Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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Nov. 16, 2020, 12:15 p.m.

So what did the 2020 election really mean, anyway? Here’s a first draft of media history, from 100-plus scholars

Including how research into sports fandom explains Trump supporters’ claims of voter fraud: “One’s degree of team identification is a major predictor for attributing a loss to external forces such as referees and opponents’ cheating, resulting in denial of the outcome.”

Who says academics can’t work on tight deadlines?

A few days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election — you may remember it, a real estate guy won — a group of political scientists, communications scholars, and other academics put together a collection of 80-plus pieces reacting to the result through the lens of social science. (Including contributions from familiar-to-Nieman-Lab-readers types like Whitney Phillips, Seth C. Lewis, David Karpf, Matt Carlson, Pippa Norris, Cherian George, Daniel Kreiss, Alf Hermida, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Jay Rosen.) The goal was to capture “the immediate thoughts and early research insights on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election from the cutting edge of media and politics research.”

Now they’ve done it again: Fresh out of the academic oven is the 2020 edition, offering some quick learned reactions to Joe Biden’s defeat (yes, defeat) of Donald Trump. You can find them all on the web here, or download this 128-page PDF; they’re all short and aimed at a non-academic audience.

Look, I will not pretend I’ve read all of it closely — it’s got 92 pieces from 119 scholars this time around. But here are 22 of them that stood out to me as being of interest to media types — some from familiar faces, some from new ones.

“Angry voters are (often) misinformed voters” (Brian E. Weeks)

Anger also enhances existing partisan biases when people are exposed to political information, which helps explain some widespread misperceptions during the 2020 campaign. Angry individuals are more likely to process information — including false information — in a way that is consistent with their existing political attitudes or beliefs, leaving them more susceptible to believing misinformation that is damaging to political opponents. Given that much of the political misinformation in circulation during the 2020 election was designed to elicit anger, it is unsurprising that so much misinformation was taken as true.

To better understand the intersection of anger and misinformation in the 2020 election, I fielded a nationally representative, multi-wave survey that asked voters whether they believed several false statements and conspiracy theories about the two candidates for president. These included well known conspiracies theories about Qanon and the coronavirus, as well as prominent claims about Hunter Biden and Donald Trump’s health.

What I found was astounding. In every instance — across more than ten false claims about both candidates — the more anger people felt about the candidates, the more likely they were to believe the false statements. For instance, anger at Joe Biden was by far the strongest predictor — even outweighing partisanship — of whether respondents believed false claims about Joe and Hunter Biden’s involvement in Ukraine. Angry voters were even more likely to believe these claims over time — essentially doubling down on their beliefs as the election approached. This was true for both Republicans’ and Democrats’ belief in claims about Biden and Trump.

“The disinformed election” (Saif Shahin)

Hiding behind anecdotes and statistics is a deeper truth about disinformation: its acceptance relies less upon the content of a campaign itself and more upon how closely it coheres with an individual’s beliefs about the world they live in — beliefs that are increasingly built around partisan boundaries. Discrete pieces of disinformation do not carry any meaning on their own. They have to fit within larger partisan narratives about social reality, narratives that feature good and evil, heroes and villains, victims and oppressors, before they “make sense” to an individual.

Congruence with a narrative — for instance, an “oppressive” Democratic Party trying to snatch the election from Republican “victims” and Trump waging a “heroic” war on behalf of those victims — is what leads a particular disinformation campaign — for instance, mail-in ballots being a fraud perpetrated by the Democrats — to appear meaningful. Those who believe in this narrative buy into the disinformation and act accordingly. Those who believe in a different narrative, in which the heroes and villains and reversed, treat it as “fake news.”

Crucially though, this is not just true for disinformation but for information in general. Republican supporters considered the COVID-19 pandemic to be a hoax because the mounting toll exposed Trump’s inefficiency as a president and Trump, the hero, himself played it down. The virus, arriving on the heels of the Democratic impeachment of Trump, simply did not fit into the Republican narrative of how the world works. What did fit, however, was the idea of the virus as another evil Democratic plot to bring down the good president.

