News or Noise: How Irresponsible Journalism Threatens Our Democracy

by | Jun 29, 2024 | NEWS, OPINION, POLITICS

Immediately after the first presidential debate, journalists wasted no time amplifying Biden’s poor performance.

And so the narrative begins. Or rather, continues.

Over the last few years, news outlets have been reporting on the advanced ages of both presidential candidates as the primary concern rather than the fact that one is a convicted felon who tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election in a failed coup.

In many post-debate articles, Biden’s underwhelming delivery at the debate took precedence over Trump’s incessant lying with some declaring the current president unfit to run a second term and should leave the race. Many Americans fell in line echoing the same sentiments.

Never mind the fact that Biden has outperformed Trump on a number of fronts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden’s American Rescue Plan helped millions of lower and middle-income Americans, and the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act led to the highest level of American job growth since the 1960s.

Conversely, Trump was impeached twice during his presidential tenure and incited the deadliest assault on the center of American government in over 200 years. With a blatant disregard of science, he failed to provide an adequate response to the coronavirus leading to over 400,000 Americans dying, of which an estimated 40% could have been averted if not for his reckless policies. By withdrawing the U.S. from multiple international agreements and institutions, Trump also single-handedly reduced our country’s leadership status around the world.

Most recently, Trump, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, has been convicted on all counts (34 to be exact) of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal and will be sentenced in less than two weeks.

Those significant details — among many others — hardly got a mention in the debate. Instead, the focus remained on Biden’s age and his tendency to stumble over his words. Journalists could have reminded Americans of his speech disorder (an official disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act) but instead, we have been subjected to suggestions — and in some cases, direct accusations — of his mental incapacity and cognitive decline.

Meanwhile Trump made more than 30 false claims during the debate. Among them, he inaccurately stated that Biden wants to raise taxes — in actuality, the current President proposes tax breaks for families and lower health care costs. Trump also boasted about his environmental record, yet repeatedly denies climate science. And perhaps his most brazen outburst was insinuating that Democratic states allow infanticide.

Trump’s outrageous behavior is nothing new. But what is relatively new — at least since the 2016 election — is a reluctance for media outlets to consistently call out his lies, along with the serious threat he poses to our democracy.

Time and time again, Trump gets a pass. And every time it happens, it legitimizes him — giving him unwarranted credibility.

In my essay, The Reckoning: An Election Day Retrospective, I discuss my greatest fear: the normalization of Trump. And that’s exactly what has happened , and continues to happen, largely due to the platform that the media gives him. The debate was no exception.

Over the last few years, responsible journalism has transformed into selective reporting. In our tabloid-loving, celebrity-obsessed, short-attention-span culture, the lines have blurred between entertainment and news and in turn, between fiction and reality. Research shows that people value sensational news with bold, controversial claims garnering more engagement than a mundane presentation of facts.

I think it’s safe to say that much of the “news” we absorb these days is less about thoughtful, research-backed information and more about spinning a story that will garner more likes and shares. It begs the question: can we still handle the truth if we’re just going to ignore it? In many cases, a provocative, even misleading, headline is all it takes to increase clicks — and profitability.

And that’s ultimately what it comes down to: money.

How ironic that the least amount of journalistic effort makes the most profit — a situation not dissimilar to an undeserving former reality TV show host becoming President of the United States.

It’s easy to understand why sensationalism reigns supreme. Media outlets that run stories that incite controversy boost audience interaction. Higher ratings bring more traffic to their website and social media platforms, increasing advertising opportunities which leads to higher ad impressions and ultimately, more revenue.

But today’s journalists are also doing something far more insidious than biased reporting. They are shaping a narrative — one that we, as Americans, are inadvertently exposed to and more often than not, help to perpetuate.

Regardless of whether or not a narrative is rooted in truth, it can become a popular mainstream topic within minutes. As more people talk about it, the quicker it propagates and spreads throughout our communities and our nation.

During the debate, not once was Trump called out by CNN moderators for making false statements. Nor was he confronted for going off topic or failing to respond to the question at hand.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson, author of Letters from an American, put a name to his incoherent, rambling performance: the Gish gallop, “a rhetorical technique in which someone throws out a fast string of lies, non-sequiturs, and specious arguments, so many that it is impossible to fact-check or rebut them in the amount of time it took to say them.”

With zero consequences for lying, Trump was essentially given a free platform to position himself as the stronger candidate. His bravado shone through even in his nonsensical babbling, claiming unfounded success to millions of impressionable viewers. The deafening silence of the moderators legitimized him and the biased headlines from journalists afterwards bolstered his unjustified credibility.

It’s no secret that Trump has vowed to be a dictator on ‘day one’ and his Project 2025 plot would take a ‘wrecking ball’ to US institutions. Yet those alarming subjects were not broached, much less discussed, at the debate.

Selective reporting. Media blackout. Gatekeeping. Call it what you want, but when it comes to Trump and his agenda for our country, irresponsible journalism is an existential threat to our democracy.

Equally disturbing is that we’re living in a time when people look for sources, news or otherwise, that merely confirm what they already believe — regardless of whether or not it’s based on factual evidence.

A world where everyone can believe what they want — what Trump’s former advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to as “alternative facts” — is extremely dangerous. We need to be able to agree on fundamental truths. And we must demand that our news sources not only seek out the truth, but work to preserve our democracy.

So much is at stake in November’s election. Despite the narrative that many media outlets are determined to push to keep the chaos — and the advertising revenue — streaming in, we must not let them shape the narrative of this upcoming election or downplay its seriousness. The threat to our democracy is real and if we want to preserve it, we must come together as a nation and vote for Biden.

“Keep in mind this election is not about Biden,” states David Frum in his opinion piece in The Atlantic. “It’s about you and your commitments and your values. Biden is just the instrument. Like any instrument, he’s imperfect. But better an imperfect instrument than a would-be autocrat who demands a cult of personality.”⁠

Indeed. Biden summed it up best at a rally the day after the debate stating, “I might not debate as well as I used to. But what I do know is how to tell the truth.”

Truth matters.

It’s clear that we can no longer rely on journalists to tell an accurate, unbiased story. In the months ahead, let us collectively prioritize the facts, uphold our nation’s integrity and above all, ensure our voices are heard at the ballot box this November.

Illustration by Alina Kolyuka

Rachel Scott Everett

Rachel Scott Everett

Rachel Scott Everett is co-founder and creative director at EVERGIB, a nomadic creative studio specializing in strategically led advertising and branding. A champion of big ideas and the power of storytelling, Rachel believes creativity can be used as a force for good to improve the world we live in.

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