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Harvard study documents anti-Clinton media bias

Wmc Features Hillary Clinton Drew Angerer Gettyimages 092117
Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in June 2016. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

A new report by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society has conclusively documented what many of us have suspected, and what Hillary Clinton observes in her new book, What Happened: media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign heavily favored Donald Trump. The researchers further concluded that not only are right-wing and mainstream media polarized politically, but they operate according to different ethical and journalistic standards.

The report, titled “Partisanship, Propaganda, & Disinformation: Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” found that unethical journalistic practices driven by the desire to produce “clickbait,” coupled with the viral sharing power of social media, resulted in a proliferation of disinformation and propaganda that tipped the election in Donald Trump’s favor.

From results collected from millions of data points and stories via Media Cloud and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, lead researcher Yochai Benkler and his colleges found that in media overall, “attention to reports of Clinton scandals exceeded attention to her stance on issues, whereas attention to reports of Trump’s scandals was balanced by attention to his stance on the issues and reinforced his focus on immigration, his campaign’s primary substantive issue.” In short, the right-wing media and pro-Trump pundits successfully managed to control the narrative. And if you control the narrative by dictating which issues are made visible through journalistic discourse, you win elections.

 “Traditional media accountability mechanisms—for example, fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism—appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere,” the researchers explained. While the right-wing media lack media accountability mechanisms, on the left “hyperpartisan, unreliable sources did not receive the same amplification that equivalent sites on the right did,” and in fact, those very same journalistic standards were manipulated by the right “to inject anti-Clinton narratives into the mainstream media narrative.”

It may not be shocking to learn that the right-wing media are propaganda machines, but it is sobering to consider the finding that mainstream media coverage appropriated these right-wing sources and were complicit in disseminating the propaganda. A study from 2016 found that the three major broadcast networks devoted a cumulative total of only 32 minutes of coverage to substantive issues throughout the campaign. Most of Clinton’s coverage focused on fabricated and exaggerated scandals, while Trump’s coverage focused on his core issues: “Attempts by the Clinton campaign to define her campaign on competence, experience, and policy positions were drowned out by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails. Coverage of Trump associated with immigration, jobs, and trade was greater than that on his personal scandals.”

Typically not considered in the wheelhouse of credible sources, far-right-wing media garnered access to mainstream media outlets through inlinking (including hyperlinks in the text of an article), citation (including quotation and reference), and cross-sharing practices (via social media). In what the researchers call “network propaganda,” right-wing outlets with higher visibility and credibility, like Fox News and Breitbart, deliberately sourced marginal propaganda sites, like Infowars and Judicial Watch, to bolster their credibility and to give them exposure. These sources were then picked up by traditional outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. As a result, the researchers concluded, “the right-wing media succeeded in shaping the agenda across the political spectrum in a way that the Clinton campaign did not.”

The researchers include an in-depth case study of the Clinton Foundation story, which exemplifies the extent to which right-wing propaganda entered the mainstream. Insinuations of corruption originated with the book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, by Peter Schweizer, a “Breitbart senior editor at large.” The New York Times, among other mainstream outlets, picked up on the narrative, which enabled right-wing media to amplify it. This, in turn, led to continued mainstream coverage—even though no actual evidence of wrongdoing was presented in the book or in subsequent reporting. There was no progressive equivalent to counterbalance or negate the force of this propaganda. The Harvard researchers characterize the Clinton Foundation story as a “classic instance of the disinformation and propaganda campaign” and observe that the New York Times “was manipulated into playing a central role in validating the Clinton Cash propaganda campaign.”

The findings about media practices that resulted in the promulgation of disinformation and propaganda are alarming. Technology cannot provide quick-fix solutions, because these problems have their root in ethics, and in American anti-intellectualism, as well as the consequences of capitalism that force an industry increasingly in the red to compromise its standards in order to survive in the digital age. 

The first solution that the researchers propose is the cultivation of “a highly vigilant professional press” that does not rush unchecked stories to print. That is, there needs to be a return to an ethic of journalistic integrity that is seemingly at odds with the viral culture of digital media. What the researchers call the “fundamental professional responsibility” of the press is to work against the pressure to run “if it bleeds, it leads” clickbait. They explained: “Recognizing that the press is being hacked and that certain storylines are the opposition researcher’s equivalent of clickbait for journalists is an absolute necessity for editors, even more than for line journalists. Receiving an ‘exclusive’ from [Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer] and writing a story that paints Clinton in a negative light is the easy path for a journalist and an editor. Tracking down the funding and sponsorship of [Schweizer]’s research, and developing an investigative story about who is behind this assault and why it is being launched, is harder.”

Journalists, the researchers elaborated, “must also avoid being lured into the agenda-setting dynamics that were so successful during the election….As long as extremist messaging and sensationalist disinformation continue to win elections while bringing in rich advertising rewards to the networks that propagate them, the dynamic we observe here will likely continue unabated.”

The fact-based analysis in this study should act as a basis for the journalism industry to come to terms with its complicity in the election results. Among other changes, in spite of demands, the media must slow down; the editorial process must include editors, and—instead of firing copy editors en masse like some outlets have done in recent months—these media outlets must budget for copy editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers, to ensure the veracity of every article. Journalists must be treated not as content machines, but as critical thinkers and critical writers who examine and report on culture and society. These changes demand a re-evaluation of values for publishers, editors, and journalists alike. If the endgame is to accrue “eyeballs” in order to make money, then the death of journalism is all but guaranteed. And we know the disastrous consequences of a misled electorate. But if the endgame is to return to an ethical standard based on accuracy in order to quest for the truth and to preserve American democracy, then there is hope yet. 

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