Believing in and acting upon a piece of (dis)information, therefore, has little to do with truth and lies, right and wrong. Instead, it is closely related to people’s partisan identities and has become a form of identity performance — a ritual of who you are and where you belong in the increasingly fragmented body politic. But identities are always constructed in opposition to an “other”: distrust of and antipathy toward the “other” is fundamental to the conception of the “self.” That is the reason why so much of disinformation is accusatory of the “other” side or showcases one’s own side as a victim of the “other’s” perfidy — an instance of what political scientists call affective polarization…

Acknowledging disinformation as a symptom of the deeper malady of affective polarization also carries lessons for politics and specifically for deliberative democracy. It exposes what Chantal Mouffe has called “a fundamental tension between the logic of democracy and the logic of liberalism”: while liberalism recognizes differences in beliefs and values, deliberative democracy requires “a final rational resolution” of those differences through deliberation. But when people are willing to die for beliefs and values they know to be based on falsehoods, there is little hope for rational resolutions and consensus. Instead, democratic models need to gravitate away from deliberation toward agonistic pluralism, in which the “other” is not viewed as an “enemy” to be conquered but as an “adversary” to be accepted as a legitimate political voice, even if that voice disagrees with our own.

“Forecasting the future of election forecasting” (Benjamin Toff)

Many likely culprits were singled out about [polling errors in the 2016] election: historically large numbers of undecided and third-party voters, too few pollsters weighting samples for response bias by education, a lack of state-level polls late in the race when events caused significant movement toward Donald Trump. As of now, none appear applicable to this cycle. Even well-respected state-level polls from the New York Times/Siena College and the Washington Post/ABC News were off by double digits, making it hard to shake the feeling that the entire industry may be dealing with more fundamental, structural problems.

Are conventional methods disproportionately failing to reach the disaffected, distrusting voters most drawn to Trump’s brand of right-wing populism, underestimating their likelihood of turning out to vote, or both? Knowing more about the campaigns’ internal polls, which may have used different assumptions, along with final updated voter files will eventually help answer some of these questions…

“In averages we trust” has become a mantra for many political journalists trying to avoid overemphasizing any single error-prone survey estimate. But averaging polls only helps correct for random sampling-induced error; it does not help if results are collectively skewed due to faulty methods, modeling assumptions, or “herding.” In a polling landscape where best practices are legitimately in flux and where grifters and opportunists seek headlines to gin up publicity and exposure, averaging may lead to over-confidence about election outcomes that are in fact a lot more variable than suggested by sampling error alone…

Forecasters must grapple with whether they seek to be anything other than a diversion for obsessed hobbyists. I don’t fault them for emphasizing how uncertain their predictions actually are. But there is something deeply unsatisfying about this form of prognosticating punditry, which simultaneously claims superior decimal-point precision while humbly insisting that its declarations should only ever be treated impressionistically. As long as the main takeaway really isn’t much more than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, the future of election forecasting may not be bright.

“What do news audiences think about ‘cutting away’ from news that could contain misinformation?” (Richard Fletcher)

One of the defining moments of the media coverage during the 2020 U.S. presidential election came when several major U.S. TV networks decided to cut away from President Trump’s White House press conference on November 5. NBC, ABC, and CBS all cut their feeds mid-way through Trump’s sixteen-minute speech, taking the decision to stop broadcasting it to their viewers because of concerns over baseless claims about election fraud. Other networks, including CNN and Fox, broadcast the whole speech, but reported afterwards that the President had offered no evidence for his accusations.

…To understand how news audiences think about this dilemma we asked respondents in our 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News Report — an annual online survey across 40 different markets — which of the two options above comes closer to their view about what the news media should do when dealing with politicians that have made a statement that could be false?

