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Just how broken is our political information ecosystem, anyway?
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Nov. 2, 2020, 10:12 a.m.
Audience & Social

Hey, news outlets: Tell us your plan for covering a contested election outcome now

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and other tech CEOs have been grilled by Congress on such issues. But Jeff Zucker and Rupert Murdoch haven’t explained how CNN and Fox News, which are both far more widely used for news, would deal with a contested election outcome.

On Tuesday, one test of America’s news media comes to an end and another begins. Having covered the most polarizing election in a generation, journalists will now have to cover what will almost certainly be a highly contentious post-election period. If the result is close enough, the coming weeks could decide who takes the oath of office in January next year. Even if it isn’t close, how the news media handles the post-election period and partisan attacks on the integrity of the election will shape millions of Americans’ trust in the democratic process — and in the news media themselves — for years to come.

The stakes are high. Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the integrity of the electoral process, said he may not abide by the election result unless he wins, and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

The news media will play a crucial role in this period, as they have throughout the election, because Americans rely on the news media more than any other institutions to make sense of the political process. While digital platforms have become important gateways to information, collectively, television channels and the websites of newspapers and digital publishers are still more widely used as a source of news than Google, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter.

In early 2020, survey data from our Digital News Report showed that 59% of Americans said they’d relied on TV channels for news in the past week, and 52% on various kinds of online news sites. By comparison, 36% said they’d used search engines to access news (primarily Google), 35% Facebook, 24% YouTube, and 17% Twitter. When it comes to news specifically, across TV and online, CNN and Fox News alone each have about twice the reach of Twitter, and match the reach of big platforms such as Facebook and Google. ABC, CBS, NBC. In different parts of the country, local television channels have similarly high reach.

It’s not just that more Americans rely on news media for information about politics than rely on social media and the like. They also trust the news media more. Our survey data suggests that just 14% of Americans trust news they see on social media. By contrast, 29% say they trust most news most of the time, with another 25% on the fence. And 45% say that they trust the news media they themselves rely on. These are the media most people will turn to as they try to make sense of a contested election outcome.

That’s why it’s important that the news media explain publicly — and ideally before the last ballots are cast — how they will deal with a contested election outcome. They should explain their editorial guidelines for dealing with political attacks on the integrity of the election. The Associated Press has explained how it will call the election . That’s a good move, and it would be great if more news media did the same. But beyond that, news outlets should explain how they’ll deal with partisan attacks on the integrity of the election itself.

Such explanations may help at least some people understand the reasoning behind editorial decisions over how to deal with unsubstantiated allegations about voter fraud, charges that the election has been “stolen,” or candidates declaring themselves winners without hard evidence to back it up. As Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley has learned in recent years, when you’re intertwined with high-stakes political battles, it’s not just what you do and don’t do that matters. It’s also explaining how and why you do what you do.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have at least suggested the outlines of how they’ll deal with false or premature claims of victory and a contested election. But while news outlets have war-gamed different outcomes internally and invested in exit polling and other methods to inform their coverage, they’ve rarely explained their reasoning or resources to the wider public. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and other tech CEOs have been grilled by Congress on such issues. But Jeff Zucker and Rupert Murdoch haven’t explained how CNN and Fox News, which are both far more widely used for news, would deal with a contested election outcome.

While editors and publishers may prefer to see themselves as outside the political process, it’s not always possible to stay above the fray. Research suggests that established news outlets “play a significant and important role in the dissemination of fake news,” give editorial coverage to extremists, antagonists, and manipulators, and end up amplifying disinformation. More than half (56%) of the 22,247 false or misleading claims by Trump documented by the Washington Post Fact Checker team through August were made in interviews or news conferences, at rallies, and in speeches. Many of these false or misleading claims have been amplified by news media, including in live coverage. How will the news media deal with such claims in these formats if they are used to contest the election result in the weeks ahead? Facebook says it will flag posts by candidates prematurely declaring victory — but news stories about such claims will be exempt.

In 2000, nearly 20 major newspapers “erroneously had [Republican candidate George W. Bush] winning in big headlines at the top of the front pages of their Nov. 8 final editions,” and television networks forecasted the wrong winner twice. Back then, newsrooms could credibly claim that no one saw the confusion that was coming. In 2020, that is not the case. We have every reason to believe this will be the most contentious post-election periods in more than a century. It will play out almost instantaneously and at scale online, in an incredibly polarized environment, with voting taking place under unusual circumstances imposed by the pandemic. There is no guarantee that the election will be resolved with a clear and uncontested result on November 3.

That’s why the news media need to tell us — now — how they will deal with partisan attacks on election integrity that will almost certainly start the moment voting is over. Hundreds of millions of Americans will rely on them for information in the weeks ahead. They have a right to know on what basis news media will provide it.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

Photo by Underway in Ireland used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2020, 10:12 a.m.
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