Media Analysis

'False balance': Media has a responsibility to call out lies in U.S. and UK elections

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U.S. President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the White House (image by Number 10 via Flickr)

The media's reporting on the upcoming U.S. and UK elections will have significant political implications, and they must do so without bias, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

ELECTIONS AND REFERENDA provide media institutions with a stress test by showing how effectively they serve democracy. Judging by Australian media failing this test during the Voice Referendum, it is likely the U.S. and UK media will similarly fail to serve democracy in their elections in 2024.

When I talk about "media", I include all types of media. The modern media landscape is made up of traditional, hybrid and social platforms, a mass interconnected ecosystem where information is published, shared, legitimised, verified, critiqued, endorsed and ultimately, reaches and influences the public.

This media ecosystem is meant to play a positive role in democracy by hosting vibrant democratic debates, presenting voters with truthful, useful information, and resembling a metaphorical marketplace of ideas where different voices and interests can be heard.

It is, however, naïve to assume that all media organisations are trying to positively serve democracy. They do not have the same motives, the same values, or the same adherence to standards. To understand the influence “media” has on democracy during elections, you need to recognise that some media is designed to manipulate the public, whereas other media is there to inform. Yet, even media organisations notionally dedicated to informing the public seem incapable of reflecting on the ways they too regularly damage democracy.

Manipulative media are media organisations with an agenda. The best example of agenda-driven media is the Murdoch media. Murdoch outlets may claim to be producing "news", but, like News Corp Australia did for the "No" campaign during the Voice Referendum, during the U.S. and UK elections, they will be campaigning for the U.S. Republicans and the UK Conservative Party.

Manipulative media organisations like Murdoch’s have shown that not only do they intervene in democratic elections by campaigning for one side and attacking the other, but they will also manipulate information to suit their campaign.

During the Dominion voting machine defamation case which Fox News settled for an eye-watering US$787.5 million (AU$1.17 billion), the media company admitted it knew President Joe Biden did not steal the Election, but broadcast this accusation anyway because their audience wanted them to. Murdoch and other Right-wing manipulative media have succeeded in convincing a third of Americans that Biden stole the 2020 Election, a false belief that will no doubt influence this year’s Election.

It boggles the mind to consider what other false narratives Murdoch outlets will propagate to advantage their favoured Republican and Conservative Party candidates, respectively. When truth is manipulated, democracy is undermined.

Some social media companies have joined the ranks of manipulative, agenda-driven media. After a year of Elon Musk rule at Twitter/X, the platform now resembles a Right-wing troll party, where progressives are attacked and abused. Far from a vibrant public square where audiences are informed by diverse voices and views, the social media platform now resembles a 4Chan-like cesspit filled with extremism, conspiracy theories and hate speech, just as Musk designed.

The dead-bird X cesspit will no doubt advantage Right-wing extremist organising in favour of Right-wing candidates in the UK and U.S. elections. Musk has let Trump back onto the platform and does little to moderate and regulate disinformation and hate. At the same time, progressives have lost an important place to communicate, network and organise.

Outlets that like to think they have the primary mission of informing a healthy democracy have also shown in the Australian Voice Referendum that they are incapable of adjudicating a fair and truthful debate.

The ABC’s Laura Tingle, writing in the Australian Financial Review, presented a crystal clear critique of the media’s failures in reporting about the Voice, saying:

'The willingness of some sections of the media to perpetuate misinformation, and of others to get lost in attempts at false balance, has made nigh on impossible a reasonably rational debate.'

Tingle encapsulated not only the problem of manipulative media perpetuating misinformation but also the way false balance undermines truth. As reported by Nine newspapers, Tingle was apparently exasperated by how the ABC’s blind adherence to “balance” degraded the public broadcaster’s Voice coverage. She particularly pointed out that 'strict balance' made it difficult to deal with 'outlandish claims' and subjects who 'were not willing to be scrutinised'.

Tingle’s reference to subjects not willing to be scrutinised related to "No" campaigner Jacinta Nampijinpa Price declining interview requests by the ABC. An ABC report released in December showed Price turned down 52 interview requests on the ABC during the Voice campaign, which Tingle implied limited the opportunity for "Yes" campaigners to be included in their “balanced” coverage.

If outlets like the ABC and its UK and U.S. equivalents were really interested in informing the public, they would accept that false balance gives false equivalency and false legitimacy to “outlandish” and often lying democratic competitors. False balance thus does not inform, it misleads.

Despite there being much concern about the role false balance played in Donald Trump’s 2016 election, where Hilary Clinton’s “emails scandal” was given false equivalency to Trump’s innumerate indiscretions, eight years later, the media is still flogging this templated “both sides” dead horse.

The likely Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is a well-known liar and has many other atrocious faults, including being found by courts to be an insurrectionist, a rapist and a financial fraud, as well as having a history of racism. Yet, the fact that he is still treated like a legitimate candidate and in most mainstream news, not labelled as entirely deplorable and a global threat, gives him unearned credibility in the election.

It is time that media outlets understood that by failing to hold political candidates like Trump accountable for his many failings, they are not informing their audience, but are misleading them. Indeed, a blind adherence to false equivalency reporting about Trump and Biden is in reality just as problematic as manipulative media who similarly advantage Trump in election coverage by design.

Australian media did not serve up a healthy democratic forum during the Voice Referendum, just as the UK and the U.S. won’t be served this during their elections this year. Whether the media is setting out to manipulate or is just failing to inform the public during the internationally crucial U.S. and UK elections, the result is the same: democracy suffers.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow her on Threads or Bluesky.

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