The election coverage we need and deserve

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There’s an unfortunate role the media too often plays when covering terrorism.

There’s a tendency to sensationalize terrorist attacks and the people who commit them. This is highly detrimental when trying to reduce terrorism, as it induces fear among the public — just as the terrorists want.

Terrorism, as a tactic, requires an audience far removed from the direct victims of an attack, and it needs this audience to be fearful.

When this happens due to media sensationalism, the media has effectively abetted terrorism.

{mosads}That sounds a bit harsh, even though true. So every year I make this same additional point to undergraduates in my terrorism/counterterrorism course at Duke University: The media is not serving this role out of malice; it is simply responding to market incentives.

Sensational stories garner more attention, and attention sells product.

This year, though, I have found this defense more difficult to make. Not because it was less true, but because the media is exhibiting the same counterproductive sensationalism in the context of the election as it does in the context of terrorism.

And this creates negative ramifications for our democracy.

Making counterterrorism more difficult has only a marginally negative effect on our well-being. That’s not because terrorist attacks are insignificant to their targets, but because the chance of being the direct target of an attack is tiny.

Making the proper functioning of our democracy more difficult, in contrast, has a tremendous negative effect.

And that’s what the media is doing by sensationalizing some events and ignoring others.

In today’s election coverage, for example, every word or action is framed in terms of how it affects the fundamental presidential horse race on which we all are supposed to be laser-focused, rather than how it affects the public. Even fact-checks are presented as a “gotcha.”

This has to stop.

Unfortunately, there is no way for this to happen in the present system. The profit motive in the media leads to lots of positive outcomes, but it also leads inexorably to sensationalism.

Sometimes that’s fine, but sometimes it isn’t.

Such as now.

State-run competing media are not a solution either: they would, if anything, be even worse. There are few things more directly in opposition to every democratic principle we hold dear.

There is an alternative, however, which would employ both the skill and the philanthropic spirit of our citizens.

We need to create an independent media source that makes no pretense of generating a profit or even enough income to pay its employees, and is totally unconnected to the state or any private individuals.

Those with the means to do so would donate to a blind trust, and the income from this would completely fund media operations, which would operate at a perpetual loss.

This independent media outlet would employ journalists whose job would not be to create sensational stories that serve as click-bait or result in advertising dollars.

Rather, their job would be to gather facts, investigate and use sources that are relevant to the topic. Contrary positions to the findings of investigations would be included in stories, but their factual basis would be assessed and included as well.

Opinion would be left to other media.

Most important, this media outlet would continue to operate even if no one ever paid attention to it. Journalists would be hired for it on the basis solely of their ability to generate factual knowledge and objective analysis, based upon clear assumptions.

The incentives in their contracts would be structured accordingly, which would decrease journalists’ incentive for bias.

Remaining bias could be diminished by providing procedures for outside challenge of reporting. A challenge would produce further reporting by one or more additional journalists who would be incentivized to turn up new information.

Any journalist discovered to have deliberately withheld information would be let go.

I hold no illusions that the existence of this independent media outlet would solve all our problems, or that its creation would occur without a hitch.

However, it would at least over the long run provide a repository of factual information to which we could turn when trying to simply find out what is happening in the world, without the sensationalistic spin provided by other media.

In so doing, it has the potential to reduce some of the negative effects of sensationalism.

At the very least, there’s evidence that it won’t make things worse.

Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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