Do this, not that: 8 tips for covering the 2020 presidential race

The 2020 presidential race is on, with the first major candidate out the gates, and, on the sidelines, a new subgenre of media criticism inspired by the failures of the last campaign.

We now know the contours of what went wrong in 2016: reporters focused too much on personality and polling when they should have paid more attention to issues that mattered to voters; they let Donald Trump dominate coverage, to the detriment of other, more serious candidates, both Democrat and Republican; and, when it was all over, they blamed Facebook and Twitter (and Russia) for skewing the campaign, neglecting to acknowledge their own failure to analyze the issues that merited attention.

And so, two years later, it begins again, with a new race for the White House underway and no indication that the political press corps has learned anything from 2016. Early-round coverage of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s New Year’s Eve campaign announcement was a greatest hits tour of what’s wrong with political journalism; journalists focused on her stagecraft (not even mentioning the word Trump!) rather than on what she had to say; they let the response to her candidacy, and the controversies already surround it, overshadow the candidate; they were too distracted, or too bored, by the policy issues to consider the senator’s serious, and detailed, ideas about running the country.

ICYMI: Magazine’s star reporter caught making up sources

Media commentators such as Margaret Sullivan, Jay Rosen, and others have already begun working diligently to call out the face plant of the early coverage, and they’re right to do it. “The mission of pre-election coverage should not be to determine who’s going to win, but to respond intelligently to what voters want and need to know,” Sullivan wrote this week. “It’s so simple it seems absurd the reality is so far from it.”

But you can’t help but wonder whether anybody’s listening; surely the editors, writers, anchors, and producers leading, and participating in, the coverage so far have seen and digested the critiques of the last two years—they certainly hang out on Twitter enough. And yet, so far at least, they seem to be ignoring them, whether for clicks or because of laziness and failure of imagination.

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So, we’re going to dispense with the usual coverage advice for now; CJR did, I think, an excellent job of looking back on how the media failed in 2016, in this piece and this one and, from me, this one. Read them all and don’t make the same mistakes again.

Instead, let’s think more broadly about how the coverage could be better, which have as much to do with the mindsets and worldviews of political journalists as with specific prescriptions for what to write or say.

 

Get out of your own head

It is the quintessence of insider-baseball reporting to think that the timing of a candidate’s announcement, or its location, or the color of his or her outfit or hair means anything to most Americans. Voters won’t notice and won’t care. If you’re starting your campaign story by focusing on atmospherics, you’re writing more for your friends and colleagues than for your audience. Hit the delete button and start over.

ICYMI: The tweet that derailed a news cycle 

 

Dive into the details

Public policy can be dull. Your job is to make it interesting and relevant; it’s why you became a reporter—to explain byzantine systems, complicated bills, and congressional voting histories in a way that grabs attention. Your first job in covering a new candidate is to spend every second you have understanding every aspect of what they believe and what they have done. Drown yourself in the mundane and the bureaucratic. Then, work like hell to translate it into plain language that will make sense to everybody. It’s hard and it’s time-consuming, but it’s the best service you can provide to voters.

 

Trash the crystal ball

No one knows who will win the 2020 race. No one knows who’s going to get the Democratic nomination. No one knows who will be left campaigning a year from now. Anybody who says they do shouldn’t be trusted as an expert on politics. Reporters who make predictions shouldn’t be awarded with bylines. Reporters and their news organizations were massively wrong in assuming the results of 2016, and the people they respected, and quoted, helped get them there. Do away with this kind of reporting entirely, and  follow the rules of basic journalism: write what you know.

 

Don’t interview anybody whose kid goes to your kids’ school

Reporting in 2016 was proven to be an incestuous game, which rigged the coverage. Journalists depended on a small circle of sources and experts, most of whom were just like them. The result was journalistic groupthink on an industrial scale. This time, be bold in your outsiderness. Develop sources you’ve never met or heard of.  Go places you’ve never been and talk to people who don’t look or think like you. The fact that the conventional experts in Washington failed in 2016 is liberating, leaving the entire rest of the country as the place to look for sources.

 

Stop with the pretending around Trump

Deal with, and report on, the Donald Trump as he has shown himself over the last two years: the racist, the xenophobe, the sexist, the liar. In the lead-up to the last election, news organizations surrendered their common sense about who Donald Trump was, even though most had known him for years as a dodgy real estate mogul and manipulator of the press. They worked instead to convince themselves that he was someone else: a populist savant, a gifted strategist, an amusing truth-teller, a flash in the pan. He was none of those things, and everyone involved in the coverage on some level knew it.  The race for the presidency isn’t a game of fantasy politics, where we can pretend people are who want them to be or need then to be. Trump is a man with a track record and a public record that should be addressed as they are.

 

Enough with the group hug

The last two years have been tough for journalism. Good people have been threatened and other good people have died. Tyrants like Trump have used language that will inevitably prompt more attacks, here and around the world. But circling the wagon and focusing inward, on our own tribe, isn’t helping our cause or our coverage. Instead, it makes us insular and overly introspective. We can’t see our own failings if we’re wary of outsiders, if we close ourselves off to people who may have better ideas. We need to be more open than ever to criticism, to help, to outside opinion. Ours is not a voice from on high. It is instead, a groundswell that should come from the bottom up: from our readers, our employees, and our neighbors.

 

Newsrooms are not shrines

It’s amazing that in 2019, with the business of the press on the ropes and trust in the media in the toilet, the people who run the biggest newsrooms continue to treat themselves as the truth’s high priests. And yet newsrooms remain anachronisms of our age—staffed with too many white men, managed in an old-school, tight-fisted style, hostile to readers and subscribers who pay the bills. (For much more on this, read CJR’s most recent print issue on race and media.) This affects coverage, closing the mind to innovation and new approaches. We learned in 2016 that, unless we open our eyes and our minds and hit the pavement, we don’t know shit. Let’s turn that humility into an asset.

 

Finally, it’s not as bad as it looks

This is one hell of a story. American elections are glorious things—as cheerlead-y as it sounds and as flawed as they are. We get the opportunity, as a nation, to reinvent ourselves, every four years. The same holds true for our profession. Last time, we screwed up. Now, we have the chance to make it right. Embrace the opportunity. This is an epic story, one of the most important in our lifetimes. We’re lucky to be able to tell it.

ICYMI: How a problematic NYT article shows how newsrooms are out of touch with the communities they cover

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.