In the U.S., half (50%) said “report the statement prominently because it is important for the public to know what the politician said” comes closer to their view (see Figure 1), with only 22% selecting “not emphasize the statement because it would give the politician unwarranted attention” (the remaining 28% said “Don’t know”)…

Many welcomed the decision to cut away from Trump’s speech, and given the circumstances, a strong case can be made that it was the right thing to do — just as a case can be made for showing the speech in full and then fact-checking it immediately afterwards. But we should think carefully about whether this is a good precedent for political coverage more generally. We should ask whether it is something that journalists can realistically do in practice, but also whether it is something that audiences actually want them to do in the first place, and what they will ultimately think of news media who choose to do so — especially prominent politicians that millions of people, who are often already skeptical of the news media, have voted for.

“The day the music died: turning off the cameras on President Trump” (Sarah Oates)

One by one, many networks decided to stop airing the press conference. Instead, some returned to their studio announcers to criticize the president for lying. This is the moment when U.S. media norms, under enormous pressure from Trump-led disinformation, switched from full libertarian values to a stronger watchdog role. This was a seismic shift under enormous provocation, but the U.S. media rapidly adapted to a new reality…

While there was growing unease among journalists about the rising tide of falsehoods from the White House, responsible media outlets felt they had to cover what the president said. They tried to balance this by contextualizing the information and countering disinformation with reporting. Unfortunately, this had the joint effect of amplifying the disinformation while at the same time allowing the president to complain to his supporters that the media were “fake” and too critical.

By the day after the 2020 election, three things happened to switch off the full libertarian model and usher in an era in which media networks felt comfortable switching off the president. First, journalists had come to realize that the game was rigged. Trump and his supporters were parasites in the libertarian media system, taking advantage of how they could assert disinformation and still get covered. What changed is that journalists realized that the libertarian model dictates that media must cover the news — but should avoid propaganda. By accepting and embracing that messages from the White House were now propaganda and not news, the networks were liberated to stop the flow of disinformation for the good of democracy. And protecting democracy, after all, is at the heart of the libertarian model of the media…

In addition, the journalists practice intermedia agenda-setting, meaning that once they saw one network cut off the president, they felt liberated to do the same. Not all media outlets cut away, but enough to make a strong statement that firmly moved the president from an important source of national information to a propagandist working against the interests of democracy.

“A new horse race begins: the scramble for a post-election narrative” (Victor Pickard)

An abiding reliance on official sources and deference to power is historically a common cornerstone of professional journalism. This power relationship runs deep and is bound up with media firms’ core business model, driven by advertising revenue and the ultimate objective to actualize profits at any social cost. The fact that commercialism so often trumps democracy is also why scolding individual journalists and news outlets for being irresponsible often misses the systemic root of the problem.

While it’s refreshing that many media organizations have finally stopped deferring to Trump, we must look seriously at the role they have played in normalizing fascistic politics — as well as the structural factors that cause these institutions to predictably fail in advancing democratic aims.

Understanding these power relationships is necessary but insufficient. The point should be to change the current system. Low-quality information runs rampant through many of our news and communication systems — from Facebook to Fox News — while actual journalism is rapidly disappearing. Media and political communication scholars ideally would help assist reform efforts toward restructuring these systems and creating new institutions.

One potentially growing undercurrent in the field of communication research appears to be a new variant of the “limited effects” model, which assumes that, lacking clear causal relationships, media have relatively little influence over political behavior, and therefore, by implication, are unworthy of structural reform efforts.

Communication research needs a new normative framework that’s guided by social justice. Instead of accepting things as they are, I call upon my colleagues to seize this historical moment and help broaden our political imaginary as to what kind of media system is possible. We can dare hope for media institutions that serve democratic needs and not just corporate profits.

“It’s all about my ‘team’: what we can learn about politics from sport” (Natalie Brown-Devlin and Michael Devlin)

Sport communication scholars often examine fan behavior through the concept of team identification, explained by Daniel Wann as an emotional connection to a team where their performances become self-relevant. Essentially, team wins feel like personal victories, leading one to Bask-In-Reflected-Glory (BIRG), and team losses feel like personal defeats, leading one to Cut-Off-Reflected-Failure (CORF). Sport communication literature provides evidence that those who are highly identified with their team are more likely to BIRG during their teams’ success and less likely to CORF after losses. Unlike any U.S. President in modern history, President Trump has turned politics into sport, complete with blind and unadulterated fandom.

