Ask an Expert: Kim and Mike Zarkin on Media Ethics in Elections
Kim Zarkin—communication professor and department chair—and her husband Mike Zarkin—political science professor—discuss the role the media play in elections, and what you need to know about the race to the White House.
by Lily Wolfe (’18)
What role does the media play in elections?
Kim: We can’t have a democracy without the media, because the key to a democracy—and the key to elections—is that you have to inform the voters. Without information, you can’t vote well. Thomas Jefferson had a newspaper where he paid them to attack Alexander Hamilton, and Alexander Hamilton had a newspaper where he paid them to attack Jefferson. Even back then, when we had this partisan and ugly press, we still recognized that we needed the press to educate.
How much influence does the media have in a primary?
Kim: The media constructs narratives, and very often the world fulfills those narratives. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was going to be the nominee. Nine years ago today 10 , a guy with a funny name called Barack Obama announces he’s running for president. People were saying, “Ah, you’re crazy, this is Hillary Clinton’s year!” The narrative didn’t work out. It can be enormously powerful. And particularly on the democratic side, it is happening again. Hillary is the nominee, but people keep going for Bernie Sanders. And the media doesn’t know what to do because it is breaking their narrative. It doesn’t always come true, but it is amazing how much it frames how we think about the candidates. That’s a really important thing. So, I think there is the power of narrative, and there’s also the amount of attention paid. Who gets the attention is often who gets the votes.
How does the media differ in covering celebrity candidates like Donald Trump compared to other candidates?
Kim: There is nothing that we can compare to Donald Trump—he is truly unique in how we talk about American politics in the sense that we weren’t prepared. As a media, I don’t think we knew what to do. The Huffington Post said it wouldn’t treat his candidacy seriously, but he just won New Hampshire. And of course, winning New Hampshire doesn’t mean winning the presidency, but he won an election, so he has to be treated seriously.
How does the media monitor the accuracy of election information?
Kim: The number one thing to remember is that uninformed people can be educated, but misinformed people tend to not change their minds. For example, most recognize that Donald Trump is not a religious person. But when the media talks to evangelicals who support Trump, they dismiss every bit of evidence that he is not religious. Even factual things like how he has been divorced twice and is on his third wife, they say it’s not a big deal. What is terrifying is that if we hold a false belief, it is almost impossible to shake it. That is partially the media’s fault because they stopped doing fact-checking in traditional journalism. But it’s the idea that everyone has an opinion and everyone’s opinion is equal, and frankly, we don’t want to hear anything that goes against our beliefs.
Is it ethical to draw people in with a catchy headline and engage readers by saying something deceiving, but then the article clarifies?
Kim: If I were talking straight journalism ethics, “click-baity” headlines that are fundamentally deceptive would violate any sort of journalism ethics. There is a problem because we often read the headlines, not the story. The negative of when we deal with politics is that we are actually affecting people’s decision making, and I think they have an obligation to be better.
Every news source has a poll and a stream of information. How do you find the source of the information to know you can trust it?
Kim: I think the idea is you find people you trust, whether it’s the actual journalist or news outlets. Sometimes, I read articles and I don’t even think these people live in the same world as I do. There are a lot of people who read things that confirm their existing beliefs. It is not journalism to any professor, but it looks like journalism.
Is it ethical for journalists to cover elections to just declare who won, without the verification?
Kim: There is some research saying that polling actually affects things like voter turnout. One of the things we know is, if someone is polling really high, their voters might stay home. Election turnout is always the key. Polling has always been debated because we don’t fully know how much it can hurt a candidate to be ahead in the polls. It used to be common practice to report exit polling before the polls closed, and that was really shown to be problematic because on election day if they report “80 percent of the people we talked to reported to vote for candidate X,” that harms later turnout for candidate X. It comes back to the idea of narrative. If someone is polling ahead, the narrative is different than if someone is polling behind, rather than it simply being about the election.
Mike: At this stage, I think it is less about polls than about momentum. Democratic primary voters who have not yet committed to a candidate may be more likely to get on board with Hillary if they think her candidacy is now inevitable, now that she is a front-runner. The parties will declare their nominee for president when one candidate wins the majority of delegates to the party convention. That is a different number for republicans than for democrats. Democrats invite nearly twice as many delegates to their convention as republicans, so the winner of the democratic primaries will have amassed a larger number of total delegates.
What is the correlation between polling and voter turnout?
Mike: It is a rough correlation at best. People who call themselves "likely voters" are more likely to turn out than those who do not, but people don't always do what they say they will.
*We saw this last week in the Jimmy Kimmel Live, Lie Witness News Super Tuesday Edition. Check out www.youtube.com for a good laugh.
From a media perspective, what influences do the first two primaries have?
Kim: They are some of the whitest places in America. The people who tend to vote in the Iowa caucuses tend to be more religious and conservative than most of Americans. Iowa is important because it is first, but it isn’t first because it is important. And it is sad that all this attention is put on a place that doesn’t represent wide swaths of America.
Is the two-party system outdated? What are the arguments for bringing in a third party?
Mike: The argument for third parties is increased choice. Many people feel that the two parties don't adequately represent them on the issues—but a narrower third party just might. If you look at many European countries, they certainly have more parties with a narrower ideological focus. The fact is that the constitution requires a presidential candidate to receive a majority in the Electoral College to be elected. With multiple competitive parties, this might not happen, and the election would be decided by the House of Representatives. Trust me, you wouldn't want that to happen.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.