AP ethically blew it on Monday. It did that when after 5 PM and just hours before the critical California primary it declared that Hillary Clinton now had enough delegates to clinch the
Factually it is simple. AP on Monday night June 5, filed a story declaring that Hillary Clinton now had enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination even before the remaining primaries, including that in California, would be held on Tuesday, June 6. That estimate was based on its calculation of earned delegates plus super-delegates. So what is the problem with that story? There are several.
First, technically the super-delegates do not vote until the convention. However they may say they are pledged, they can change their minds on how they will decide up until they actually vote at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in July. While they may be pledging for Clinton, nothing says that events between now and the DNC could not lead them to change their mind. While potentially unlikely, big wins by Sanders in California and other states, along with polling data suggesting him to be a stronger candidate, might be fodder for him arguing that he and not Clinton should get the support of the super-delegates. AP’s story is thus based upon their interpretation and the counting of the stated intentions of super-delegates and not upon real earned delegates. Thus, factually depending on how one cuts it, the AP story may not be true.
But the bigger problem is the timing. The story ran simply hours before the last big primaries when there will be little if no ability by Sanders to counteract the report. Sanders’ campaign was given effectively to opportunity to comment or to offer rebuttal that can reach voters and supporters in a way to challenge this AP declaration of the state of the campaign. AP has not so much reported the news as it did create a story that potentially creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that favors Clinton.
News reporting can produce what is known as the bandwagon effect. Political scientists and behavioral psychologists have described the bandwagon effect as a situation where when journalists declare a candidate to be a winner–based on polls–it impacts voting in several ways. First, it depresses voter turnout for those who might have considered voting for the loser. Second, it may convince independent voters to go with the winner and not necessarily with their choice whom they have heard as having been declared the winner.
There is empirical data supporting the bandwagon effect. It supports political theories by the like of Alexis DeTocqueville, James Bryce, David Riesman, and Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, all great political scientists or sociologists, who described the powerful role that public opinion plays in swaying voters or individuals. Why should I go with my preference when the majority says otherwise? No one wants to go with a loser, we all want to support winners. The best application of the bandwagon effect is how it is used with advertising. The famous “three out of five doctors recommend” or polls describing customer preferences are more than efforts to describe factual situations, they are meant to sway opinions and get people to buy your product. Another variation of this is called the Hawthorne effect where psychologists have noted how that when human subjects are being told they are being observed they change their behavior.
AP’s report on Clinton’s clinching of the nomination hits directly at the bandwagon effect. It runs the risk of altering election turnout and results in several states and thereby crossing the line from reporting news to effecting the news. It is like a journalism Hawthorne effect. This type of reporting is unethical and crosses the line from impartiality and objectivity to being a newsmaker, potentially favoring one candidate over another.
But this would not be the first time AP blew it. Back in the 1980s William Brandon Shanley put together a documentary entitled “The Made for TV Election,” narrated by Martin Sheen. It described overall how the mainstream television media reported the 1980 presidential election and slanted coverage to maintain ratings and market share. But central to the documentary was how on election night AP called the race early for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter on election night while polls were still open on the west coast, including in California. As a result, evidence suggested that when voter heard of the AP call as reported on television, voters walked away from polls or in some cases changed their voting preferences. This documentary was a major indictment of the television news media–and no mainstream television station or news service has ever chosen to show it or discuss it results.
What AP decided to do in 1980 was to say that not every vote counts. It did the same with its Monday story and the mainstream media echoed that message. It declared the race over hours before a new round of voting would occur. The AP could have waited 24 hours to issue the story but it choose–ethically wrong–to run the story for the purposes of getting a headline. The rest of the media ran the story too for headlines and audience. But this story is not the first instance of journalism ethics taking a backseat to profits. Repeatedly this year one has seen the media slant headlines or hype stories to enhance ratings or readers which means to maximize profits. This is not reporting the news, it is marketing or selling it and that is not what journalism is supposed to be.