News on politics today is in a profound state of flux. On the one hand, new media have enabled innovative journalistic practices.
Joseph Pulitzer transformed news from a dull institutional format to a multistage drama featuring characters and conflict. Our study explores the degree to which newspaper and network news coverage of COVID-19 was politicized and polarized between March and May 2020.
The Media’s Facade
According to Paul Weaver, the media corrupts itself and the public policy process by seeking dueling cover stories with their drama, conflict, and quotable advocates but failing to discover or report the underlying realities. As a result, officials fabricate crises and stage-manage their responses, and journalists dutifully report those fabrications as news. But, the charade obscures government’s underlying policies and activities, which are often complex but boring.
Likewise, companies and other interest groups can use their resources to ensure that they are favorably represented in the media. As evidenced by the case of a large global bank, this can be accomplished through a variety of means. In 17 of the 30 countries reviewed in this study, there was evidence—uncovered through content analysis or interviews with current or former journalists—that local or foreign media outlets suppressed, avoided, or reframed reporting on China because of owners’ financial ties to Chinese entities or concerns over political interference from Beijing. Such self-censorship inevitably influences perceptions of governments, officials, and their actions. It is also a powerful tool for tyrants to manipulate the media and, by extension, the public.
The Public’s Blindness
Paul Weaver suggests in his book that journalists should “establish a culture of responsibility and deliberation.” But this is quixotic. In a world of deadlines and competing interests, such a transformation will be impossible. Weaver also suggests that newspapers should reorient themselves toward readers rather than advertisers and break up media monopolies. But these suggestions are equally unrealistic given the complexities of modern media operations and the public’s inability to focus on long stories. In fact, the press is so focused on crises and conflicts that it is blind to systemic issues such as the savings-and-loan debacle. Seymour Hersh’s exposé of this issue, published in 2022, was greeted with silence by American and European mainstream journalists.
The Media’s Focus on Crisis
Despite the fact that most of journalism’s everyday business is dealing with routine matters, there is nothing quite like the frenetic energy of a crisis news story. There are trucks and tripods, people hustling with cameras, and the sense of the entire world rushing to be the first to get the story out.
As such, it is no surprise that most studies of journalistic practice and journalism as a whole focus on crisis reporting, with its specific framing, sourcing strategies and gatekeeping practices. Some of these studies also explore the relation between media and power, especially in times of crisis (Falkheimer and Olsson 2015).
In addition, many scholars of journalism have focused on how journalists respond to crises and how this affects news coverage. This has included looking at the way that journalists use fear-inducing content to frame and reframe political news, how they domesticate a crisis via emphasizing the audience’s susceptibility, or how they portray the effects of response measures, such as societal or individual measures during the coronavirus crisis (Ophir 2018; Bhatti et al. 2020a).
However, surprisingly few of these studies have explored journalists’ emotions in relation to their work on crises. This is remarkable given that the media are not limited to words and representations but constitute complexes of people, devices, material artifacts, texts, and power relations – as emphasized by Charlie Beckett and Mark Deuze (2016).
The Media’s Focus on Facades
Before new media, a watchdog role was performed by trained journalists who, under the best of circumstances, focused on uncovering serious political transgressions, such as those that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Now, the media disseminates a flood of political content – many of which is trivial and unreliable – and people pick and choose the information that is most relevant to them.
As a result, there is little overlap in the news sources that consistent conservatives and consistent liberals use; each group relies on a distinctive collection of old and new communication platforms. These differences extend to how people discuss politics with others. Consistent conservatives are much more likely than others to play a leading role in these conversations, while only 12% of consistent liberals do so.
Moreover, the new media system also allows for the formation of “echo chambers” – in which people choose their news and information sources based on the politics shared by like-minded individuals in their social-media networks. The emergence of these digital echo chambers has been accelerated by the growth of sites that aggregate news from a wide range of outlets (e.g., Yahoo News and Google News). In these environments, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and fake news stories spread easily — and, in 2016, they were more credible than real political news in some cases (Oremus, 2016). These trends undermine the ideal aims of a democratic press and contribute to public mistrust of government and the media.