Northeastern University Election Post-Mortem brings up intriguing ethical issue

Today Northeastern University’s school of journalism held a post-mortem discussion of the 2016 presidential election, discussing Donald Trump’s unexpected assumption of the presidency as well as how the media helped contribute to his rise. Many different themes were discussed, including the extensive media coverage of every Trump and Clinton scandal, sexism against Clinton, lack of in-depth reporting and of course media bias. On that last point, Professor Dan Kennedy brought up an interesting issue which we have discussed before in our ethics class, about the notion of false equivalency.

The idea of false equivalency (false balance) is that the press, in an attempt to seem 100 percent fair and balanced, will attempt to equally report on every issue or in this case both candidates, to show that they have no bias towards either side. The problem with this method is that it causes journalists to give smaller or less important stories more weight just so they can provide equal coverage. Consider the endless media cycle that happened when Clinton stumbled and fainted at the 9/11 memorial in New York back in September. It was a simple stumble but the media was required to speculate for days on end about possible health issues, because they would do the same for a Trump scandal.

It diminishes the integrity of journalism to an extent by attributing a false sense of newsworthiness to a story which under normal circumstances the public would not typically deem as important. Whether this practice actually had a significant effect on the outcome of the election cannot be quantified, but it stands to reason that there was probably at least some influence involved. It was an ethical angle of this election that I had not even considered before, but it’s something I will certainly think deeply about in the days to come.