Civility Run Among in American Politics
Is it Ethical to ‘Kill the Messenger’?

The Role of the Media in Politics

Responsible Behavior Shoved Aside for Biased Reporting

The media has been referred to as “The Fourth Estate” with the important function of being the news media – “the press” – and serving as the eyes and ears of the public. The traditional print and media reporting has been viewed over time as the way to insure the American public gets the real scoop on the functioning of government and viewpoints of political candidate. The news media is a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.  A free press serves four essential purposes:

  1. Holding government leaders accountable to the people.
  2. Publicizing issues that need attention.
  3. Educating citizens so they can make informed decisions, and
  4. Connecting people with each other in civil society.

Free media plays an important role in influencing political discourse during elections. When free and balanced, traditional media (print and broadcast) foster transparency and the determination of important electoral information. The rise of new media provides further opportunities for participatory citizenship.

Citizens are increasingly turning to social media platforms to follow election news and developments. Referred to as “The Fifth Estate,” this form of “news” media is a socio-cultural reference to groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society, and is most associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and the social media. 

The media has immense power within the American democracy because just about all Americans get their news from cable news and social media rather than hard news sources. The problem today is these very people who report the news are biased towards one candidate or the other, as we have learned in the Trump-Clinton campaigns.

Gone are the days when Americans trusted the media and relied on it for hard news. There are no Edward R. Murrow’s around anymore, David Brinkley, or Walter Cronkite. I suppose for most people the person who most engenders trust and reliability today is Wolf Blitzer. The worst comment I’ve heard about him is he is boring. Well, I think we need more boring and less biased opinionated statements today. [Editor to Wolf: Please stop saying “right now” every time you raise an issue to be discussed].

As I blogged about last Tuesday, the press has acted with impunity by selectively reporting information about the Clinton and Trump campaigns based on who they are supporting in this election. By being part of the dirty tricks and behavior drip, drip, drip, the media is playing the role of “The Sixth Estate,” that of biased newsfeed.

Citizens are increasingly turning to social media platforms to follow election news and developments. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 16 percent of registered American voters used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to get political information and follow election news during the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, more than doubling the number of registered voters who used social media for the same purpose in 2010.

In many ways, the rise of the Internet and the social web has made things a lot better when it comes to being informed about the world. But in other ways—as with so many other things the Internet touches—it has made them much worse. And our trusted relationship with media (to the extent that we ever had one) has taken the brunt of the damage.

The click economy has driven even traditional, mainstream media outlets to focus on quick hits and “viral” stories, even if they have little truth to them. And even if those stories are later corrected, only a tiny number of people will see or share the correction. In any case, opinions have already been formed, biases established, and alliances strengthened.

Trust in the media is at an historic low. There are a number of reasons, but one of the most obvious ones is that today’s media landscape looks nothing like what U.S. news consumers took for granted in 1972, or 1982, or 1992, or even 2002.

These days, politicians often complain about bias in the media, usually a liberal bias against the views of conservative politicians. They complain that the media’s ability to decide which stories to report often reflects its partisanship. The news media would like us to think that the bias is restricted to the media’s outlet’s commentary and opinion pages. Have they read their own newspapers lately?

The ethics of print and social media folks can be questioned on many levels including a failure to act unbiased in reporting the news; spinning the stories to advance the cause of their “chosen” candidate, and even coloring the questions asked during political debates.

The sad story is America has morphed into a culture of citizens who do not want to put in the time to truly learn about the issues facing our country and are taken in by the salaciousness of cable news and social media reporting and, in this regard, these media outlets have acted irresponsibly.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 20, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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