So what can we learn about the 2020 election from sport fandom? First, let’s consider the role of cognitive dissonance and identity protection. Looking back to 2014, Devlin and Billings conducted a longitudinal analysis of highly identified USMNT fans during the 2014 World Cup. As the tournament progressed, the team failed to meet (unrealistic) expectations, resulting in decreased nationalism, or the belief that your country is better than another country, and smugness, the belief that your country is superior to all countries attitudes, among a national sample. Interestingly, once the USMNT was eliminated from the tournament, smugness scores increased to their highest level, indicating highly identified fans not only refused to CORF, but instead, doubled-down and declared themselves the best despite evidence to the contrary.

We are witnessing a similar effect occurring with political identity. For highly identified Trump fans, the electoral loss poses a personal identity threat that must be mitigated accordingly. Therefore, denying the election results and refusing to concede provides psychological insulation from the loss. Rationale for this can also be explained by social psychological findings suggesting a success/failure attributional bias exists, which helps internalize success and externalize failure.

Sport communication research has found that one’s degree of team identification is a major predictor for attributing a loss to external forces such as referees and opponents’ cheating, resulting in denial of the outcome, or worse, behaviors such as increased aggression. Leon Mann noted that when supporters of opposing teams were asked to recap a game, it seemed they witnessed two completely different events. Supporters of the losing team overestimated objective and measurable events, such as free kicks given to the opponent, and attributing the loss to external factors and dirty play rather than admitting their team’s poor performance.

“Meme war is merely the continuation of politics by other means” (Rodney Taveira)

“We actually elected a meme as president,” ran a headline from The Washington Post, on November 9, 2016. The quote came, in a post accompanied by an image of Pepe the Frog, from 4chan. This reviled image board was, along with its uglier younger sibling 8chan, and r/The_Donald on Reddit, the wellspring for the offensive memes and rhetoric that defined much of the online support for Trump, coming to be known as the alt-right. That 8chan and The_Donald subreddit have since been banned reflects not the rejection of memes as a means of doing politics, but rather its integration into the mainstream…

While it is of course hyperbolic to claim that memes won Trump the presidency in 2016, they do help explain the enduring passion and nature of his support. Trump’s outsiderness worked well with meme culture in his 2016 campaign, carving out a new rhetorical space in the political landscape that in opposition to the Democrats but was outside the GOP, and in which his supporters could play and organize under the banner of MAGA.

Crucially, Trump’s 2016 campaign, whether by design or thrift, did not create any memes of its own. Trump was merely an amplifier for the frowned-upon fringes, a malleable identity that could be adopted by anyone.

“Election memes 2020, or, how to be funny when nothing is fun” (Ryan M. Milner and Whitney Phillips)

Even when internet culture fun wasn’t explicitly dehumanizing, it too-often ignored anything beyond the joke. For years, the only serious rule was to take nothing seriously. The hallmarks of this fun were irony, fetishization, and aloof antagonism, and they left no room for context, no room to consider the consequences for those outside the laughter. Context and consequences didn’t have to be addressed by the laughing us, because the laughing us tended to be protected from the harms inspiring their laughter and the harms that resulted from it.

Even as many have learned those lessons, fetishistic fun still exists in 2020. It remains a giant, billowing red flag, especially for those of us worn down to gnawing exhaustion. Laughter that acts like 500 immigrant children aren’t still separated from their parents; laughter that doesn’t carry the weight of the 230,000 Americans dead from COVID-19; laughter that ignores Kamala Harris’ stern rebuke of systemic racism because while she was speaking that fly landed right on the other guy’s head, lol…

In an emergency, even our humor has to convey the significance of the moment, and to avoid the traps of irony, fetishization, and aloof antagonism. In an emergency, context must be foregrounded, not denied. And in an emergency that has disproportionately affected the most at risk and marginalized, we need humor to punch up at the causes, not down at the recipients. We don’t need humor trampling those already trampled or humor pretending that power imbalances don’t exist at all.

“Election 2020 and the further degradation of local journalism” (Philip Napoli)

…a troubling new trend emerged in the run-up to the 2020 election — the rise of partisan networks of local news sites, many of which are operating under a fundamentally corrupted model of local journalism.

