Experts: Biased news makes U.S. voters’ job harder than ever

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Voters need to be careful consumers of political information and to think hard about where information comes from and how it reaches them, experts argue.

On March 3, Super Tuesday coincides with a challenging time for voters in the US when the notion of real versus fake communication about politics is in the news almost daily.

James Hamilton, a professor of communication at Stanford University is the author of a recent book called Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism (Harvard University Press, 2016). The book chronicles the impact of accountability reporting in the US.

Here, Hamilton and Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and of political science, reflect on the historic and current role of journalism in our democratic society. The two also explain the complexities facing voters as they navigate the plethora of information sources now available and why questions about objectivity in journalism and media fragmentation make voters’ jobs harder than ever before:


Why is the link between communications and democracy particularly relevant this year?


Hamilton: Journalism is said to be the first rough draft of history. As legislators this year debated impeachment and conviction, they turned to The Federalist Papers to understand how our institutions were designed to operate.

The Federalist Papers were first published in newspapers in New York in 1787-88 to promote the ratification of the United States Constitution. The fact that policy debates today are informed by the public forum offered by newspapers in the past is a reminder that the media have been intertwined with and integral to democracy since the founding.

Krosnick: Democracy cannot function without communication. In order for voters to make informed choices among candidates, the voters must learn about the candidates’ policy positions, track records, personalities, past experience, and much more.

This happens with the exchange of information from informants to voters. The most important informants have traditionally been the news media, but now communication can happen directly through social media from the candidates to voters and between voters, as well.

Decades ago, the messages communicated to voters by the media were relatively consistent across information providers; however, with the rise of MSNBC and Fox News, we increasingly see different messages being conveyed by different news outlets. This means that the electorate is not homogeneous in their understandings of the candidates.


How important is an objective media for a functioning democracy?


Hamilton: Objectivity was a commercial product that only evolved in the late 1800s with the high costs of printing presses. Newspapers shifted from partisan to nonpartisan in order to attract larger audiences from both parties and to sell these readers’ attention to advertisers.

Fast forward to today’s world of hundreds of cable channels and millions of websites. Each person is better able to find an outlet that reflects their worldview, which can also reinforce their political views and affect their electoral choices.

Criticisms of the media can also have political dividends. Historically, attacks by politicians on the credibility of the media have been part of a conscious strategy to weaken the accountability function of reporters. For example, attacks on the media as biased during President Richard Nixon’s administration, especially by Vice President Spiro Agnew, were frequent and virulent.

Krosnick: In recent years, we have seen a collapse of the notion that politically relevant facts can be discerned by news professionals, leaving voters uncertain about whether the messages communicated by those professionals can be trusted.

President Trump has played a major role in raising doubts about the veracity of information conveyed by major news organizations. Social media has allowed individuals and small organizations to disseminate messages (perhaps accurate, perhaps false) directly to voters, unmediated by major news organizations. And Russia has been accused of disseminating false information via social media, as well.

All this means is that voters are forced to identify news sources they trust. And because different news sources are disseminating different messages about the same matters, voters will now end up with more disparate views of reality than was the case decades ago.


What should voters be aware of in this election cycle?


Krosnick: According to one point of view, voters need to do a ton of work. They need to understand the true state of the nation and the world—how the Trump administration and state and local governments have been making policy; how the courts have been ruling; how law enforcement officials have been doing their jobs; how government agencies have been performing and more. And voters need to learn about the candidates.

But according to another point of view, none of that is necessary to vote in general elections. Instead, voters simply need to decide which party shares their own values and goals more. There is no need to know more than that, because, once elected, officials perform quite predictably, following their party’s line.

From this perspective, instead of voting for the primary candidate whom the voters would most like to see elected, the voter should vote for the candidate from their favored party who is most likely to beat the opponent in the general election. It’s much easier to make that one assessment than to do all the learning entailed by the first perspective.

Hamilton: The migration of revenues away from newspapers to social media platforms means a shift from outlets with a track record built on fact-checking and a search for truth toward companies that explicitly refuse to fact check a large source of political information—online political ads.

Add in foreign actors attempting to sow discord and trolls aiming to provoke, and you have social media feeds in 2020 designed to promote engagement and revenues rather than explicitly inform voters. I hope that when voters see political information online this year, they will think hard about who created the information and how it reached them.

Source: Sandra Feder for Stanford University