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Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Campaign: Cloudy Crystal Balls, Too Much Horse Race and Losing Touch With the Electorate

By Larry Margasak
Photo by Tom Arthur via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Tom Arthur via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Larry Margasak, a retired Associated Press reporter, examines why political re-porting has gotten so many things wrong in the 2016 presidential race.

On May 13, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reported that he had performed the ultimate journalistic mea culpa. He made good on his promise to eat an entire column of newsprint if Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president.

This was Milbank’s way of fessing up to the fact that he had repeatedly and steadfastly predicted that Trump could not possibly prevail in the GOP primary. Milbank may have been the only Trump-watching journalist to literally eat his own words. But he had plenty of company when it came to making erroneous predictions about the size and strength of his support.

“The mistakes piled up: the bad predictions, the overplaying of every slight development of the horse race to the point of whiplash, the lighthearted treatment of what turned out to be the most serious candidacy in the Republican field,” wrote Jim Rutenberg, media reporter for The New York Times.

It wasn’t just Trump who stumped the political correspondents and pundits. They also were slow to pick up on the strength of Bernie Sanders’ insurgency against the heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race. Reporters were long skeptical that Sanders, a 74-year-old Socialist from tiny Vermont who had never sought national office, could mount a serious challenge.

What Trump’s and Sanders’ supporters paradoxically shared was also something that eluded most journalists, and that was the depth and breadth of anger and alienation of wide swaths of the electorate. The fear and sometimes outright hate on the part of these voters came as a jarring surprise to political insiders and journalists that translated into polling-place support for the two ostensible outlier candidates.

"The failure of the press was to detect and illuminate that level of grievance" among voters, Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, said at a recent NLP dinner. "We should be beating ourselves up about the fact that we did not detect that and we should make sure that doesn't happen again."

The performance of journalists in the 2016 presidential race will surely be studied for years. Already, Savannah State University is offering a course this summer on “The Trump Factor in American Politics.” But as Trump and Clinton move to claim their parties’ respective nominations this summer, middle school and high school students can already discern teachable moments that can be applied to following the rest of this campaign and future political coverage.

The News Literacy Project asked four distinguished journalists and analysts for their assessment of why so many political reporters, columnists and commentators got so much so wrong in the past year. The experts were Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute; Barney Calame, former deputy managing editor for The Wall Street Journal and public editor at The New York Times; Andy Alexander, a visiting professional at Ohio University who is a former Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau chief and ombudsman for The Washington Post, and David Folkenflik, NPR’s media reporter.

Collectively, they said the press:

  • Relied too much on party insiders, who themselves were wrong about Trump and, to a lesser degree, Sanders.
  • Did not spend enough time talking to ordinary voters throughout the country.
  • Placed too much emphasis on the “this-just-in” reporting, focusing on the latest developments instead of doing more digging.
  • Relied too heavily on polls, which are merely a snapshot in time and can be misleading or even wrong.

The journalistic experts consulted by NLP offered some timely guidance to students and other consumers of political coverage to get the most out of election coverage in the future (and to avoid being misled or misinformed by it):

Consider where your information is coming from. “Start as an assumption that the candidates are projecting idealized images,” Rosenstiel said. “The candidates have the ability to control their events, their crowds, their camera angles, post their own stuff online directly to consumers. The press does not create campaigns.”

  • Pay attention to stories that don’t focus on breaking events. “Basic length can offer an initial clue that the article has some depth, but watch for how many sources are cited and how diverse they are,” Calame said.
  • Determine which of the many available news sources offer consistent deep and reliable coverage. “When I first started reporting professionally, national political coverage was controlled by a handful of major newspapers and three television networks,” Alexander said.  “Today, there are more broadcast outlets than you can count, and endless (and often very informed) commentary via digital outlets. On balance, that’s a good thing for consumers.”
  • Be an active consumer of political news. “You have more sources of information available to you than at any time in the past,” Folkenflik said. “It can be exhilarating, and often exhausting. To be a citizen, and not just a consumer, you have to be more aerobic about making sure you understand what you’re reading/seeing/hearing and why. Sometimes it takes active work. But it’s so important to do.”
  • One cause of the exhaustion to which Folkenflik referred is the perpetual polling. “When the performance of the press is assessed after this election cycle, I think there will be special criticism reserved for those (especially television) touting meaningless, unscientific polls,” Alexander said.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor and New Yorker magazine staff writer, wrote in a thoughtful assessment of polling in the magazine’s November issue: “Lately, the Sea of Polls is deeper than ever before, and darker. From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results.”

Why did so many distinguished journalists write Trump off for so long even as they gave him exposure that some came to see as excessive?

One reason is that journalists early on went to their traditional sources — Republican insiders — rather than to angry voters. Rosenstiel said it was the Republican political establishment that first decided Trump would fade. “The political press, which are not part of the establishment per se but always reflect their sources, provided an echo chamber for that,” he said.

“The Republicans had convinced themselves they were blessed by a parade of heavyweights,” Folkenflik said. Trump, meanwhile, was “more a punch line than a political force” and was not considered in the same league.

While the news industry has been hard hit with budget and staff cuts, the main problem was not the number of reporters in the field. Rather, Alexander said, it’s knowing what to cover. “Covering the candidates is one thing. But covering what the voters think is different and, I think, often more important,” he said.

Alexander believes “there’s an excessive amount of pressure” on reporters to make predictions. Calame added there’s even greater pressure to “have something ‘fresh’ on the home page ever more frequently during the news cycle.” This pressure, he said, “may well have contributed to the tendency of editors to jump on Trump’s outspoken and often outlandish comments.”

Reporters would have been better served engaging in the kind of old-style shoe leather reporting personified by the late David Broder of The Washington Post. Broder, who played dual roles as a political reporter and columnist for decades, traveled the country to speak with voters. He likely would have picked up the anger far earlier than today’s younger reporters—in no small measure because Broder was among those who took the time to talk to everyday Americans, real people, not just a handful of go-to political insiders.

Calame said the fact that journalists tend to be better educated and more affluent than most Americans also is an issue, because most of them “just don’t intersect very much with citizens who have a high school diploma and shop at Dollar General.” This contrast has been particularly true with Trump voters.

New York Times columnist David Brooks made a similar point in a column in April. “I was surprised by Trump’s success,” he wrote, “because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.” In other words, journalists too often stick to their own circles, summoning familiar names because they are reliable and easy to reach.

Washington-based journalists are especially prone to this kind of insularity, said Boston University journalism professor Elizabeth Mehren. “They surround themselves with people very much like themselves,” said Mehren, a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “Washington is a tribal place. They socialize with their sources and soon enough it becomes an easy habit to confer with the same people, over and over.”

Brooks and his colleagues will soon have another chance to get it right. The general election is just ahead. The American public will be reading and watching.