Partisanship in local journalism is certainly nothing new; however, as the number of newspapers serving individual communities contracted over the past four decades, the typical U.S. community was served by a single local newspaper. As a result, this newspaper would often try to appeal to the broadest possible readership by maintaining a degree of objectivity and political neutrality. This new generation of partisan local news sites operates very differently…these sites often go to great lengths to conceal their ownership and funding sources from readers. In some instances, these sites have even adopted the names of defunct local newspapers in an effort to deceive readers.

What, if any, impact these sites may have had on the election outcome is difficult to determine at this point. However, they obviously grew quite rapidly during election season. In addition, Metric Media has announced plans to launch 15,000 additional sites, and has recently begun purchasing local newspapers, as part of what the company’s CEO Brian Timpone has described as an effort to “democratize community news.”

Rather than democratizing community news, these developments suggest that a new template for disguising strategic political influence efforts as local journalism has been established during the 2020 election and could become the norm in future elections. The 2020 election may have provided just a small preview of what’s yet to come.

“Social media moderation of political talk” (Shannon C. McGregor)

Platforms are downstream from politics and political life. What animates our politics also animates our politics on platforms — and is shaped by platforms. While algorithms may put their thumb on the divisions in our country, they do not deterministically create them. Simply put: Our social reality is reflected and distorted — not created — on social media platforms. We have a political problem in this country: right-wing misinformation, shorn up by making in-group identity threats salient and aimed at undermining public trust in institutions — the press, the electoral process, public health — is pervasive. Any attempt to craft these political issues as problems simply of social media and information risks centering another four years of academic, press, and press attention around the wrong targets.

In the wake of 2016, the press and academia focused on the informational quality of posts on social media. We trained our eye towards whether information in these posts was true or false, toward how many people potentially encountered false information, and whether or not it swayed voters towards electing Trump. As my colleagues and I have argued, this attention is misguided and has clearly had an outsized impact on public opinion about the effects of misinformation. Research in this area should focus on how mis- and dis-information entrenches existing divides along the lines of our partisan identities. And it should embrace a focus on the very sort of elite communication against which the platforms — finally — took action. As Francesca Tripodi observed, “there is reason to believe [Trump] and other conservative politicians are priming their constituents to think that Big Tech rigged the 2020 election in Democrats’ favor.”

“The emotional politics of 2020: fear and loathing in the United States” (Karin Wahl-Jorgensen)

Trump’s emotional register, however volatile, has always been dominated by anger. This is significant because the recent history of U.S. politics has been largely characterized by emotional regimes of positivity. In particular, presidents often draw on the positive and forward-looking emotion of hope. For example, Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster became iconic in his campaign, while Bill Clinton branded himself “The Man From Hope” — conveniently, of course, he originally hailed from Hope, Arkansas.

By contrast, although Trump’s mantra, “Make America Great Again,” embodied hope for a transformative future, this was countered by his consistently and essentially angry rhetoric.

Trump’s anger has been put to good use and could be seen as essential to his brand of politics. I have previously made the case that we can see Trump’s brand of “angry populism” as an indication of a change in the “emotional regime” — or the dominant ways of talking about emotions in public which underpin political regimes. Trump’s anger propelled him to office because it allowed him to voice the discontent of voters who have felt left behind by globalization, economic transformations and cultural change. But in doing so, it also signaled the salience of an angrier form of politics more generally — a shift we have seen played out over the past four years.

While Trump’s angry populism clearly continues to resonate with his core voters, with more than 70 million casting their ballots for him, it also appears to have lost some of its shine amid the profound crises facing the world and the United States in 2020. Perhaps most obviously, it is easier to be successful as an angry challenger than an angry incumbent.

“When journalism’s relevance is also on the ballot” (Seth C. Lewis, Matt Carlson, and Sue Robinson)

The relevance of journalism — in its mainstream, neutral, evidenced-based form — is in danger in no small part because identity politics have weaponized what news we watch. Historically, our theories of media — especially around media consumption — have been based on characteristics of information. Give people good, relevant, accurate information about public affairs, this perspective assumes, and a vibrant democracy shall follow.

