- Well, wasn’t that an electoral year to remember?
Predictions proved wrong, polling unrepresentative and the result a surprise. It’s little wonder that the press were widely lambasted for being out of touch with the electorate.
So, four years after – and with a mid-term election with its own share of upsets and surprises between – what lessons can we take from the coverage of 2016?
It’s not business as usual
First things first. We all know there’s a problem. You’d have to be a special kind of narcissist to claim otherwise.
Up until 2016, says Seth Masket, good practice in covering elections focused around ideas of equivalency – the idea that (broadly speaking) candidates are treated equally. It’s predicated on the assumption that scandal or controversy in one camp is likely to be matched by scandal or controversy on the other side’s too.
The journalistic instinct is to investigate these claims, allegations and accusations and report accordingly, and of course they did. The trouble was, the water seemed particularly murky on one side of the pond, and to those on that side there was a perception that the coverage was unbalanced.
As Frank Bruni, writing in the The New York Times earlier this year points out, presidential campaign coverage in 2016 was framed around the ultimately incorrect assumption that Clinton would win.
Additionally, as more and more of these stories emerged about Trump, coverage became more and more like something lifted directly from an episode of Veep or In the Thick of It. Amanda Carpenter, author of ‘Gaslighting America’ identifies the knock-on effect for other politicians in other election campaigns:
“When the whole news cycle was microphones shoved in Republican candidates’ faces and the question was always ‘what’s your reaction to what Trump just said?’, there’s no way to drive your own message.” She’s right. It was a clear case of personality over party – and policy.
The a-typical candidate had heightened what Bruni calls “the horse-race obsession”. Dan Rather puts it this way “when you cover this as spectacle, what’s lost is context, perspective and depth.”
Publishers – and most will be the first ones to admit this – hadn’t properly understood motivations for voting – and especially for those voting for the controversial Republican candidate. There were (and are) pervasive underlying issues that need urgent coverage. If the right don’t trust the so-called ‘liberal elite’ mainstream media, could it be because we haven’t done a good enough job of engaging with them, and the issues they face?
“Trump’s win,” said Elyssa Pachico, “may be one indicator that fact-checking public statements may not be the most powerful or effective way of practicing accountability journalism.”
So, what’s to be done?
Maybe it’s time for something completely different
A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer Brandel and Jay Rosen launched the idea of a Citizen’s agenda model for election coverage with this rallying cry:
“We got it wrong. We got it wrong in a big way and we’re still paying the price. We’ll continue to pay the price until we recognize we need to make a fundamental shift in the way that news organizations operate.”
At the centre of this idea is the notion that political coverage has a tendency to focus on personality rather than policy. “Every four years,” says Bruni, “we say we’ll devote more energy and space to policy and every four years we don’t.”
When the personality in question is the headline writers dream, it’s easy to get swept along from one outrageous statement to another, but while fact checking this kind of behavior is absolutely necessary, it shouldn’t dominate coverage.
“There remains institutional reluctance to turn to the people whose voices matter the most. Not the pollsters, not the pundits, not the entire industry watching the horse race. But the citizens who these politicians are supposed to represent.” Jennifer Brandel, Hearken
With bullhorns wielded by industry titans such as Brandel and Rosen, this is an initiative that’s worth paying close attention to, especially because in certain pockets it’s already been shown to have worked, and it’s notable that several of the places that it’s worked really well have been local publishers.
The Texas Tribune
“Often, when newsrooms are in a financial bind, one of the first things they cut… is their statehouse and legislative coverage”, Editor in Chief, Emily Ramshaw, told me when we spoke recently.
And, of course, local newsrooms are in this predicament. Last year, Poynter reported that more than 1,800 newsrooms had closed or merged since 2004. Under pressure, managers at struggling news organizations have to make hard decisions about what to continue covering, and what to outsource or abandon.
The Texas Tribune is a non-profit, non-partisan newsroom operating out of Austin, Texas and they have – wait for it – a focus on statehouse reporting, thus plugging a gap clearly felt in many newsrooms. “We don’t cover crime, or sports or entertainment,” Ramshaw tells me. “All we cover is politics and policy for the state of Texas. Our value has been a deep dive at the legislative and congressional level and we provide that journalism for other news organizations to run, free of charge.”
Indeed, stories they research, write and produce often find their way into other publications, some regional, some national, but widespread across all mediums in the region. With the syndication approach, does that make them like ProPublica, I want to know? “We’re a hybrid between Politico and ProPublica, yes,” Ramshaw tells me.
This niche of reporting couldn’t be more critical. They’re reporting on issues which directly impact their citizens: school budgets, municipal funding, immigration. It’s not dictation of what happens in a small claims court: this stuff is the very foundation of life and it reflects the concerns and issues facing citizens of Texas – as it does everywhere.
So, how about during the 2016 election? With the strong, divisive figures on the Presidential campaign, it’s easy to forget that campaigns were being fought for the House and Senate too.
In Texas – a state famously with a very clear and keen sense of independence – the campaigns were covered at The Tribune with a focus on the electorate and their issues, not the Presidency and the promised response to whatever crisis it imagined to be of pressing concern.
In our latest UT/TT poll:
Trump’s reelection support is 50-50 in Texas.
