On Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, President Donald Trump entered the White House press room, looked out at the assembled journalists and made a baseless claim about the then-uncalled United States presidential election.
“If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” said the president. “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”
This statement is completely without merit. Very few votes were found to be illegal, and there were not nearly enough of them to change the result. That result was, of course, a loss for Trump and a win for his opponent, Joe Biden. Numerous Trump appointees, including his attorney general, publicly stated that there was no evidence of a stolen election.
But in the weeks following the election, Trump and his legal team continued to push these claims. Through press conferences, legal cases and media appearances, they continued to insist to the American people that there was a breakdown in the electoral system and that Biden was an illegitimate president-elect.
The Trump team was unsuccessful in court over baseless claims of election fraud. Their lawsuits were consistently shut down, often with harsh criticism from judges. Most news outlets stressed over and over to the public that the claims were baseless, yet millions of Americans genuinely believe that Trump received more votes than Biden and only lost due to voter fraud or ballot manipulation.
To be clear, the Trump campaign may have had ulterior motives for its actions. Some have theorized that Trump did it as a way to pay off campaign and Republican National Committee debts, as most of the money donated to the “election defense” actually went to a Trump PAC and the RNC. But the then-President of the United States still managed to convince huge swaths of the country that he was the victim of a nonexistent conspiracy. Why?
How We Got Here
Simply put, there is a misinformation crisis in the United States right now. Public trust in the media has sunk to record lows in the past decade and currently hovers at around 40%. America’s consensus most-trusted national news source, ABC, doesn’t even break the 50% trust mark. Journalists, who are essential to help citizens understand the truth in the news, are finding it more difficult to do their jobs.
“There are people who, simply because I work for the LA Times, there are presumptions that I come at it with a certain agenda,” said Los Angeles Times political reporter Mark Barabak. “So they won’t talk to me. Where once upon a time, people might have been more willing.”
Barabak’s point is further bolstered by the efforts of some politicians and political commentators — particularly conservatives — who paint the media as biased in an effort to unite their base.
“Taking on the press as an institution and telling people, ‘If you think like a conservative, you ought not trust this institution,’ that’s why you see the split that you see in trust in news media is significantly higher among liberals than among conservatives,” said University of Wisconsin Professor of Journalism, Kathleen Culver. In addition to her work as a professor, Culver also contributed to a report about media coverage of the 2020 election for the Election Coverage and Democracy Network.
Media distrust isn’t necessarily a cause of the current problems with the truth facing the U.S., but it is definitely an effect. The causes are very wide-ranging, but perhaps the most important — as it relates directly to the modern media landscape — deals with the lack of funds for huge parts of the news industry. Unbiased outlets are losing funding to partisan media companies and local newspapers are being outdone by national organizations.
“I think the place where you see the most damage in terms of the economic problems of journalism has definitely been the local weekly papers,” said Northeastern University journalism professor John Wihbey, who studies and reports on media funding.
There are serious issues in terms of the amount of news coverage that many outlets can provide. From 2008 to 2019, newsroom employment declined by 23%. Roughly 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, leaving about 1,800 communities without a local print news source. The result of this shortfall is an abundance of so-called “news deserts,” regions that are not covered by a daily newspaper. As the number of news deserts increases, they are overtaken by the nationalization of coverage driven by the rise of cable outlets.
These national media organizations, not linked to a specific town or area, focus on national stories: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood. There isn’t room for local news in there. Local journalists, faced with a lack of resources, are forced to cover far fewer topics than the amount that need coverage.
“You see fewer newspapers having large staffs,” said Florida State University political science professor Hans Hassell, who has written about media bias and trust. “I think they struggle to cover all of the news that’s out there. There’s lots of news. And they have to decide what is newsworthy and what is not newsworthy.”
“Most people live in the day-to-day of, are my roads paved? Did they cut my food? Did they cut the field hockey team? What’s the governor saying about whether my taxes are going up or down?” Wihbey added. “And I fear that the nationalization of news creates a disconnect between the content of a lot of news and what people are actually hungry for.”
The rise of cable news outlets has also created an environment for political slants in news coverage. Decades ago, there were only a few places to go for news, and they all played their coverage and analysis in a relatively down-the-middle fashion. Beginning in the 1980s, circumstances changed regarding this setup. The elimination of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, which required media outlets to present differing views on certain subjects, opened the door for broadcast journalism with a political agenda. News networks could advocate for specific views on an issue, at times becoming closer to entertainment than unbiased journalism. More recently, whether it’s the right-leaning Fox News or the left-leaning MSNBC, specialized news organizations have realized that they can bring in viewers by presenting a side of a story that their viewers want to hear.
“These news [media] are trying to communicate to a small subsection of the population,” Hassell said. “They’re communicating the message that they think will resonate or that these individuals will be interested in hearing.”
