The 2020 presidential election is more than 18 months away, but the race for the Democratic nomination is in full swing, with many politicians actively campaigning and more looking to join.
The number makes it difficult for voters to be fully informed about every candidate. This can be especially challenging when some candidates receive more attention in media outlets than others.
When this information is so plentiful yet so disproportionately distributed, voters are unable to effectively identify the candidates who best align with their beliefs.
To audiences, attention signals who is credible. Usually, debates give lesser-known candidates opportunities to persuade voters. But this election cycle is unique; it has picked up very quickly, giving more high-profile figures larger platforms very early in the process.
Media will be and has been incredibly abundant and influential in this process, which is both empowering and overwhelming to American voters. More people have access to a greater wealth of information regarding candidates because of increased connectedness and access to technology, which creates the potential for a more informed electorate.
Voters thus rely on media outlets to provide them with information they expect to be most important, but this can lead voters to know significantly more about a few candidates and very little about others.
For example, on March 28, CNN presented a town hall for Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., giving him the opportunity to promote himself on his terms.
Through this nationally televised event, the already popular lawmaker was not only able to refine the message of his campaign, but also present himself as a charismatic leader.
With the event fully focusing on him, his personality and his ideas, he was in full control of the narrative that defines his candidacy.
The chance to discuss policy and campaign goals frankly should be available to all candidates if we aspire to live in an effective democracy.
The vast inequality in opportunities for publicity can determine the results of the primary. Widespread exposure should not only be available to candidates with pre-existing followings or hefty amounts of money behind them.
It is the role of media outlets, especially those with the largest audiences, to serve as a forum for those who aspire to lead the nation. Obviously, proper vetting is necessary to verify the legitimacy of a candidate as well. Once this process is complete, there needs to be equity in the coverage they receive.
While Booker did address issues such as gun violence, crime and reparations during the town hall, the questions also focused on largely non-policy concerns such as Jussie Smollett’s staged hate crime and Booker’s relationship with actress Rosario Dawson.
“Voters thus rely on media outlets to provide them with information they expect to be most important, but this can lead voters to know significantly more about a few candidates and very little about others.”
Booker’s town hall was more concerned with pop culture events than his plans to support the American public, probably because it adds an element of relatability to his persona.
This is the opportunity that exposure can give candidates. Extensive media attention allows the American public to have a robust understanding of the candidate and their many facets.
The more we learn about them, especially when they are in charge of the narrative, the more likely we are to envision ourselves voting for them.
This coverage is largely influenced by the resources to which the campaign has access. Candidates rely on the money they receive from their fundraising to increase their exposure, while media outlets rely on views, clicks and reads to generate revenue.
I understand the purpose of for-profit news sources is to generate revenue, but the pursuit of profit should not be prioritized over the protection of democratic processes. A candidate’s attractiveness or likability does not warrant greater attention than others.
Rising politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and the increasingly popular presidential candidacy of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have proven that, when their language is accessible, emphasis on policy rather than appearance can garner views and generate the viral content that makes CNN and MSNBC profitable.
We should embrace the large pool of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. However, the disparities in attention that candidates receive is undeniable and unacceptable.
To ensure the sanctity of the democratic process, media outlets must work to mitigate the role they play in the unequal exposure of candidates.
Chris Agard CM ’21 is studying philosophy, politics and economics.