We’ve fallen far in terms of impartial news media since The Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the FCC in 1987. No longer are news outlets committed to giving opposing viewpoints equal coverage. Instead, the 24-hour news cycle and social media compete for our limited attention with sound bites and premature - often misleading - headlines.
As a journalist once said to me, “We don’t report the news. We create it.”
The media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perception and influencing electoral outcomes. While the Fourth Estate is supposed to be an impartial watchdog, it often falls prey to the lure of drama, sensationalism, and a two-party narrative, marginalizing and sidelining third-party and independent candidates.
Join us as we investigate the phenomenon of media bias against unenrolled and third-party candidates, explaining what it is, providing examples, and detailing 10 ways in which this bias manifests. Armed with this information, candidates can leverage it to build awareness for their campaigns.
Media bias is the systemic and often subtle favoritism or prejudice shown by media outlets in their coverage of political events and candidates. While bias can manifest in various forms, it is particularly pronounced when it comes to third-party and independent candidates. These candidates face an uphill battle in gaining media attention and equitable coverage, primarily due to the entrenched dominance of the two major political parties.
This interactive media bias chart provides a general idea of where various news outlets fall on the political spectrum, but it doesn’t tell the full story. For that, you’d have to understand who owns a particular media outlet and who their sponsors are to get a better picture of where they stand.
Regardless of ideology and the political leanings of those involved in media, whether as owners or presenters, the real bias is in how they cover third party and independent candidates. Oftentimes, they’ll portray alternative candidates as a threat to national stability. The establishment would rather people vote against someone instead of voting for something substantial.
Not all media bias is as blatant as outright ignoring the existence of alternative candidates. Some of it is rather subtle.
According to research conducted by the News Literacy Project, media bias manifests in the form of:
“Big Story” bias based on the journalist’s opinion of what stories matter to the public
Corporate bias, in which the views of sponsors influence news coverage
Demographic bias, where the coverage is slanted toward the views of one race, gender, ethnicity, culture, or economic class
Neutrality bias, which is when news outlets try so hard to be unbiased that key information is omitted
Partisan bias, where news coverage obviously favors one party to the exclusion of all others
Media bias also takes various forms. For example, a media outlet could demonstrate bias by limiting story or source selection to one candidate, policy position, or viewpoint. Other forms of media bias include:
Bias by omission through leaving out facts that support another viewpoint
Bias by commission, such as reporting unsubstantiated claims, conspiracy theories, and rumors or making unproved associations regarding cause-and-effect between policy proposals and outcomes, i.e. “Sensible gun control laws will lead to national firearms confiscation.”
Bias by placement or layout. For example, placing some articles front and center while burying information about alternative candidates or policy positions at the bottom of the screen or on page five of their publication. This is also related to bias by image selection, which pits flattering images of the preferred candidate against unflattering pictures of the opposing hopeful.
Bias by labeling, such as using words like “radical,” “extremist,” or “unlikely” in their description of alternative candidates for office
The signs of bias in the media are everywhere, if you know what to look for in fair media coverage. To illustrate the existence of media bias against third-party candidates, let's consider some notable examples from recent elections:
Limited Airtime: As was the case in 2016, the 2020 presidential election saw minimal coverage of third-party candidates like Jo Jorgensen (Libertarian Party) and Howie Hawkins (Green Party) compared to their major-party counterparts, President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. Major news networks dedicated the lion's share of their coverage to the two major candidates, effectively relegating third-party contenders to the margins. Lack of media coverage left many voters wondering who these two candidates were on election day.
Exclusion from Debates: The Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes presidential debates, has set exclusionary criteria that effectively lock out third-party candidates. These requirements include a stipulation that candidates must have an average of at least 15% support in national polls. This demonstrates how the establishment moves the goal posts after a surge in public support for third-party candidates as the criteria was increased from 5% after Ross Perot garnered 19% of the popular vote during his initial run for president in 1992. Such exclusionary criteria limits the exposure and influence of third-party candidates.
Negative Framing: When third-party candidates do receive media attention, they’re often framed negatively. Independent candidates are usually portrayed as radicals or spoilers who could potentially sway the election in favor of one major-party candidate or another. This type of framing discourages voters from considering alternatives to the status quo, and it was used to great effect to derail the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Underreporting on Policy Proposals: Mainstream media outlets tend to focus more on the personalities and horse race aspects of elections rather than the policy proposals put forth by third-party candidates. Underreporting deprives voters of the opportunity to engage with alternative solutions and policy ideas. The media was guilty of this type of bias against Andrew Yang in 2020.
Mockery and Ridicule: Some media outlets resort to mocking or ridiculing third-party candidates, portraying them as fringe, unserious, or eccentric even when their platform is aligned with the wishes of voters on issues like climate change and health care. This type of coverage undermines the credibility of independent candidates and discourages voters from taking them seriously.
Consider the coverage of Marianne Williamson, who ran in 2020 and announced her candidacy again for the 2024 presidential race. Although running as a Democrat, she vows to end the status quo and has been punished in the media accordingly.
The various biases, whether intentional or not, have the effect of marginalizing third-party and independent candidates. This manifests in 10 very specific ways:
Exclusion from Debates: As previously mentioned, third-party and independent candidates often face insurmountable barriers to participating in nationally televised debates. These debates are a crucial platform for candidates to reach a broad audience and present their ideas. By excluding them, the media limits the range of voter exposure to other perspectives.
