Media lessons from 2020 US polls as we head to ours
It is now close to two years since the world’s leading democracy, the US, witnessed one of the most controversial presidential elections in its over 240-year history. The 2020 presidential election was not short of drama, as expected. President Donald Trump is not a man new to controversy, and he definitely did not disappoint on that front.
Months to the election saw the former TV show host make claims that were seen to be aimed at discrediting the elections. Using his ‘favourite’ media, Twitter and Fox News, he made unsubstantiated claims against the conduct of the polls accusing the ‘Do-nothing Democrats’ and the ‘Big Money’ tech of conniving to deny him a second term at the Oval Office through fraud. He further went ahead to cast aspersions on mail-in balloting which had been necessitated by the Covid-19 crisis.
His claims set the stage for discrediting the election results which came to pass right on the polls day. Moments after the results began trickling in and the media calling states, the president came out to prematurely claim victory. He blamed the states for continuing to count mail-in ballots which according to him were illegal ballots.
But as the political theatrics played out, the conduct of the US media caught my eyes. Interestingly, when it came to telling the truth, most of the media did what was expected of them—telling the truth. Even Trump’s and Republicans’ most trusted media ally—Fox News—was forced to accept the truth about his failure to secure a second term in office. This is an important point to note bearing in mind the media outlet’s notorious reputation for amplifying Trump’s rhetoric, sometimes with blatant disregard for facts.
While US media has an accepted tradition of endorsing candidates and taking political sides, which at times blurs the line between professionalism and the exercise of democratic rights, one of the most important practices that most US media has consistently maintained is that of factually informing the public regardless of their political alignment. Fox News has, however, for a long time, been the odd one out in this aspect on many occasions.
Two of the US social media giants Twitter and Facebook also came out blazing and could no longer entertain Trump’s non-factual posts regarding electoral malpractices. Twitter was the first to be on the lookout for the president’s blatant spread of falsehoods, regularly flagging off some of his tweets that claimed voter fraud. After a long time of restraining themselves from sanctioning Trump, Facebook also followed suit, flagging off Trump’s posts it deemed misleading. It wasn’t long before the two suspended Trump’s accounts, with Twitter announcing a permanent ban of him from its platform.
Coming back to our beloved country, on Tuesday we’ll be electing the next representatives to the government. This is a time when ‘fake news’ or misinformation is usually at an all-time high, mostly fuelled by digital media platforms.
It is a time when morals, facts and truths are thrown out of the window and replaced by made-up ‘facts’ and lies. We have seen this during the campaigns.
Kenya is relatively a young democracy as compared to the US and its media does not have a tradition of endorsing candidates or political parties. While some media houses have often come under public scrutiny for leaning toward certain political sides, no media organisation has ever been on record announcing their political affiliation.
Many agree this is the right way to go for a young democracy whose politics are still largely volatile and tribal-based.
As we head to the polls, therefore, the role of the media remains critical especially when it comes to the passing of critical electoral information to the public. The media must pick up the vital lessons from the US polls and ensure facts and truth become the cornerstone of reportage.
— The writer is a Communications and Media Strategist