With ideological media machines in overdrive, however, journalism and political communication scholars have come to realize that the world is no longer defined by information, but by identities. Trump supporters see in their candidate their own unspoken — and, perhaps for many, unacknowledged — values such as fear that immigrants will steal their livelihoods. Central to this is a decades-long cultivation of a belief that mainstream news outlets spout liberal agendas littered with “fake news,” a term that Trump has so effectively deployed to capture many people’s pre-existing frustrations with journalists and to undermine any future confidence in the press. Trump supporters listen when he tells them to ignore journalists — the “the enemy of the people,” he calls them — and get their information only from him or his sanctioned sources such as Fox News.

Meanwhile, for those on the left, investment in mainstream journalism organizations became symbolic of their commitment to democracy, which they conflated with the Democratic candidate. For the first time in decades, the needle on media trust markedly ticked upward — but only for those leaning left. Recent surveys show that, in America today, your media choices are driven primarily by your ideology. And even while fears about online filter bubbles are mostly overblown, research shows how people overall inhabit increasingly divergent information worlds: you watch Fox News or you watch MSNBC, you listen to friends and family who think the same way you do and you dismiss everything else as fake news. And doing so makes us feel secure in our righteousness, secure in our sense of self. As Daniel Kreiss wrote in describing Tea Party members, “Fox News was less about ‘information’ than ‘family'” — reinforcing the power of identity for understanding contemporary media and politics.

“Beyond the horse race: Voting process coverage in 2020” (Kathleen Searles)

Voting process coverage might include interviews with poll workers, discussion of how ballots are counted, or footage of long lines at polling places. Such process coverage is likely featured throughout the election cycle but is more likely to be allocated airtime in the days immediately preceding Election Day and during early voting. This is particularly true for television news coverage, during which time there is more opportunity for compelling visuals to accompany coverage. Importantly, this coverage can also be of utility to news consumers as they prepare to cast their ballot…

I argue that voting process coverage is worthy of scholarly attention as it differs in important ways from the two types of electoral coverage that researchers focus on. First, unlike strategic game coverage, which discusses strategies and tactics and polls, putting campaigns and candidates at the center, voting process coverage centers citizens. Second, often issue coverage is lauded as the substantive alternative to the horse race, and yet research shows it makes up only a fraction of coverage, in part because it is unlikely to make journalists’ agenda…

…while horse race coverage has (understandably) been the topic of scholarly focus, this focus neglects a subset of coverage that is of empirical and normative interest: voting process coverage. While much analysis of the 2016 election focused on media failures, as scholars unpack the role of the media in the 2020 election, the story of voting process coverage may be a compelling example of democracy-worthy news practice.

“YouTube as a space for news” (Stephanie Edgerley)

During the 2020 election, YouTube faced pressure to quickly identify and limit the spread of election-related conspiracy theories. A notable case was the October 14th New York Post story about a recovered laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden (son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden) that contained information of shady business dealings involving his father. The story was criticized for a lack of verifiable evidence and for being part of a Russian disinformation effort to sway votes from Joe Biden.

In response, YouTube did not take any direct action to remove the NY Post video story, but did reaffirm their commitment to taking down conspiracy videos that promote violence. This decision stands in contrast to the efforts of Facebook, which limited sharing of the Post’s story until third-party fact checkers could verify it, and Twitter which initially blocked the story and the Post’s main Twitter account.

By Election Day, the Post’s YouTube video amassed only a modest 174,695 views, likely due to its limited circulation on Facebook and Twitter. Yet, the YouTube reach of the story is far greater than a single video. The story was fodder for many YouTube channels, particularly partisan media channels. By one estimate, over 1,983 videos about the “Hunter Biden laptop” story were published in the remaining weeks of the campaign. The most popular of these videos have millions of views, and, with the exception of the Daily Show, are from channels associated with a conservative perspective.

