Nov 3, 2020 - Economy

News about news dominates election

Illustration of a hand placing a ballot in an old fashioned television as if it were a ballot box.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The media and its gatekeepers have managed to make themselves a central story in the 2020 presidential election.

Why it matters: This is especially true on cable news, where mentions of terms like "misinformation" and "disinformation" have skyrocketed in the past few weeks, surpassing mentions of issues voters typically say they care about like "social security," "climate change," and "immigration."

Data: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • The data, from the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer, measures minutes mentioned of issues by network over time, going back to 2010.

The number of stories online about media disinformation and bias surged from September to October, according to data from traffic analytics company

  • 131% uptick in articles published about "media bias."
  • 50%+ uptick in articles published about disinformation and censorship.

That was paired with a viewership surge:

  • 717% increase in views on stories related to disinformation.
  • 357% increase in views on stories about censorship.
  • 204% more views on stories about media bias.

The big picture: Much of that conversation has been driven by President Trump, who has focused much of his campaign rhetoric around targeting the media.

  • An Axios analysis found that "fake news" has been the most consistent topic amongst Trump's ad spend on Facebook all year.
  • Trump's campaign and key allies planned to make bias allegations by social platforms a core part of their 2020 strategy, officials told Axios last year.
  • Conservatives in particular seemed to have latched onto the themes of social media bias and censorship as a key talking point this election.

Between the lines: As Axios noted last year, disagreements about how to apply free speech to the speed and scale of social media have consumed political debate this election cycle, contributing to extreme levels of polarization.

  • A majority of Americans (73%) say voters in both parties “cannot agree on the basic facts," according to Pew Research Center.
  • That debate has touched everything from whether to ban political ads with misinformation, to how to verify whether a story from a traditional news outlet should be stifled if its claims can't be vetted.

The bottom line: Free speech and media bias rarely appear as an important issue among voters.

  • Data from Newswhip shows that while social media engagement with articles around these topics has increased since the last election, it's much lower relatively to articles with hot takes around news of the day.
  • Still, there have been a few times where stories about media and social media bias, like the week following the Hunter Biden emails saga, have attracted huge social media attention online.

Yes, but: Journalists have focused on covering misinformation as a defensive maneuver against Trump's "fake news" charge. These controversies may crowd out topics important to voters — but for the news media, they may be unavoidable.

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