One of the things that really gets under my skin about election coverage by the mainstream media are stories that are not based on fact but, rather, on predictions about what may happen. These stories get passed on to the public as facts and have a huge influence over the voting public.
For instance, days before the New York mayoral election in 2005, quite a few newspapers announced on their front pages that Michael Bloomberg was going to win that coming Tuesday by a landslide, as if the election had already been decided before a single vote had been cast or counted. One cover, I recall, had a cartoon of a Bloomberg as “King Kong” climbing to the top of the Empire State building. Another headline days prior to Election Day read: “Ka-Bloomberg!”, making reference to his major victory over his Democratic opponent, even though, once again, this was days before the actual election and not a single vote had been cast or counted.
A voter sees these stories days before election day and thinks:
"If this election is already decided, what relevance does
my vote have? Why the fuck should I take time out of
my day to go to the polling site and cast my vote?”
This kind of journalism throws a monkey wrench into the engine of democracy. It ensures voters are discouraged from voting: it discourages the supporters of the proclaimed “loser”, who feel their support won’t count after all, from coming out, and it disourages the supporters of the procalimed “winner” from making an effort to participate, given that their candidate has “already won.”
Lastly, this kind of prediction-journalism serves to fulfill its own prophetic story: on its pages, it advertises one candidate as the winner and another as the loser. Ultimately, this image is ingrained in the minds of millions of readers who have yet to cast a vote.
You can tell me that voters should just ignore these kinds of stories and go to the polls with a clear mind and vote for the candidate who, in their own opinion, is the one that represents their interests the best, not necessarily for the candidate that the media predicts is going to win. That is a naive suggestion that undermines the power and influence of news media to affect the thoughts and opinions of the people. If the newspapers predicted that the Yankees were going to kick the Mets’ ass in the upcoming World Series and win the title, would you bet your money on the Mets? Most people wouldn’t, based on that “information” (read: “prediction”).
Most people read newspapers as a way of becoming informed citizens. But these kinds of prediction stories do not inform the citizens about the facts of the world: they simply affect the action and decision they will make on election day. Just like editorial newspaper endorsements, this kind of journalism falls just short of telling voters who to vote for. (Note: I am also against newspaper endorsements, and I think newspapers should be forbidden from such a practice).
I’m not saying the outcome of the 2005 mayoral election would have been different had these stories not been published, though I’m sure more people would have come out to vote had they not been. But, overall, it would be a very different world if the media simply stuck to reporting the facts of the campaign trail, rather than presenting stories predicting the outcome of the election.
This all happened again last week, when stories before the Primary Election date predicted a very low voter turnout. “Low-voter turnout expected for Democratic Primary”, read the headlines. This infuriates me. How is this journalism?
They could easily do a story about the candidates and how they’re getting ready to face Primary Day, they could do a story about the preparations at the polling sites, etc…
Instead, they choose to tell us, before the election has taken place, that nobody’s going to show up. How is this news, especially since it hasn’t yet happened? And one has to ask why: Why would they bother to tell us? How does this affect me, the reader? Are they trying to tell us that democratic candidates have no support, that nobody cares enough about them to come out to vote for them?
In the end, hardly anyone showed up, it’s true. But if that’s the case, tell us after it’s happened—not before. Telling us beforehand serves a specific agenda and sends the message to voters that what they do on election day matters little: the future has already been predicted and their free will has no say.
Another way in which the media communicates its own predictions has been on full display throughout their coverage of the Democratic Primary contest for mayor: from the get-go, they labeled one guy, Bill Thompson, as the frontrunner and presented the other guy, Tony Avella, as the underdog/longshot. Why they were assigned these roles from day one was never explained. But just imagine what a much fairer contest it would be if the media restrained themselves from using this kind of language and just talked about the candidates as candidate X and candidate Y: voters would be able to make a choice freer of their influence, to be sure; they would be more likely to vote NOT for the candidate they think is going to win, but for the candidate who they like the most.
Personally, I did not meet a single person who was supporting Bill Thompson in this primary, but I met plenty of people in the streets of New York who loudly and proudly were supporting Avella. During this time, as I wandered the streets of New York or interacted with my fellow citizens in casual conversations, more people approached me telling me to vote for Tony Avella than for Bill Thompson. In fact, I can’t even recall a single time throughout this primary when I was approached by someone telling Bill Thompson was the man!
Were I to wage who was the frontrunner by my intereactions with other New Yorkers, I would have had a very different impression than the one the newspapers imposed on us over and over and over again in their coverage.
It is not the news media’s job to decide the champion of an election contest.
It is not the news media’s job to decide an election.
Without a doubt, that is the people’s job.