“2020 shows the need for institutional news media to make racial justice a core value of journalism” (Nikki Usher)

Institutional news media needs to lead the way: it is clear that the whiteness of the institutional news media, along with its heteronormativity, its fundamentally secular bent, and its belief in neutrality, leads to many blind spots. I argue this point in News for the Rich White and Blue, my forthcoming book, and suggest commercial pressures are unlikely to pave the way for much reform in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion…

The question that remains for me is this: How can U.S. newsrooms reckon with racism better and get to the not-so-deep underbelly of why 71 million Americans saw no problem voting for Trump? White newsrooms cannot keep having people of color doing it for them (and us). To do so requires interrogating core values and viewing racial justice not as politics but as a core value of journalism.

As Wendi Thomas, award-winning investigative journalist and editor of social justice news outlet MLK50, wrote to me after I asked for ways to make this very argument to my other colleagues, “Newsrooms have always operated under some foundational truths: It’s good for people to have enough food to eat. Shelter is important. Quality education matters…That expanding those truths — in the face of undeniable and incontrovertible quantitative and qualitative evidence that Black life is devalued and endangered in every way that can be measured — strikes the old guard as a violation of objectivity shows that the facts don’t matter as much to your senior colleagues as much as they might argue.”

“Newspaper endorsements, presidential fitness and democracy” (Kenneth Campbell)

[Trump’s] record led 47 of the top 100 circulation newspapers to endorse Biden for president in the 2020 election. That number includes 15 newspapers which did not make an endorsement in 2016 but felt compelled to do so in 2020. Still, 47 was a decrease from the 57 that endorsed Hilary Clinton in 2016, partly because 8 newspapers in the top 100 were a part of the McClatchy chain, which did not allow endorsements unless newspapers could interview both candidates.

President Trump, who was endorsed by only two of the top 100 newspapers in 2016, saw his support among newspapers rise to 7. Another 26 newspapers did not endorse, either as a matter of principle or chose none of the candidates, compared to 31 in 2016.

In addition to their continuing frame of President Trump as unfit for the office, the newspapers favoring Biden framed the president as dangerous to democracy because of his propensity to ignore facts, spread falsehoods, and attack the press as well as his authoritarian proclivities. The words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ did not appear in the 2016 endorsements, but appeared at least 10 times in the 2020 endorsements in reference to Trump’s loose way with words.

“Collaboration, connections, and continuity in media innovation” (Valerie Belair-Gagnon)

Whether or not the 2020 election news innovation has been transforming the news industry or a continuation of how the industry has been adapting to the realities of the pandemic, news organizations have had to adapt themselves by finding new ways of collaborating and connecting within their own organizations and across the news industry. For example, Zoom news interviews of candidates are likely to remain relevant even in a post-election and pandemic world.

But for collaboration and connection to be successful, newsrooms need buy-in and continuity beyond the elections and even the pandemic. Boundaries across news media organizations are dissolving just as what counts as news media does, thus, what factors and mechanisms facilitate the forms of collaboration and connections in innovation seen throughout the elections is going to be a good point of departure for understanding the competencies and operationalization of innovation in media industries and how through this trust in journalism can be rekindled.

“Learning from the news in a time of highly polarized media” (Marion R. Just and Ann N. Crigler)

The complicity of Fox News in downplaying the seriousness of the virus and denigrating the appropriate public health measures to contain it, especially social distancing and mask wearing, cannot be underestimated. The Fox audience was encouraged to ignore protective measures and to belittle public health mandates. It is not a surprise that there was a significant virus outbreak in the White House itself that eventually included the President and people at Fox News…

People do learn from the media, as we found in Common Knowledge, but what they learn in a polarized media environment is not the same thing. In a major pandemic, a minority who are encouraged by the President and a major news outlet to disregard expert advice are not only deadly to themselves but a great danger to everyone else.

“Partisan media ecosystems and polarization in the 2020 U.S. election” (Michael A. Beam)

Most Americans are apathetic to or even repelled by news and politics. The modern information environment, including the internet and social media, provides endless free and cheap non-news content. The lack of attention to journalism comes at a time when less polarized local news organizations have become victims of the fragmented media system, including the internet. This silent majority, detached from politics, encounter news incidentally in conversation or while browsing social media. However, people who momentarily linger on Fox News or MSNBC or speak with like-minded friends are far less likely to encounter opposing viewpoints than when they scroll through their social media news feed.

