Panelists say news reporting focused on everything but voters.
November 9, 2016

Panelists say the shock of the Republican's decisive Electoral College victory shows the press was focused on the wrong things

The press hasn’t gotten an election this wrong since Dewey (did not) beat Truman. 

Was it polling in the age of unlisted cellphones? Was it the year of magical thinking? Was it hoping, rather than reporting?

A panel of news veterans from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication addressed the topic in a panel discussion dubbed “Missing The Story: The News Media’s Failure in Covering the 2016 Presidential Election,” a forum that showcased how the school often functions as a media think tank, with faculty and distinguished news professionals seeking to further the practice of journalism.

“We’re going to spend tonight talking about the journalism lessons from the most unusual election we’ve ever seen,” moderator Chris Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School, opened. He quoted a line from the day’s edition of the New York Times: “It is clear something is fundamentally broken in journalism.”

Donald Trump won the electoral vote 279 to Hillary Clinton’s 228 — despite Clinton's edge in the popular vote. Consensus was that Clinton would win easily. Consensus was wrong.

The main thrust of discussion revolved around reporting that focused on everything but voters. Campaign coverage was too focused on money, theatricality and data, all four panelists said.

The media was focused too much on campaign activities like fundraising and spending, said Leonard Downie Jr., Weil Family Professor of Journalism and former Washington Post executive editor.

“It’s completely misleading,” Downie said. “All the focus on money was besides the point.”

When press went out with canvassers, they weren’t interested in what the person on the other side of the door had to say, he said. On the other hand, reporters paid too much attention to every crack and tweet the candidates made. The debates were treated like theater by the press and networks.

“Every little change (in polls) was big news,” Downie said. “Again, which turned out to be pretty much beside the point. ... There was very little attention paid to the voters themselves. ... Donald Trump was right. There is a movement going on in the United States.”

News organizations made mistakes in what to cover and what not to cover, said Julia Wallace, Frank Russell Chair, former Cox Media Group executive and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor-in-chief. Ignoring Trump supporters was one of those mistakes.

“We weren’t listening, and we didn’t care,” Wallace said. “We have two ears and one mouth, and we need to listen more.”

The media’s role shouldn’t be to predict elections with total certitude, said Andrés Martinez, Cronkite professor of practice and former Los Angeles Times editorial page editor.

“The hubris of those of us in the media pretending we know the results before the election — putting the likes of Nate Silver on a pedestal,” Martinez said, referencing the statistical analyst.

He said political reporters could learn from sports reporters, who are adept at previewing a game without declaring a likely winner. “It’s helpful to make those predictions as part of analysis,” Martinez said.

Downie said the press relied far too much on data rather than shoe-leather journalism, and focusing on what’s going on social media, who tweeted what. Reporters didn’t get out and simply talk to enough people.

The Fourth Estate didn’t cover Trump’s candidacy with any kind of gravity, said Eric Newton, Cronkite innovation chief and former Knight Foundation executive.

“CNN covered the Trump candidacy like a freak show,” he said, comparing it to old coverage of gay Pride Week in San Francisco, where the cameras only focused on leather and drag queens rather than substantive gay issues. “The whole emphasis was an editorial mistake, rather than trying to find out why the candidate had support.”

Callahan asked if there’s a liberal bias in the media.

Credibility “is one of our biggest issues,” Wallace said. “There is a perception that we are not an independent press. ... I’m not sure how this goes forward.”

Martinez talked about the 19th-century model of journalism, where papers espoused different political viewpoints.

“Newspapers try to be objective,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a market for that.”

Martinez said viewers can watch the NBC Nightly News and then surf a couple hundred channels up to see often the same people voicing their opinions on MSNBC.

“The line between opinion and news is getting very fuzzy,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer we can strain peoples’ credulity.”

What went so terribly wrong with polls? Callahan asked.

Newton said the press is no good at reporting polling. Headlines screamed Clinton was ahead by six points in a poll with a margin of error of three points. “The headline," he said, "should say, ‘No one knows.’” 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502