When billionaire real estate investor Donald Trump announced he would run for president, the media blanketed the Internet and airwaves with news of his candidacy. Since then, wittingly or unwittingly, they have built a platform for his (often hate-filled) messages, with every headline and sound bite making his already outsized brand that much bigger.
Trump has now garnered close to $2 billion in free, or “earned,” media coverage — that’s about twice the cost of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. He has also attracted more airtime than all other candidates combined, receiving a total of 175 minutes on ABC, CBS and NBC, compared to just 60 minutes for Hillary Clinton, 44 minutes for Bernie Sanders, and 32 for Ted Cruz.
As the media continue their wall-to-wall coverage, I, along with countless others, watch aghast. That’s because more than unbalanced coverage is at stake. As someone who works for an organization that analyzes news coverage I know that the media have tremendous power to influence public opinion and politics. We have seen this connection again and again, on issues ranging from vaccines to violence prevention. And if Trump’s performance in the primaries is any indication, the media’s amplification of his campaign is having an effect on voters.
In many ways, Trump’s media maneuvering should come as no surprise. Although his rhetoric, bullying and bravado are shocking, particularly for someone striving to become the country’s commander-in-chief, his tactics for gaining media coverage are not. In determining what stories are newsworthy, the media have long favored the extreme over the mundane, the famous over the obscure, and pithy sound bites over long-winded policy explanations. Trump no doubt knows this and appears to be treating the media like a marionette.
But journalists are not puppets. They can, and should, recognize Trump’s bait when they see it. And when reporters find themselves defending their coverage because it is newsworthy, or because Trump makes himself so accessible to the media — two of CNN’s favorite rebuttals — they may want to ask themselves this: What other newsworthy stories are not being covered because of our focus on Trump? Responsible journalists don’t rely solely on sources to come to them; they seek out their own sources and stories, ask critical questions, and dig deeply to find answers.
Responsible journalists also know that, while they may strive for objectivity, they are far from impartial observers. News reporting requires all journalists to make choices about how to frame events for the reader, what information to include, and what to omit. The way journalists characterize issues, and the language they use to describe them, shapes how people think about and act on those issues. Each time the media put one of Trump’s outrageous statements on a repeat reel, his messages of violence and intolerance become a little more firmly embedded in our social fabric.
Ultimately, responsible journalists understand that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy. Threats to that freedom come in many forms, from attempts at suppression to the co-optation of news reporting. That co-optation is easy for reporters to see when it comes from an overtly propagandist government like China or North Korea. But when it happens close to home and comes in the form of a wealthy, influential businessman, will journalists recognize it?