Social media plays a gatekeeping role by filtering users’ news feeds. Facebook and Twitter deserve some credit for making more effort to identify and label misinformation compared to 2016. They were more active in identifying coordinated manipulative bot networks. But social media can be problematic for polarization in many ways, including allowing politically extreme ideas to seep into public discourse and a lack of consistent application of their own moderation policies. They grant alarmingly little transparency to allow regulators or researchers to monitor information flows.

While these issues deserve attention and continue to play a role in electoral campaigns, they are not the central story of polarization in 2020. Even if all the important problems surrounding social media’s role in news dissemination were solved, we’d still be stuck with a partisan and polarized electorate and partisan media ecosystems would remain entrenched. The reciprocal relationship where partisan ecosystems produce their candidates and the candidates’ ethos echo back across the ecosystems would persist.

“When worlds collide: contentious politics in a fragmented media regime” (Michael X. Delli Carpini)

While there are many reasons for this bifurcation of beliefs and opinions, crucial is the media regime that has emerged over the last few decades. Consisting of a mix of legacy, partisan, and online actors and media institutions, this regime has blurred distinctions between fact and opinion, news and entertainment, information producers and consumers, and mass mediated and interpersonal communication, creating an information environment that is both “multiaxial” (i.e., in which control of the public agenda emerges from multiple, shifting, and previously invisible or less powerful actors) and “hyperreal” (i.e., in which the mediated representation of reality becomes more important than the facts underlying it)…

One might argue that the (apparent) defeat of a sitting president is evidence that the walls between mediated worldviews can be broken down. Perhaps. But as of this writing it appears that Biden’s victory resulted from increased turnout (the highest percent since the 19th century), and not the erosion of Trump support. Indeed, more Americans voted for him in 2020 than in 2016.

The implications of this fragmented information environment for U.S. politics and even U.S. democracy are still unclear. But, coupled with the wicked domestic and global issues the new administration faces, there is certainly reason for concern.

“Media and social media platforms finally begin to embrace their roles as democratic gatekeepers” (Daniel Kreiss)

Journalists have long grounded their legitimacy in concepts such as balance and objectivity. Platforms, meanwhile, have generally grounded theirs in free expression. Neither journalists nor social media platforms have historically grounded their normative vision and legitimacy in terms of what explicitly promotes and protects democracy.

Between the 2016 and the 2020 elections, slowly and haltingly, legacy journalists became more adept at covering the president, including adopting fact-checking and asserting their moral authority to protect democratic institutions and norms. This was on display during the period of early voting, Election Day, and the days after — where there was generally clear repudiation of the president’s many false, anti-democratic claims. Even Fox News checked the president on democratic grounds, condemning both premature assertions of victory and attempts to de-legitimize the vote count.

Platforms have faced similar challenges. How do they prevent election disinformation when it comes from the highest level of political office, aided and abetted by ruling party media such as Fox News and given legitimacy, validation, and amplification by Republican Party elites? The answer — up until recently — was not well. After all, it was just over a year ago that Facebook’s CEO, in response to growing public pressure to prevent politicians from lying on Facebook and criticisms of poor enforcement of existing rules against hate speech, embraced the notion of the platform being guided by “free speech” values. This “free speech” orientation subsequently proved unworkable as numerous crises demonstrated disinformation was causing imminent harm during the pandemic and 2020 presidential election…

Assertive press and platforms willing to defend the public’s right to hold its leaders accountable at the ballot box and beyond it is an important, and overdue, development. While they cannot fully solve the vast political problems facing America, especially the growing counter-majoritarianism and illiberalism of a major political party, they are buying us time. And, as foremost a political problem, securing democracy is not something these institutions can do on their own — but the public needs them to try.

Photo of a November 7, 2020 celebration in Washington, D.C. by Geoff Livingston used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 16, 2020, 12:15 p.m.
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