Clickbait journalism is lying to us all

by Sasho Markovski

The US faced the huge challenge of conducting elections during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, and the whole world was watching the world’s foremost democracy. The challenge the US democratic institutions must have faced in conducting free and fair elections and still ensuring that the electorate did not jeopardise its health was huge.

The election campaign was characterised by deeply entrenched political polarisation, while the election debates did nothing to soothe the voters, as both candidates, and their running mates, used aggressive rhetoric, which often obscured the broader policy debate.

For the first time, the US system that prides itself in enabling ‘freedom of expression for all’ found itself in a situation in which the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to introduce rules to “maintain order” in the debates and mute the microphones when necessary. The international media reported that during the debates America finally hit rock bottom and that its democracy is suffering.

But what did the mainstream media do to promote freedom of speech, democracy, freedom of expression, to uphold the journalistic ethics and standards, to give voice to the voiceless, the marginalised and disenfranchised part of the electorate, to let the presidential candidates describe their agendas and policies, to paint an unbiased portray of the candidates…? The simple answer would be nothing. Well, not nothing, it poured fuel on the fire. How does this help undecided voters or bring out important policy details?

Widespread concerns about the liberal media bias have been prevalent for years now. Many Americans believe that liberal bias dominates the media. It is true that in today’s world, with our highly developed technology and information at our fingertips, with thousands of media outlets, whether we talk about newspapers, radio, network and cable TV, podcasts, social media. These news outlets do not all take the same perspective on any given issue. If you are a conservative and you want to receive some news with a conservative point of view, you can easily pick the right outlet; same for the liberals. Yet, three of the four largest US cable news networks, CNN, NBC and MSNBC, are left leaning, to put it mildly.

Throughout the presidential campaign positive stories about American and Trump’s administration were disregarded and underreported, while negative events were major news stories. By placing negative stories at the centre of the viewers’ attention, the media painted a bleak picture of the United States, implicitly pointing the finger at President Donald Trump.

Benjamin Franklin is believed to have said “half a truth is often a great lie” and Mark Twain “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”, then intentionally omitting parts of a story is indeed lying. Let us take the Covid-19 pandemic as an example. Too often we only see the high numbers of infected cases, but not the successfully recovered patients, federal government aid to hospitals and companies nor the context of mortality rates or the comparison to total populations. If only the number of furloughed employees are reported, but not the economic recovery caused by government support, then we are lied to by the media.

President Trump’s infection by Covid-19 was breaking news that led to high ratings (and unpleasant cheers from many of his opponents); yet, his quick recovery was underreported by the same media outlets. Clickbait journalism must be contained. It is lazy, unethical and unprofessional journalism. True, we as an audience are drawn to scandals, tragedies, gossip.

But by feeding us cheap narratives, the media can direct our attention away from the important issues affecting our lives and distort our reality. It is the media’s responsibility to provide diet of healthy, unbiased, fair and quality news.

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