Reporters’ Trials and Tribulations
David Shuster, a longtime journalist who has worked at Fox News, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America, knows this. He recalls a story from his time at Fox News when he was in Tallahassee covering the Florida recount in the 2000 United States presidential election.
Alongside Shuster, Bret Baier, now Fox News’ chief political correspondent, was also in attendance in Tallahassee. Baier was looking into a story about possible George W. Bush voters who left voting lines when networks called Florida for Al Gore at 8:45 p.m. Eastern time, even though the polls in some deeply conservative areas of the state remained open for another 15 minutes. However, Baier was unable to find a single person who had done this. Shuster assumed that Baier would put together a story explaining the reality of the situation.
“I’m not doing that story,” Baier told Shuster.
“How come?” Shuster asked.
“Well, because, clearly, management doesn’t want that story out there. I’m not going to do a story that’s going to undercut them.”
To this day, Shuster cites his encounter with Baier as an example of how the absence of reporting can be misinformation itself.
Shuster has been attacked by politicians and the general public for simply doing his job. Of course, he is far from the only journalist who deals with this on a regular basis.
“Go through my emails,” Barabak said. “I hear every day from people who politely, or more often not politely, call into question me, the LA Times, our reporting, what we do. I mean, I hear that all the time.”
For Barabak, the key to fighting allegations of bias is to avoid arguments with people acting in bad faith as much as possible. He believes that if conspiracy theorists aren’t provided with the big platforms they seek, it would be easier for a story to maintain its credibility.
“If someone is going to impute some sort of bias where there is none or questions something that’s empirically provable, I’m just not gonna engage,” he said. “I’ll say, you know, ‘Thanks for reading, appreciate your input,’ but I’m not going to waste time trying to convince people who can’t be convinced. And I’m not going to spend time arguing. I mean, I got a job to do. I’m not paid to spend my time on Twitter or the Internet having fights and arguing with people.”
The Election Year Focus
While issues of media distrust have constant relevance, they become more prevalent during the presidential election season. Political themes add an extra spotlight on news media, and in the United States, the presidential election calls for the most public engagement.
“Politics is inherently kind of emotional. People have a lot invested in it. They care a lot about it,” said University of Michigan communication and media professor Brian Weeks. “So it kind of sets up this emotional dynamic. And what we’re seeing is misinformation that plays on people’s emotions tends to spread more widely.”
This election in particular was different. The incumbent candidate was one of the most dishonest politicians in recent memory — and possibly American history — and made over 30,000 untrue statements while in office. While Biden made a handful of misstatements or exaggerations, Trump made far more, with most of them comparably further egregious and consistently repeated.
Trump made a number of claims during the campaign, but there may have been none more destructive than the ones he made as Biden’s presidential win came into view and continued to make as his legal challenges followed.
His insistence that millions of votes were illegal and that vote counters added fake votes to Biden’s totals posed an incredible danger for democracy. Never before had an American politician and his team sown so much distrust in regular democratic processes. He riled up a large swath of the population into believing something entirely untrue, and his false statements culminated in the storming of the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021. The insistence of a stolen election convinced a group of people that they needed to fight for him, and they did so with disastrous results.
These unprecedented claims about an American election did damage on a number of levels. But they also hold meaning for the media. Specifically, they display the media’s need to be extra vigilant in determining and reporting the truth and calling out false information when it is present.
The Current Reflection and the Future Solutions
The coverage of the 2020 election was a far cry from the 2016 election, when many news outlets and reporters were still unsure of how to cover a candidate who told falsehoods continually.
“When President Trump said something inaccurate in 2016, I kind of feel like in many cases the media just kind of reported what he said without taking an additional step and saying whether it was true or false,” Weeks said. “And one of the things I’ve noticed in 2020 is that journalists have been much more active in stepping in and saying, hey, what he just said is not true.”
The difficulty of covering misinformation can be somewhat exacerbated by the risk of giving untrue statements a platform in the media. Weeks opines that journalists should take two steps to mitigate this challenge. First, they must decide whether or not the false claim needs to be covered at all. Second, if they choose to report it, they must actively call out the lies, and the lying itself must be a huge part or the most important part of the story.
“I think generally most outlets have been covering misinformation really well and kind of taking down conspiracy theories,” Culver said.
More generally, media distrust is an issue that will need to be solved with long-term solutions. For his part, Shuster believes that transparency is the key.
“I think the only thing they really can do is to be transparent and to say, look, we don’t have the resources to do X, Y and Z … we acknowledge that maybe there are other things we could be analyzing that we’re not,” Shuster said. “So I think being honest to your viewers, to your readers about your economic limitations or financial limitations with the particular organization you work for is important.”