— Emily Ramshaw (@eramshaw) June 17, 2019
At the Tribune, the onus is now, as it was then, on uncovering issues and stories that are without a voice. The mission is driven by a need to put information and truths in front of a reading public, of course, but it goes further than that. Much of their purpose is to bring attention to the issues the reading public experience but have neither the power or platform to articulate, and to present that to those who do. It’s classic engagement journalism.
Flipping the perspective like this is important. If journalists can get in front of the issues, the result is that they’re creating context, relevance and criticism rather than merely reporting the effects of ignoring those things. They are, more simply put, doing a spot of pre-emptive analyzing, rather than publishing breaking news.
So how did this manifest in 2016?
“Organisations like ours I think did a better job of taking the pulse of the American heartland,” says Emily. “In the newsrooms that were closer to the people, there was a greater understanding of what might happen”
It’s a subtle point, but it’s important.
By pulling focus back to the readership, this approach achieves two things.
Firstly, you can be sure that readers are reading things that matter to them because there’s a connection. And, secondly, because publishers are publishing stories about the issues they face, there’s a trust that builds there – and it’s a trust that goes both ways.
In California, Megan Garvey is driving across LA to her workplace at KPCC, an NPR affiliate based in Pasadena. It’s a long commute, so we’ve got time to talk.
She arrived at KPCC and LAist via The LA Times (she was there during the 2016 elections, and the heady days of the Gore/Bush campaign, when she was reporting on Cheney).
KPCC was the Hearken newsroom of the year in 2018, so it’s perhaps no surprise that their election coverage is centred on an engagement approach. So, speaking of engagement, what’s theirs like?
“People switch on and never switch off,” says Garvey. While they can’t know how attentively listeners are listening, there is a dedication to the station that’s evident: “it’s often what people reflect back to you”.
That’s the deal with engagement post-publication, but the terms goes further here to include the process by which stories are conceived in the first place – with the help of readers and citizens.
Much is said of the importance of conversations and listening in engagement, social and solutions journalism, and to have listeners (or readers, for that matter), engaging with you enough to ask a question, query an answer or just express their anger, frustration, relief or otherwise, speaks highly that they’re somehow invested.
What do readers need? (Hint: it’s not always analysis)
So, what’s to be done? Start simple, says Garvey. In your communities, on your beats, we should be asking what information readers (and listeners) need. As she puts it: “what we thought people wanted or needed might often not be what people wanted – or needed!”
The kinds of thing their listeners wanted to know, it turns out, wasn’t the big campaign policy stuff, but rather things like how you go about registering to vote. It’s easy to forget that this kind of knowledge isn’t universal.
Back, then, to the Citizen’s Agenda model where the key is “asking voters what kind of debate they need to cast an informed vote”.
At KPCC, this is exactly what they did in 2015, before the fervor of the Presidential election race took hold.
Los Angeles has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation, so they decided to see what could be done to help those voters. They found a non-voter, a chef called Al Gordon, and decided to see if they could – to use the hashtag in question – #MakeAlCare.
As a non-voter, the challenge was to see exactly what was needed to get him to the polling stations. He got there, and voted, and they revisited him during the mid-terms hoping to find him more engaged politically than he was in 2016. “Turns out, we didn’t #MakeAlCare for very long ”, was the pithy commentary accompanying the link to the article update. It might have made a better story had the reverse been true, but the reality is much more constructive. There’s still more work that needs to be done.
— Kristen Muller (@KrisMul) May 24, 2018
Al’s case is important in that it shows us where resources might be better placed. Easily engaged citizens are easy to write for, but part of journalistic duty is about informing people from all walks of life. In the case of 2016, it was the failure to address disaffected, disengaged voters in the publishing process that resulted in a misreading of the political climate.
“There’s an easy solution to the question of how you get out of the ‘boy in the bus’ mentality” said Garvey. “You need to start talking to people on the ground”. Logistically, certainly there’s a problem here. Newsrooms aren’t exactly swimming in resources, but, if we want to regain readers trust, we need to demonstrate that we hear them, understand their issues and engage with them so we can answer their questions and investigate those issues.
Assumptions are dangerous. Here’s Garvey again:
“The first time I thought he might actually win this thing was when we’d gone out for early voting and the people we spoke to who said they’d voted for him were a lot more diverse than I expected them to be. There were a lot of immigrants – and I discovered that a lot of immigrants liked the ‘America First’ stuff and, having spoken to them, I realized that the messages they’d taken away from hearing Trump speak weren’t at all what I had.”
At the Tribune, Ramshaw says it’s for this reason that they weren’t especially surprised by the election results three years ago. They’d done the legwork: “we meet our readers where they are – literally.”
There’s no one fix – and that’s the point
These newsrooms aren’t The New York Times. Despite the comparative lack of resources, regional newsrooms have the advantage of being expected to cover regional events. A publication that’s national – or international – in scope is naturally going to be expected to cover the big picture political stuff. In an election year, that naturally means Presidential campaigning. And yes, the race for the Oval Office does – often – come down to personality.
Just as the Executive forms just one part of the American political system, so too should it form one element of campaign coverage. What’s fascinating about the local-first approach is that’s where people are most likely to feel the effects of political action – or inaction – in their day to day lives. By flipping the approach and starting to ask more often ‘what can I help you to understand?’ – we’re moving in the right direction. It’s not the approach for every article or even for every publication, but by encouraging people into the process, you’re addressing them not just as readers – a passive role – but as citizens: invested.
Let’s see what happens.