Totally Missing the New Media Conversation and the Peoples’ Political Pulse –
By Edgar Wilson –
Far from leading the conversation, the mainstream media is missing it entirely.
Preconceived narratives surrounding political dynasties, some sort of manifest destiny, and the most predictable sort of ebbs and flows of primary polls have driven coverage away from reality.
Perhaps the best evidence of the misalignment comes from an ongoing collaboration between George Washington University and Zignal Labs, known as the PEORIA (Public Echoes Of Rhetoric In America) project. The goal is simple, yet ambitious: to measure what people—online, and in the media—say, and how they say it, when they talk about politics. And the results demonstrate how conventional media misses the larger conversation happening across the country.
The mainstream coverage of the 2016 presidential election was set before the current candidates even announced: a battle of America’s leading political families, Bush v Clinton, would be the final contest to determine the presidency.
But then, as the researchers at George Washington University’s School of Political Management discovered, the public didn’t cooperate with the Bush-Clinton prize fight narrative, instead fixating on candidates whose backgrounds and interests were not so historically caught up in politics as usual. On the Democrat side, social media quickly began to “Feel the Bern” as Senator Bernie Sanders began to earn some name recognition, if not increased news coverage, following his announcement.
Yet even non-candidate Joe Biden managed to get more coverage than Sanders, despite the fact that social media was all but silent on speculation as to whether the Vice President would enter the race. Voters, it would appear, are more interested in discussing actual candidates than listening to the talking heads reiterate speculation.
On the Republican side, the news-makers stuck to their guns, even as it became clear that no story of fraternal legacies and monarchal inertia could compete with the ego-fueled clown car driven by one Donald Trump. Nobody wanted to take him seriously, and no one wanted to give him good odds, yet he managed to shoot to the top of the polls and stay there. So while Jeb’s name disappeared from social media shortly following his announcement, he still managed to dominate mainstream coverage.
Perhaps the closest thing to honest, accurate coverage is that surrounding Trump: in the media, as online, his name comes up disproportionately often; and, more often than not, the context is negative. Basically, Americans in and out of the mainstream media can’t help themselves, and their conversations flock to Trump like moths to a flame. But, as the media has admitted time and again, they may have to talk about Trump, but they don’t have to like it. Coping mechanisms have ranged from announcing that Trump news will be relegated to the entertainment pages, to navel-gazing about complicity in making a non-politician a mainstay of political coverage.
In the wake of the first Democratic debate, the narrative gap finally garnered some press of its own: CNN begrudgingly admitted that while the polls and pundits all handed the evening to Hillary, Bernie Sanders, by all indications, was winning the internet. Something as arbitrary and subjective as deciding the winner of what passes for a “debate” today is hardly the best opportunity to realign coverage (didn’t everyone agree that Obama “lost” the first debate with Romney?), but at least it presented clear evidence that, somewhere along the line, news-makers’ fingers slipped from the pulse of the nation.
Or it would have, if CNN hadn’t quickly painted over the narrative gap by dismissing the internet as a reliable measure of political opinion entirely.
Heading into 2016, major news outlets have been curiously dismissive of the internet as either representative or even relevant to the election process. That’s a change of attitude from their insights surrounding the two victories of President Obama, lauded for his campaign’s ability to leverage social media and digital engagement to turn out voters and tilt the electoral scales not once, but in both 2008 and 2012. The change of heart is almost worthy of a presidential candidate: flip-flopping not just on issues, but on what even warrants discussion at all.
But what was an historic game-changing strategy for Obama is, apparently, a distraction in 2016, when internal polls and conventional (read: 20th century) yardsticks for measuring public opinion exclusively inform coverage. So, instead of following the civic conversation to its new, virtual home, America’s press encourages voters to ignore their guts and instead count on a familiar face following a familiar trajectory straight to the White House.
Just because a story seems to write itself doesn’t mean it is a story worth telling. The time-traveling headlines announcing a general election battle between Clinton and Bush were fun while they were speculative, but much like the beloved second installment of the Back to the Future franchise, reality didn’t quite align with the fanciful predictions. Time has caught up with the movie, but the media hasn’t quite caught up to reality.
The internet, and voters’ behavior online, matters; the mainstream narrative needs to make room for the digital spaces that drive modern democracy.
© 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.