Donald Trump used to be a media darling. His finely crafted brand, no doubt edited for The Apprentice, portrayed him in a powerful, presidential role.
American media, and international media in particular, seem to have collectively turned on Trump, declaring Clinton the likely victor after November 8, based on pre-election polling.
Whether you love him or loathe him, consider for a moment what it might mean if Trump was actually right about the media being biased against him. And consider further what it might mean if this was the first presidential election where the economic model of social media might be unfairly introducing bias to your views.
There are three reasons why we should be cautious about how U.S. election news is being reported.
1. Media convergence and consolidated ownership:
Increased competition and new online platforms have prompted mergers and acquisitions in media as well as consolidation of ownership globally. Ownership, particularly in the U.S., often comes with political ties to the elite. Media powerhouses such as Disney-ABC, NewsCorp-Fox and Bell Media-CTV now have greater scale against emerging platforms like Netflix and Facebook, but it also means one reporting team can be sent to cover the story with the content shared back to multiple channels -- TV, print, radio and the web.
Suits in boardrooms call this vertical integration and cost savings. But it also means that increasingly fewer reporters shape the news for broad consumption. Add to this the disappearance of smaller independent media outlets, and the potential is great for media influence in the hands of a few elite owners. All the while citizens believe they are receiving unbiased, fair reporting because while it is coming from multiple outlets, fewer reporters are creating an original viewpoint.
Trump, advocating against the establishment and the elite in this election, could well be receiving less favourable coverage as a result. There have been studies on the media coverage of both candidates. This article in the Washington Post outlines how traditionally more liberal outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been more favourable to Clinton, while more conservative outlets like Fox News have been more favourable to Trump. Averaging each organization's total coverage, the article reveals fairly balanced reporting across the board -- but clearly illustrates each outlet's subtle (and statistically significant) leanings toward one candidate or another.
But while most news outlets have policies governing fair and balanced reporting, editors cannot stop reporters from taking to their own media channels on Twitter and Facebook to express their individual views. This Washington Post piece notes how some prominent reporters have come down hard on Trump using their own Twitter accounts, demonstrating the likelihood of bias permeating their work elsewhere.
2. Social media profiling:
Social media allows us to be human online, interacting as a society, sharing information and content. Companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter know that we will remain engaged in those channels if we are finding content that is relevant to us there. So their algorithms are programmed to feed us content to fit our profile, based on what we share, like and comment on.
But the bigger reason for this is that social media is grounded in commerce. That profile we have created has economic value to an advertiser. What's at risk in this commerce-based model of receiving information is that we are being inundated with content that reflects who we are, rather than challenging our assumptions.
I'm sure my Facebook feed looks much different than my Republican-supporting brother in-law's. Yet we both believe that we're tapped into reputable information. We get lulled into believing that that content represents a wider view then it actually does, because we're not challenged by opinions beyond our own. And because much of what is shared around politics online originates from big media, the victim of convergence and consolidated ownership, that potentially biased news is magnified in our own online channels, reinforcing our personal bias. Groupthink becomes a real concern.
3. The race to report, smaller budgets and the role of influencers:
In a world where Twitter can break a news story and citizens can collectively report by channeling content to a #hashtag, traditional news outlets are racing to keep up. In-depth investigative journalism gets sacrificed. There isn't the time to break well-researched news when everyone is vying for eyeballs through punchy headlines.
Convergence has also led to smaller budgets in newsrooms resulting in less investigative reporting. And what's at further risk here is that social platforms like Twitter and Facebook have given a voice to folks with large followings, often celebrity influencers, and not necessarily individuals trained in journalism or ethics. The great unwashed don't necessarily question the credibility of their news source.
The great unwashed don't necessarily question the credibility of their news source.
The real risk here is that there may well be far more disenfranchised Americans willing to vote against the establishment than our media would have us believe. The Guardian notes how that phenomenon took place in Britain, despite pre-referendum polling.
The media on both sides of the political aisle may well be painting a picture of what they want to see happen, not what is an accurate prediction of what could happen. And because we all willingly are reading, listening, viewing and sharing media as we always have been, both online and off, believing it to be an accurate representation of reality, we are all confident in our own views of the likely outcome.
But if Trump is right and the media are biased against him, and our system of getting information has been altered without us realizing it through social media profiling and online influencers, we could well be in for a rude awakening the morning of November 9 no matter which candidate we support.
Brexit wasn't supposed to happen, either.
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