Two months after President-elect Donald Trump’s upset victory, top media figures are still publicly reckoning with how many journalists and outlets failed to seriously comprehend how he could win.
During a media and politics event at the New York Public Library hosted by Civic Hall on Wednesday, a host of journalists from old and new media organisations met to discuss the role of news outlets in the dawning Trump era, dissecting why data analysts misjudged Trump’s strength and how the struggling media economy handicapped reporters’ coverage of the election.
Almost every panelist had an easy time identifying the media’s problems, including the concentration of reporters in urban hubs like Washington, DC, and New York; the way newsrooms spent their money; and the willingness of highly skilled reporters to listen to Hillary Clinton campaign sources about the strength of her lead.
Nate Silver, the founder of the data-journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight, blamed Twitter for distorting how reporters perceived politics. He dismissed the influence of cable news during the general election and placed the blame on irresponsible horse-race coverage that measured who was winning at any given moment.
“Cable could be a little bit of a scapegoat, because the problems were a little more pervasive,” Silver said. “The substance of the horse-race coverage was pretty bad at a lot of very prestigious papers.”
Other reporters from traditional outlets, like Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the Associated Press, cited almost contradictory pressures on modern political reporting.
Though Buzbee defended the Associated Press’ horserace coverage, noting that this was often the type of reporting that readers wanted and campaign operatives pushed, she blamed some misconception about Clinton’s strength on other reporters lack of literacy about polling.
“Does every political reporter understand what a dangerous weapon, in all its strengths and all its weaknesses, polling is? No,” Buzbee said.
She added: “How can we actually communicate to normal people who are not statistics experts the validity and uncertainties in polling in a much more visceral way?”
While Buzbee pondered whether policy reporting was too dry to resonate with readers, she lamented that aggregated reporting and opinion-oriented blogging may be increasing partisanship and erasing the nuance delivered in straight reported material.
“There’s a little bit of a vacancy of people who know how to go out and get primary information and know how to tell stories and not just comment on things that are out there,” Buzbee said, adding that “not being slave to clickbait is a challenge to the whole industry.”
‘I don’t know how to win in that game of whack-a-mole’
Beyond the media’s own failures to predict the outcome of the election, media experts also discussed how media antagonism could remain a cornerstone of Trump’s strategy to undermine outlets.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly singled out journalists on Twitter and at rallies who reported stories on him that reflected negative facts, and threatened to “open up the libel laws,” making it easier to win lawsuits against journalists.
On the subject of fake news, Brian Stelter, host and senior media correspondent for CNN, said he acknowledged that he had no long-term recourse for anonymous figures online publishing fake facts about him.
“I don’t know how to win in that game of whack-a-mole,” Stelter said of his battle with personal fake news.
First Look Media’s general counsel Lynn Oberlander pointed out that while Trump “needs the press” and “reads his coverage very closely,” he had also taken steps to potential curtail press freedoms, including threats against journalists and potentially moving the White House Correspondents Association outside of the White House.
“President-elect Trump has shown tremendous hostility to the institutional press, and also, of course, individual journalists, but he is very much a creature of the media,” Oberlander said.
She added: “There are, however, substantial threats to press freedom.”
Wednesday’s media experts agreed that educating readers about how to consume media was vital.
Amalie Nash, a USA Today executive editor, cited readers’ tendencies to assume that the opinions featured on the editorial board were shared by reporters. She argued that newsrooms need to consider “how we handle opinion content.”
Silver fantasized that he’d “almost want to ask readers to pass a stats test” to read articles about polling in the weeks leading up to a general election, arguing that readers needed greater literacy of the significance of data.
Stelter took a different road, stressing that journalists need to understand they are often in a media literacy business, helping readers understand how to consume news.
“Before the election, there was a failure of imagination,” Stelter said of America’s capacity to elect Trump. “Let’s not make that mistake again.”
‘This is a moment of great failure for our elites’
While the problems were numerous, the proposed solutions were far more spare.
Amalie said USA Today planned to keep closer tabs on the electorate by focusing on stories focused on the lives and problems of average Americans, running a series called “Healing America.” Buzzbee acknowledged that Associated Press journalists experienced a “mindset shift” about how their own coverage was perceived by readers.
Stelter said that while Facebook’s attempts to curb fake news were a “huge leap forward from where the company was a year ago,” the media was engaged in a battle over web links, which Stelter argued had become “weapons” for partisans to perpetuate an ideological agenda.
Others acknowledged that readers would always be drawn to more sensational stories, and it was the media’s job to prevent them from becoming distracted.
Zeynep Tufekci, a media commentator and University of North Carolina professor, said that America needs to more radically change reader consumption habits by shifting demand, comparing horserace political coverage and “clickbait” to children’s temptation to eat candy instead of vegetables.
“This is a moment of great failure for our elites,” Tufekci said, proposing media organisations embrace subscription models. “Unless we find a way to pay directly for things we value, I think we are going to keep having these discussions.”
While most journalists at Wednesday’s meeting reflected the dire mood of the political press, Stelter saw a bright spot in the self-reflection on display in newsrooms and at media panels.
“I see newsrooms becoming louder, becoming forceful,” Stelter said, noting that more journalists were also more concerned about press ethics and journalistic freedoms. “Journalists are talking about these issues in a way that they weren’t three, four, five years ago.”
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