Underperforming political journalism and pitfalls of conventional wisdom

July 16, 2023 11:48 am

(Photo illustration via Canva)

Writers covering election politics these days generally do not disclose anything relevant about issues and top candidates. Mostly, they read online speeches and social media posts, view broadcast and YouTube segments, report poll predictions, scan databases and launch wave after wave of commentary.

We are drowning in a tsunami of political opinion.

There are a scant few resonating reports based on journalism core tenets, as found in The North Shore Leader’s early disclosure about New York Rep. George Santos’ ludicrous lies. Major media missed that blockbuster. Instead we get a web of predictions 16 months before the first Tuesday in November 2024.

Conventional wisdom in mid-July 2023 prophecies that former President Donald Trump is the overwhelming favorite to be the GOP nominee, that voters in swing states prefer Trump over President Joe Biden, who will be the Democratic nominee, that Trump will be found guilty in the classified documents case unless the Trump-appointed judge Aileen Cannon sinks the prosecution, which will indict Trump anyway in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Fact is, we will not know who the presidential contenders will be, nor the outcome of court cases, until they are decided. We just have to wait. In the digital era, we are impatient, checking our phones 96 times per day, or once every 10-12 minutes. We expect answers instantaneously.

Opinion fills that gap.

But that’s not the whole of it. The above predictions did not require writers to do any leg work beyond viewing polls, social media and court filings. They could do those reports in pajamas.

The 2016 presidential election showcased the shortcomings of pollsters who overwhelmingly predicted that Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump. The conventional wisdom failed to factor high GOP turnout as well as undecided and Rust-belt state voters breaking for Trump.

On the plus side, there was less reliance then on blog posts and more on investigative reports. Included in the New York Times top 100 popular stories of 2016 were revelations about Trump’s Vietnam bone-spur draft deferments; his avoiding paying taxes for nearly two decades, his massive real estate and loan debt, and risqué behavior with women.

Clinton may have gotten the worst of it when her email server was linked to disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of her top aide Huma Abedin.

We have seen precious few such disclosures in 2023. There may be two fundamental reasons: newsroom employment dropped by 26% between 2008 and 2020 and is still dropping as more people get their news from social media (62%, 2016 v. 82%, 2022).

And much of that news is regurgitated from other outlets actually doing political journalism.

The top news site remains Yahoo with 61% percent of U.S. adults having a favorable opinion of its services. But a closer look at those services reveals that this site, like other aggregate ones, such as Flipboard, simply showcase, revise, analyze and disseminate stories from other media.

Aggregator websites, such as Google News and Feedly, also conveniently assemble reports based on your clicks and algorithmic preferences.

Viewers gravitate toward convenience, which the internet readily provides, seemingly for free. Patrons do not always realize that they are being datamined with personal information shared with advertisers and organizations. Users’ political affiliations are in demand as campaigns solicit donations. Reuters reports that political parties use data on more than 200 million voting-age Americans to inform their strategies and tactics.

Now with artificial intelligence (AI), that aspect has increased multifold. You are defined by your algorithms as well as affiliations, reduced to a mere node, with home appliances and digital devices transmitting and receiving information about your political thoughts, words and deeds.

The big five tech companies — Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), and Microsoft— continue to drain the media advertising base. This has hurt the newspaper industry, in particular, whose reporters generate the bulk of fact-based news, projected to lose $2.4 billion in ad revenue by 2026.

Why should you care?

Journalism, the so-called Fourth Estate, monitoring the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government, has one goal: to inform the public so that they make intelligent decisions in the voting booth. Hard-hitting political reporting is central to that, without which, we get the governments we deserve.

There are still reliable news sites, including States Newsroom, of which the Iowa Capital Dispatch is a part. Forbes recommends 10 trustworthy outlets, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BBC, Politico and major wire services.

As for the predictions in the beginning of this column, check back in one year and see how life intervened and upended conventional wisdom.

Perhaps Trump will not be the GOP nominee in 2024. Maybe voters in swing states may switch sides, voting for Biden. The elderly Trump and Biden may drop out of the race for any number of reasons, from health to legal complications. Perhaps Judge Cannon, overseeing the classified documents case, will be impartial. Or not. Maybe the DOJ will lose or amend its Jan. 6 case.

Life and its variables, rather than social media and its bloviators, determine the real agenda the public must heed. Wait for the facts. Follow outlets that provide them. Vote accordingly.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.