Journalism Hasn’t Learned From the 2016 Elections: Elizabeth Warren, False Equivalency & Distraction Communications

Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM 

Two big takeaways from the 2016 election that contributed to the election of President Trump were false equivalency and what can only be described as “distraction communications”.

During the election, the (mainstream) media’s focus on balance meant that negative articles about one candidate would consistently include reference to the others’ “issues”, whether equivalent or not. In coverage of President Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes, Russia campaign contacts or any other bombshell of the day, Hillary Clinton’s handling of email was a clear and present theme. Clearly, nothing has changed.

Nor has the President’s mastery of creating distractions. With journalism chasing the tail of the latest tweet or soundbite, during the election and ever since, it has ended up dancing to the tune of the Presidential Pied Piper. No matter how discordant or dysfunctional the tune.


Journalism Hasn’t Learned From the 2016 Elections- Elizabeth Warren, False Equivalency & Distraction Communications


When there’s too much news – when every tweet is news – a focus on issues that at any other time would be on the front page, have received limited or passing attention. The aftermath of hurricanes, fires, status of wars, and impact of tax reforms are just some of the stories that received bursts of attention and then the press moved on.

Let’s bring this back to coverage of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she was forming an exploratory committee to run for President and why this demonstrates how much hasn’t been learned from the 2016 election cycle.


Elizabeth Warren


The New York Times’, other media organizations and TV network initial coverage of the story provide reason for concern. Why? Because false equivalency and the strings of distraction pulled by the President played a key role in shaping the narrative.

Simply look at the balance of stories. You have an accomplished woman who has effectively served the state of Massachusetts, established one of the most significant consumer protection agencies following the financial crisis, demonstrated resolve to stand up to Wall Street, and a significant part of the story is the focus on Native American ancestry. Really?

Sorry, journalism, you just got played.

It’s time for media organizations to look in the mirror. Before we get too far down the path of the next election cycle, a fundamental question needs to be asked: Are we covering these stories in ways which will contribute to democracy or work against it?

There are real consequences to this. As communicators, we know that once an impression is formed, it’s hard to shake. By repeating the President’s narrative, Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy likely faces an uphill battle.

This is not just about Senator Warren. As we go into the next election cycle, we can expect to see the denigration of every Presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican. If for every campaign launch or announcement the media repeats the President’s version of “Pocahontas”, journalism risks once more, albeit unintentionally, being complicit in undermining our democracy.

This does not mean the media needs to simply reflect one side of the story, but editors, journalists, and news anchors need to do a far better job of highlighting the substance of campaign positions and providing information that may be relevant to evaluating them.

These are essentially job interviews conducted on behalf of the American people. The focus on what amounts to Presidential “click bait” sucks the oxygen out of the room for the stories that need to be told. Who is Elizabeth Warren? What are her positions? What do we need to know about her or any other candidate if we are to choose her or him for the most important job in the country and, arguably, the world?


The BuzzFeed Buzzsaw


There’s something else important that needs to be a focus of attention. When it comes to interviewing candidates for President or any other high office, the media needs to share what it knows. In my article The Buzzfeed Buzzsaw (January 2017), I argued that BuzzFeed had done a service to the country by sharing the “Russia dossier”, albeit too late since it was after the vote. Major media outlets had the opportunity to highlight the research conducted by former British Intelligence operative, Christopher Steele, prior to the election. They chose not to.

In the run up to the 2020 election, editors should not be gatekeepers, but curators. Reasonable standards need to be applied to what gets covered. Stories must avoid false equivalencies and the deliberate distractions of Presidential provocations. That said, transparency is key, if journalism is to be an accurate first draft of history. We need to move beyond the patriarchal management of the news that “the great and the good” deem fit to share, to the media as sharers of information without fear or favor.

We, the people, need to have all the information we need to make our most consequential decision in a civil society – electing a President. The initial coverage of Elizabeth Warren shows we are not off to a good start, but there’s an opportunity to do better. Change is needed, and sooner rather than later. Our democracy depends upon it.

CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size.  The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.