election season

Media Firsts in the 2016 Presidential Election

, Nov 7, 2016

CATEGORIES: Public Relations
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The 2016 presidential election has been chock full of firsts, with Hillary Clinton as the first woman, and Donald Trump as the first non-politician or military figure, ever to each be nominated by their respective political parties. It’s also a matchup between the oldest nominees in electoral history, and the first time the process has ever seen such a strong convergence of external threats, including hacks, foreign interference and fears of voter intimidation.

There have been plenty of firsts on the media front as well. At Pub Club and PRSA Boston’s recent panel, The 2016 Presidential Election: A Media Perspective, I got to hear directly from local journalists about their experiences covering the 2016 campaign, and how process coverage this year has differed sharply from any previous elections.

Here were my three biggest takeaways from the night:

False Equivalence Comes into Play

In typical elections – or any public debate, for that matter – journalists are often obligated to write in an unbiased voice, to give both sides an equal say. In covering an election, this means treating both candidates relatively similarly, and comparing their flaws, strengths and scandals in a fair and equal manner.

For the first time in an election, this style of coverage has given rise to a false equivalence between the candidates, where viewers and readers are led to believe that two things should be given equal weight as they’re considering a decision, when those two things are not necessarily in fact equivalent.

Controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and the use of her private email server have shown that Clinton is not a flawless candidate. But, panelists argued that her flaws are hardly of contest to some of the claims made by the Trump campaign. Yet, the media critiques them similarly, equating the minor flaws of one candidate to major flaws of the other, said panelists.

The polls show that Trump and Clinton are similarly untrustworthy in the eyes of the voters, and false equivalence is a big part of the reason why. It has created what many believe to be a dangerous style of coverage, causing readers to assess candidates in relation to each other and by falsely “equal standards.”

The Proliferation of Fact Checking

2016 became the year of, among many other things, the fact-checker.

Fact checking has traditionally been done by taking just a small handful statements made in a day – around one to three – meticulously analyzing them and then summarizing them in an article. But, according to Daniel Dale, a Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, the sheer number of false statements thrown around this campaign season has made debunking a major draw.

This has led to the evolution of fact checking from simply a safeguard of journalistic credibility, into a new form of content, value-add and, ultimately, a means of differentiation. Bloomberg TV conducted on-screen fact checks during the presidential debates, setting it apart from other TV networks who summarized their fact-checking in post-debate analysis coverage. NPR also conducted real-time fact checking online, which, during the first debate drew 7.4 million page views from more than 6 million users – the most web traffic that NPR has ever received over a two-day period.

A Truly Social Election

While it’s certainly not the first time that presidential candidates have leveraged social media to support their campaigns, this is the first election where social media has been perceived by candidates as a key battleground, while having much more of an influence over audiences.

Though it introduces greater potential for bias – particularly when you consider that what’s often shared is usually what’s most polarized and entertaining, and not necessarily what’s most accurate or pertinent to key issues – social media is transforming the election in many positive ways as well.

In addition to democratizing information sharing and helping candidates to connect with their followers on a personal level, social media is overtaking traditional campaign methods in its ability to effectively rally voters. For instance, today’s Google doodle will help you find the location of your polling place, and let you check out what’s on your local ballot. Facebook is offering a tailor-made voting plan. Twitter’s verified Government account @gov will direct message to users with local polling and ballot information. Even Tinder is providing information on the most important issues facing American voters, through its Swipe the Vote campaign.

Millennials have typically had the lowest turnout in elections, but with this generation expecting to match Baby Boomers in the electorate this year, the use of social media has the potential to make a huge difference.

No matter what the outcome, the 2016 presidential election will be one to remember, setting new precedents for elections – both in terms of politics and the media around it – to come.

Make sure to get out and vote tomorrow!