American news is about to self-isolate for three months. It shouldn’t
As July melts into August, the increasing trickle of articles about the U.S. presidential campaign will become a flood, threatening to wipe away an entire world of stories that could keep Americans informed.
The focus of the U.S. for the next three months is likely to be almost entirely domestic, as President Trump and Joe Biden compete to put out their narratives on the coronavirus, protests, the economy, and the last four years.
But settling in for the traditional red vs. blue horse race towards the White House, as well as the Senate, is narrow-sighted and risks missing out on the rest of the world as it goes through one of its most important moments in our lifetimes.
The type of news we are getting
The systems that many Americans use to receive news in the 21st century are set up for a presidential election. Soundbites on cable TV and a lack of depth online do not work very well for explaining the nuances of scientific research and how to react to COVID, but are a great fit for micro-updates from the latest polls or outrageous tweets.
Whatever natural tendencies there were towards horse race coverage before have found a willing partner in social media, where research from Facebook itself has shown that the highest proportions of hard news articles are shared by those at the edges of the ideological spectrum rooting on their team. For more up to date data, you can also check out Kevin Roose’s Twitter feed set up to highlight the most shared articles each day.
Beyond the people doing the sharing, there are also the platforms themselves. A stunning Wall Street Journal report from this spring detailed how executives at Facebook chose not to make the site less divisive in part because it would have come at the cost of engagement. Division and outrage drive engagement, and what could be more divisive than American national elections that almost always split around 50–50? What could possibly drive more engagement than feeding a certain set of junkies, alone with their screens, a constant IV of content that pits the bright, beautiful future of their candidate winning versus the certain doomsday desired by the 60 million who voted for the wrong side last time?
While not the sole cause, this sort of media environment is a contributor to the fact that polarization is now a defining feature not just in American politics but in American life. Not even the immensity of coronavirus and the stakes, life and death, could escape being politicized.
The way that things are set up to mine engagement, and money, from emotion means that news that does not fit into the red vs. blue or non-Trump vs. Trump narratives is often neglected. This includes interesting, important stories happening in the U.S. that don’t touch on the power centers of New York, L.A. and D.C where a large percentage of journalists, particularly digital ones, are. But it also applies to almost all international stories.
It is not news that many major outlets in the U.S. have been closing down foreign bureaus for years. Some of that has been replaced with reporters who take on the risks of being freelancers, though they also face the pressure to fit what they are doing into the news cycle dominating America that day. “There’s always more of a response when I have a Trump peg,” Middle Eastern correspondent Sulome Anderson told CJR in 2018.
As might be expected, this does not leave Americans particularly well informed about what is happening in the world, which appears to have been the case with coronavirus. Zeyi Yang wrote an insightful piece in April about “information gaps” and the fact that major American publications seemed to catch on to news about COVID that had been published in China weeks earlier, including when it was already in English. One of the possible explanations offered by Yang is that news desks, in addition to covering the impeachment trial, were overly focused on the 2020 election then getting into swing.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also in April, took aim at news outlets, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in particular, for not blowing the “bugle” on the dangers of coronavirus in China. He received a lot of flak for this because there had in fact been on the ground reporting by Western outlets, particularly if you were looking beyond just two outlets.
But Gov. Cuomo’s media critique is a common one, whether of coronavirus or of journalists not covering terrorist attacks in Baghdad with the same fervor that they would cover one in France. The coverage almost always exists, but most people’s perception of “the media” relies on what is the dominant story or two of the day, what is highlighted on major sites, and what is shared on social media by their friends and all of the clever journalists they follow. Response (engagement) to articles and events also feeds back into what editors choose to spotlight, leading to situations where the outsized role of Twitter on New York journalism circles leads to space on A1 for a story about the “cancel culture letter.”
Getting better news
So what is one to do to stay afloat in a flood of news when the systems getting you information are oftentimes geared towards something other than keeping you informed?
The good news is that, even as major outlets or your social media feeds become focused solely on a tweet or whether Biden’s VP pick will get him two extra percentage points in certain counties in Michigan, there is great journalistic work being done around the world on almost any subject you could desire to read. Again, if you know the right places to look.
The big legacy papers and magazines do their best to cover the entire country (and may have the unfortunate responsibility of needing to given the decline in local news) as well as the entire world, with international reporters who have continued to do good work during the pandemic. However, no matter what they send back, their outlets will be in full election mode. Getting real quality news in the upcoming months probably means going beyond the mainstream and maybe even means subscribing to something beyond the New York Times.
Luckily there is a treasure trove of English-language sites abroad such as the South China Morning Post, The Moscow Times (full disclosure: my first job out of college) or The Brazilian Report, specialty digital outlets such as Rest of World, English editions of major outlets such as El Pais or Deutsche Welle, and bloggers in every corner of the world, not to mention the entirety of the more traditional Anglophone media outside of the U.S., from Cape Town to Canberra to
There is really a lot out there. Coverage of coronavirus, as well as the world’s development and distribution of a vaccine, will press on, giving Americans an opportunity to continue comparing and learning from the responses happening in other countries. The pandemic has been and will continue to be something with an inextricable global dimension.
Stepping outside the circus tent of American political discourse may even help you be more informed on the presidential race itself. When Ukraine or China or Russia inevitably pop up as an issue in the campaign, it may be nice to have been reading the Kyiv Post, the Nikkei Asian Review or Meduza instead of having knowledge of entire regions of the world refracted through the prism of US partisanship and culture war.
The year 2020 has been one for reflecting on the way that a lot of our systems work, where they have failed us and where we can do better. It’s also a time when Americans, now banned from traveling to the vast majority of other countries on Earth, can reevaluate the way that they see their place in the world.
Media coverage of the incessant, swirling news cycles in a presidential campaign may mean an end to this self-reflection, though I hope it doesn’t. Perspective has been and is there for those who want it. You may not be able to get on a flight, but you don’t have to be cut off from the world.