News on politics needs to be accurate, clear and timely. It should be of interest to a wide range of people including young adults, college graduates and wireless internet users.
New media make it easy for political junkies to customize their news content, visit a variety of different sites and contribute their own opinions on blogs and personal websites. However, this information can be confusing and sometimes false or ill-informed.
Focus on Facades
A major problem with news on politics is that it too often focuses on the facades rather than the substantive issues. This can be because of a number of factors including the fact that politics is an inherently political activity, that there are often partisan interests involved and that politicians often manipulate news events for their own benefit.
In addition, the modern-day new media environment facilitates the formation of political echo chambers where people are exposed to information only from those with the same political views as themselves. This is not only true of traditional media like television and radio but also digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The latter is a particularly problematic platform for this purpose because it has been found that even non-political users can be exposed to politically biased news simply by scanning their feeds.
Finally, the rise of partisan journalism has contributed to this phenomenon as well as the fact that political reporters are often experts in political tactics rather than the nuances of policy. This trend has been exacerbated by the fact that digital platforms allow for a 24/7 focus on the inner game without space limitations and that many cable networks thrive on dissecting political decisions with their endless flow of opinion whether it is fact based or pure palaver.
Focus on Crises and Conflicts
As the political arena grows increasingly polarized, many people choose to seek out only news that supports their preexisting beliefs. This is the essence of the media “echo chamber,” which enables people to select their news and information sources based on their affinity for particular politicians, parties, or the mainstream press (Jamieson and Cappella, 2010). New media has speeded up the process as partisan content propagates quickly among users’ personal digital networks.
In these conditions, the role of journalism as a watchdog and catalyst for deliberation is severely limited. Instead, Weaver argues that news organizations should aim to promote a civic culture and encourage citizens to participate in politics by contacting public officials, voting in elections, volunteering in their communities, or protesting in the streets.
However, Weaver’s call for a return to textbook journalistic functions is quixotic given the realities of modern-day news production. With local newspapers closing and national outlets dominating news consumers’ diets, the pressure to attract audiences with titillating but unsubstantiated stories of scandals and conflicts is immense. Consequently, journalism’s focus on conflict and crisis can blind journalists and the public to more systemic problems. The coverage of the savings-and-loan crisis, for example, obscured the fact that, for complex institutional reasons, government spending and deficits were continuing to rise. The press’s attention to a rash of sensational corruption scandals also made it easy for politicians to use the crisis to their advantage.
Focus on Personalities
The rise of social media and the emergence of new political consultants (think: modern day Svengalis) has encouraged news media to focus on personalities. In his book, Thomas Patterson argues that this has contributed to a decline in public confidence in the news media. He urges the news media to return to “knowledge based reporting,” writing about the inner workings of politics without being dominated by political tactics or a horse race of political decisions. This is an ambitious goal, however. News sites, cable networks and dozens of others are writing about the inner game 24/7 without space limitations and many people can only concentrate on a small amount of information at a time.
In addition, a number of politicians have a reputation for repeatedly making false statements. While some commentators argue that the media should report these false statements – if they are fact checked and clearly labeled as such – others question whether that approach is effective.
The development of a filter bubble on the digital side has exacerbated this problem, with many people selecting news and information sources that are aligned with their political beliefs. This has led to the creation of modern-day echo chambers where people are exposed to the same ideologically congruent information (Jamieson and Cappella, 2010). In addition, when news media write about a politician or election campaign, they often perpetuate character-based scripts that paint their subjects in certain ways. This can lead to coverage that is overly focused on tactics and underplays substantive policy issues.
Focus on Personal Interests
News can also focus on people’s personal interests – and the interests of their groups. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to conspiracy theories that alleged the outbreak was deliberate, a view promoted by some in the alt-right and elsewhere on social media. Among Americans who primarily rely on social media for their political news, about one-quarter say they are following these stories very closely, a much smaller share than those who rely mostly on local TV, national network TV, news websites and apps, or cable news.
In some cases, this can be a positive thing if it allows for the discussion of alternative viewpoints. However, it can also be problematic if it amplifies partisan differences on an issue like a health or risk concern (Bolsen et al., 2014; Chinn et al., 2020).
Amid widespread concerns about the impact of fake news on politics, it is worth remembering that decades of research have shown that news — even in its imperfect forms — helps make people more informed. This makes them more resilient to misinformation and propaganda. As more and more people rely on social media, messaging applications, and search engines for their political information, researchers are trying to understand what this means for their knowledge of the world around them. Our current study looks at the degree to which newspaper and network news coverage of the COVID-19 crisis was politicized and polarized in March-May 2020.