base when he accuses mainstream journalists of having a “weak sense of purpose,” as if goal ambiguity is some sort of ideological failing.
As I first outlined in an article I published four years ago, goal ambiguity is a common cognitive problem in news. All news coverage and political media content (including hot takes) is fundamentally ambiguous. What do we write about? How do we write about it? Which combination will actually get readers? The range of possible combinations is infinite. Any news organization that stops to debate them all will be so paralyzed by indecision that they will never finish one story before the next event occurs. News organizations need to establish certain signals and criteria to triage potential stories, assign reporters, and actually produce content.
In my article, I find things like holding a press conference outside Washington DC or holding it in prime time provide powerful signals. Even as technology improves and timely coverage from halfway across the world is no longer a technical challenge, the New York Times treated White House press conferences as more formal and important. An increase in the total volume of news coverage was the most consistent predictor of increased balance in those stories – writing full news stories instead of just transcribing the president said. Journalists appear to decide “how important is this story?” and then decide how many sources to include.
I think this example shows how my outlook is very different than Rosen and David Roberts at Vox. Rosen and Roberts start with some genuine insight about how the institutional relationship between candidates and the traditional campaign press corps have fundamentally changed. However, they both use their insight as a way to lead us to their favorite axe to grind. Rosen, as always, wants reporters to have some “sense of purpose.” Roberts, fitting in with the Vox brand, argues the problem is “really” the truthiness of the conservative movement. [Let’s save whether Roberts is an ideal case of progressive truthiness for a separate post.]
Sadly, there is real insight that Rosen and Roberts are sacrificing to pursue their ideological arguments. The fundamental premise of my dissertation is that both news and the more ideological/opinionated media are highly predictable. Writers do not create media events. When Trump gives a speech, he says something, and writers respond to it in various ways. Some reactions may more analytic, focusing on public policy or Trump’s electability. Other reactions may be more emotional. There is such a wide range of ways to write about the Trump campaign or any other media event that writers need to have a strong set of rules in place for how to handle these contingencies before they occur.
Journalism fundamentally operates on an if : then logic. If a newsmaker does X, then we will respond with news coverage Y. It is the only way to do the job. If reporters had to make ad hoc evaluations of each news event, they could never meet deadlines. In my dissertation, I argue partisan media also operates under an if : then logic, just with different premises for if and then. As I tell my students, once we understand journalism as a process of sorting through ambiguity, its probably easier to predict news coverage than their college GPA.