Photo by Lois Kapila

By attacking Travellers late in the presidential campaign, Peter Casey got media organisations to give him a vast amount of free publicity.

Casey went from being one of the lower-polling candidates to win 23 percent of the vote in the election, finishing second after incumbent Michael D. Higgins, who was reelected with nearly 56 percent of the votes.

The scenario echoes Trump’s 2016 election bid, when repeatedly trafficked hateful attacks and outrageous lies earned him wall-to-wall news coverage.

An Explosion of Coverage

An examination of 513 articles published from 1 October to 26 October in nine popular online Irish titles showed that coverage of the Irish presidential race grew, as expected, as polling day edged closer.

In the early days, candidates first set out stalls. There were questions about expenses and a few pot shots at Higgins. Besides coverage of candidates, a few other themes emerged: mostly, information about where to watch debates and voting explainers.

When you take out such general coverage and focus on coverage of candidates during the period (448 articles), one stands out.

On Tuesday 16 October 2018, Casey denied that Travellers are an ethnic minority – despite the state’s recognition of them as such – on the Irish Independent‘s The Floating Voter podcast. He followed that up with several other derogatory comments about the community.

That storyline was from that moment a fixture of the campaign. It appeared in multiple online articles, across social media, and in radio and television debates.

Before that point, articles about Casey had focused on how much the millionaire would spend in the election, and the odd dig at President Michael D. Higgins or his dogs. After that, coverage ramped up. When Casey said he was thinking of leaving the race, it kicked off another news cycle.

From the second week of October, to the third week of October, Casey grew from one of the least covered candidates, to the single most covered, this data suggests.

Striking a Balance

Should the Irish media have given Casey so much coverage?

Yes, a presidential candidate expressing harmful views about an ethnic minority and criticising government policy is newsworthy.

But how should the media balance the need to report such this public-interest story, against the dangers of amplifying such problematic discourse?

According to a recent study of US journalism by Whitney Phillips, “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists and Manipulators“, among the impacts of reporting on problematic speech that journalists weigh up are: the increased likelihood of harassment, promoting more disinformation that further pollutes the information environment, giving more problematic personalities a hook to promote their message, and the risk of normalising harmful language.

The same study also found that when journalists consider not reporting on something, this is regarded as equally problematic, and even unethical. Also, omission fails to address a critical, public-interest issue and can omit the views of those harmed from the discourse.

So, it’s a tough balance. But journalists need to think these things through, and are forced to make these choices.

Also weighing on editorial decisions are other factors, beyond ethics. At the moment, for many publications, publishing critical information as fast as possible is a core drive.

In addition to that, most publications are funded by advertising, and online that means they have an incentive to get as many clicks as possible. The practice of monitoring analytics and boosting articles that are gaining traction can elevate more toxic content if it is more “clickable”, Phillips notes.

Malicious actors know that journalists must try to balance the public’s wish and need to know, against any impulse to leave harmful views to lie quietly in the gutter. They know that news organisations are driven to act fast and maximise clicks. They easily and consciously manipulate this.

A hallmark of quality journalism in the digital age is that it is socially responsible. It goes beyond responsive reports and considers the real-world impact of what and how topics are represented. It monitors, analyses and evaluates its output. It is wise to attempts at manipulation by bad actors.

Vulnerable to Manipulation

Most of the titles I examined included a range of perspectives on Casey’s anti-Traveller comments, from republishing them, to seeking out and including Travellers’ responses to them.

However, in all these cases, Casey’s views were central to the discussion, and he was allowed to create a debate that framed people as a problem because of their ethnicity. The discourse largely moved away from the issues and missions of most of the candidates.

But were Casey’s comments the most newsworthy issue during the campaign? Was the conversation worthwhile? And who did it damage or benefit?

Editors in newsrooms decided to direct resources to cover Casey, his attacks on Travellers, and others’ responses to those. It was necessary to cover this, but the amount of attention editors decided to give to it, and to this single candidate is questionable.

As seen in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere, malicious or misinformed actors can derail election coverage, capitalising on overwhelmed, understaffed, under-pressure newsrooms, and the impetus to go for “big-click” issues, to get their narratives platformed.

The problem of harmful discourse about minorities is a social problem, and not just a media problem. But these interact. Representing opinions legitimises them. Other malicious actors piggyback off that.

To avoid this in future elections, referendums and in general, newsrooms need to reevaluate their approach. They need to learn from what has happened in other news markets, and better prepare for the future.

Niamh Kirk is the Newman Fellow in Digital Policy at the School of Information and Communication Studies and The Centre for Digital Policy, University College Dublin.

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