Polling Metrics: Media outlets heavily rely on polling data to gauge the viability of candidates. However, third-party candidates are often excluded from polls or presented as "other," making it difficult for them to meet the 15% threshold required to participate in major debates. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion.
Limited Coverage: Mainstream media outlets provide limited coverage of third-party campaigns, focusing instead on the major-party candidates. This lack of attention makes it challenging for third-party candidates to gain name recognition and build a strong support base.
Negative Framing: When third-party candidates are covered, it is often within the context of being potential spoilers. This framing suggests that their campaigns are irrelevant and that their supporters are wasting their votes. It has the effect of discouraging voters from exploring alternative options.
Unequal Airtime: Major-party candidates receive significantly more airtime and media attention than third-party candidates. This imbalance further marginalizes third-party or independent candidates by perpetuating the perception that they aren’t serious contenders.
Lack of Investigative Reporting: Media outlets dedicate substantial resources to investigating establishment candidates, scrutinizing their policies, records, and personal lives. In contrast, third-party candidates receive far less investigative reporting, which can lead to an information gap for voters.
Limited Access to Resources: Major-party candidates benefit from well-funded campaigns and party infrastructure that third-party candidates usually lack. Media coverage can help level the playing field, but bias against third-party candidates hampers their ability to access vital resources and compete effectively.
Polling Disparities: Media outlets tend to emphasize polling results that focus exclusively on the two major-party candidates. This reinforces the perception that these candidates are the only viable options, even though third-party candidates may have significant support among certain demographics.
Ignoring Policy Proposals: Third-party candidates frequently introduce innovative policy proposals that challenge the status quo. However, these proposals are often ignored or dismissed by mainstream media, denying voters the opportunity to engage with alternative policy ideas.
Limited Debate Topics: When third-party candidates are allowed to participate in debates, the topics and questions are often dominated by issues favored by the major parties.
Even placement of candidates in the debate stage fuels the perception of irrelevance and visually marginalizes independent hopefuls. Establishment candidates are often placed in the center of the stage, with other candidates relegated to the sidelines. They’re also given fewer opportunities to engage. This limits the discussion of alternative perspectives and diminishes the potential for robust policy debates.
Overcoming media bias as an independent or third-party candidate can be challenging, but there are several actionable tips you can use to increase your visibility and effectiveness during elections:
Leverage Social Media: Social media platforms provide a cost-effective and powerful way to reach a broad audience without relying on traditional media outlets. Create engaging profiles on platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to build awareness, share your message, connect with supporters, and counteract media bias. Invite user-generated content in the form of testimonials, images, and video to furnish social proof of support.
Build a Strong Online Presence: Establish a professional website that outlines your platform and policy positions. Keep voters up-to-date about campaign events and livestream whenever possible so that the public can see you in action. Regularly update your website with fresh content, including blog posts, videos, and press releases to showcase your campaign's progress.
Utilize Alternative Media Outlets: Seek out alternative and independent media outlets that are more open to covering non-major-party candidates. These outlets may be more receptive to your message and provide you with valuable exposure.
Engage in Grassroots Campaigning: Focus on grassroots efforts to connect with voters directly. Host town hall meetings, community events, and engage in door-to-door canvassing. Personal connections can often be more persuasive than media coverage.
Create Engaging Content: Develop compelling and shareable content that resonates with your target audience on an emotional level. This includes videos, infographics, and blog posts that explain your policy positions and address important issues. Identify problems and offer solutions.
Participate in Local Debates and Forums: While national debates can be exclusionary, local debates and forums are often more inclusive. Participate in as many of these events as possible to share your ideas and engage with voters.
Collaborate with Like-Minded Candidates: Form alliances with other independent or third-party candidates who share similar goals and values. Joint efforts can amplify your message and increase your collective visibility.
Engage in Issue Advocacy: Become a prominent advocate for specific policy issues. By positioning yourself as an expert on certain topics, you can attract media attention and contribute to public discourse.
Use Paid Advertising Strategically. Allocate your campaign budget to paid advertising on social media, search engines, and local media outlets. Target specific demographics and geographic areas to maximize your impact.
Highlight Endorsements and Supporters. Social proof is everything in the age of digital media. Showcase endorsements from respected individuals or organizations within your community or field. These endorsements will lend credibility to your campaign and attract media interest.
Leverage Public Speaking. Public speaking engagements can help you connect with voters and the media. Seek opportunities to speak at local events, conferences, and community gatherings.
Hold Media Accountable. When you encounter media bias, address it directly. Use your social media platforms and website to point out inaccuracies or unfair coverage and provide balanced information.
Emphasize Transparency. Make transparency a core value of your campaign. Share information about campaign funding, expenses, and contributions to build trust with voters and counter claims of impropriety.
Encourage Grassroots Media Support. Encourage your supporters to write letters to the editor, submit op-eds, or share your campaign materials on social media. Grassroots efforts can help amplify your message.
Persist and Stay Resilient. Overcoming media bias can be a long and challenging process. Stay committed to your campaign, maintain a positive and professional demeanor, and continue to engage with voters.
As you can see, media bias against third-party and independent candidates is a systemic issue that undermines the principles of democracy and stifles political diversity. The media's role in shaping public perception and influencing electoral outcomes should come with a commitment to providing equitable coverage to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation.
Remember that overcoming media bias takes time and effort, and it may not always result in immediate changes. Building a strong grassroots network and crafting a compelling, focused message will be key to your success as an independent or third-party candidate.
Good Party can help with that. If you’re serious about building a strong independent campaign, join us for access to resources and information that gets results.