What does election coverage in the US tell us about our own media?


By Steven McCaffery

HOW are you coping with your CNN hangover?

Still a bit jumpy after the shock-and-awe sound effects? Or hypnotised by the repetition of the Key Race Alerts?

After witnessing the fall of Trump, we all need 30 seconds of calm.

But the exposure to election coverage from the United States has sparked a great Twitter debate among Irish and British audiences.

Some journalists here even contrasted the US output with what they saw as the calmer, less opinionated political reporting on this side of the Atlantic.

The TV coverage from the US, where presenters overlaid news with commentary, sounded unfamiliar and even off-key to many here.

But was it a departure from impartiality, or just a difference in style? And if we’re to critique the Americans, should we also have a closer look in our own backyard?

There is no doubt that some of what was said in the heat of the moment jarred audiences, even in the States.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper expressed regret for comparing Donald Trump, flailing in defeat, to an obese turtle baking in the sun.

But, as journalists know, context is important too.

The media in the US has been under attack by Trump and his supporters for years. The jeers of ‘fake news’ set the scene for physical assaults on journalists. During the Black Lives Matter protests, US police arrested reporters doing their job. The toxic atmosphere coincided with a period of unprecedented strain for the news industry, with jobs lost and newsrooms closed.

And all this has happened in a political environment where the Trump presidency has imposed cruel policies that banned Muslims, separated immigrant children from their families, fuelled racism and misogyny, emboldened white supremacism, repudiated science and bolstered populist regimes around the world.

Journalists in the US are operating in a country that is in a deep crisis.

They also have to be heard above considerable noise. There is the propagandising on Fox News, the lies sloshing around Facebook, even the political encroachment of Televangelism, and they have to do so while speaking to a vast, disparate and divided set of audiences.

Given this wider context, comparisons with local broadcasters such as BBC and RTÉ only go so far.

For all these reasons, millions of non-Americans around the world connected with the tearful reaction of Van Jones in the CNN studio when it was finally confirmed that Biden won.


But if we do have concerns at the mixing of comment and news reporting that we saw in the US, then we should reflect more deeply on the British and Irish news media.

The line between reporting and commentary is being put under pressure here by the 24-hour news cycle, by Twitter and by the need for newsrooms to counter the immediacy of online news by offering more analysis and sometimes commentary from reporters.

We’re on the same curve the US media has travelled, as people change the way they consume news and as competition for their attention grows.

But we also have problems of our own.

There are numerous newspaper titles on these islands which have scapegoated immigrants, fuelled racism and dumped facts to pursue preferred policy goals – Brexit included.

How successful has the media in Westminster, and the publicly-funded BBC in particular, been at calling-out Trump-admirer Boris Johnson on his record?

Who in the media brought Nigel Farage to public prominence, with all the resulting political consequences? Was the motivation journalism, or TV audience share?

In Belfast and Dublin, do our newsrooms, the stories they tell and the people they feature reflect the racial and social mix of our societies? More often than not, the answer to that question is ‘No’.

Is there sufficient awareness of the risks of using controversy to attract audiences in a society as divided as Northern Ireland? This issue has been repeatedly raised, but never addressed.

Does media output on the island of Ireland reflect the cross-border relationships captured in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and supported in referenda, or is coverage still siloed?

Some newsrooms are under too much pressure to take time to reflect. Journalism jobs are being lost. Investigative journalism, which is time consuming and expensive, is in decline.

There are already many examples of where that vacuum is being filled by cheaper opinion pieces from commentators who aim to influence rather than inform. It’s being filled by vox pops (which are rarely racially mixed). It’s being filled by call-in shows that use division and arguments to attract audiences. It’s being filled by presenters reading out tweets and text messages.

Given that the UK is soon to see the launch of its own version of Fox news, we need to be vigilant. We also need to urgently find ways to support quality journalism and promote best practice. Journalism matters.

One aspect of the election reporting in the US that got very little attention here, was the willingness of editors to cut-off coverage of news conferences where politicians were telling obvious untruths.

Maybe we could also learn from that.