Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:
Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.
Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.
Connecting the Dots
Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)
My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.
Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.
Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?
I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.
1) What counts as “news”?
When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.
2) Content producers need heuristics
Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”
Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).
3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process
When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)
It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.
Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.
News Stories Aren’t Enough
We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.
Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.
When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.
Let’s Trust the…Politicians?
The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.
There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.
How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?
Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.
Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes
Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.
A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.
Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.
Trump’s Casino Approach
Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.
If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.
Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.
The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.
Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices
Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)
Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.
If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.
Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.
If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.
What Is News?
I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.
After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.
Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.
I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.