When Lord John Reith founded the BBC he gave the corporation three aims, to educate, inform and entertain. The rest of the television and radio industry have broadly followed these virtues too. The invention of 24 hour news cycles and the celebrity culture has contributed to the media failing its public duty to inform and educate, goals Lord Reith established almost 100 years ago.
The focus on ratings, popularity and celebrity has seen the media neglect the educate and inform parts of their pledge with an increasing focus on the entertainment factor. This has consequently played a major role in the growth of anger, frustration and despair in the political system and the growing influence of figures like Trump. Trump complained of a rigged system but
his popularity and existence as a political figure wouldn't have happened without it.
Tuesday 8th November will go down in history as a monumental day in US politics. There are many lessons which should be learned from the result but the media has a particularly large amount to reflect on.
There is a process currently happening within the media called sensationalism. The theory behind this is that in requiring to fill 24 hours of air time, news channels have resorted to effectively making mountains out of molehills. News stories will be repeated on the hour or half hour and are over-analysed and embellished for maximum attention. The news stories chosen will be those where an in-house bias may exist, particular guests can be invited or anything involving a celebrity.
While presenting facts, deepening a debate or looking at the minutiae of an issue may not be ratings winners it is part of a national duty to educate and inform. Instead vox-pops are used, pundits with radical views are invited as guests and the most extreme comments edited and replayed for maximum impact. Sound bites, simplifying of issues and a gradually more extreme set of views, are the results of an addiction to headlines and ratings to boost advertising revenue.
Trump Used the Media
Donald Trump with his penchant for controversial comments benefited from the sensationalist trend. TV channels loved the headlines he made for them, invited him back and let his views percolate. As he launched a Presidential bid it was viewed through more of an entertainment lens and was treated as such. Suddenly Donald Trump’s views had been repeated enough, normalised enough to establish a core support and now he is President of the United States of America.
A Harvard based study found that not only did the Republican candidate race get more press coverage but in the build up to it Trump was covered in, “a way that was unusual given his initial polling numbers.” The report claims that by appearing on TV and using his unfiltered comments Trump benefited from $55million in effectively free advertising from eight major networks including CBS, Fox News, NBC and the New York times. The report also suggests his extensive coverage is because of his ability to provide sound bites which, “catch and hold an audience’s attention.”
Source: Harvard report
Trump himself has said in his 1987 book, ‘The Art of the Deal’ that, “One thing I’ve learned about the press is they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational, the better.” This explains his approach and the approach the media takes even during the 80’s before rolling news coverage even began.
The approach to Donald Trump’s campaign was wrong from the beginning. His candidacy was reported in a light entertainment style, ignoring any insight into his policies or views and instead using his propensity for headline grabbing sound bites for ratings and publicity. Having begun by treating his Presidential campaign as a joke it is almost impossible to then switch and tell the public he could be a danger or a threat. FiveThirtyEight reports that during the summer there were 13 poll based stories on Trump, nearly all of which were in a positive light and this is just one aspect of the media’s infatuation with Trump particularly in his early campaign days.
Policy Coverage Neglected
It could be argued that news channels didn’t treat any part of the Presidential campaign with the substance and gravity it required. News coverage remained sensationalist throughout focusing on the comments either candidate made about the other or the scandals both endured rather than analysing any policy, providing the public factual evidence on whether it was achievable or the effects of such policy.
Source: The Tyndall Report, 25th Oct 2016
The continual focus on a sensationalist agenda with a focus on scandal, controversy and headlines meant the public went in to the polling booth woefully uninformed on key issues. The Tyndall Report found that between January and October 2016 on NBC, ABC and CBS’s flagship news shows combined just 32 minutes of coverage was issues based. Startlingly it found that networks had initiated no coverage at all of trade, healthcare or poverty policies, instead the candidates themselves had to raise the issues. The 32 minutes of issue based content on the three flagship nightly news shows is dramatically lower than in any election year before.
The realities now facing the country under President Trump may well shock and surprise Trump voters as well as the wider population. It will also come as a surprise to many that a majority of Trump's election promises simply cannot be fulfilled. This should have been the duty of the media to investigate the promises both candidates, check if they were achievable and educate the public. This will only build mistrust in elected officials when the media could have simply reported the impossibility of any election promises and nullify the risk of people voting in the hope they come true.
This approach is not just a US problem, much of the media in the UK has neglected their duty to inform and educate to instead focus on a platform of populist stories. This had an effect in particular during the Brexit debate as much of the public complained of being uninformed by politicians and the media, which only acts to fuel mistrust and suspicions. It is crucial that the media learns a lesson from the Trump experience and refocuses on being a platform that truly educates, informs and entertains.