It is by now conventional wisdom that the victory of Donald Trump amounted to a massive miss by the mainstream media. Mea culpas and garment-rending soon began, but when the dust had settled journalists and editors were left with the problem of how to address a media “bubble” that had failed to accurately reflect the American audience.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver made a persuasive case last week that groupthink among journalists and pundits—driven by a lack of diversity both geographical and ideological—contributed to the failure. The question now: How do we fix it?
One outlet that’s experimenting with possible solutions is The Guardian. Long a staple of the liberal press in the UK, The Guardian US launched in 2011 and has since the presidential campaign produced a suite of ongoing verticals and features—from a weekly roundup of the conversation going on in conservative media to a recurring series focus on one Pennsylvania county that flipped from Obama to Trump—aimed at addressing issues raised by media coverage of the campaign.
CJR spoke with Guardian features editor Jessica Reed, who oversees the outlet’s attempt to “burst the bubble” of politically polarized news consumption. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
After the election, media as a whole seemed to wake up to this realization that information “bubbles” had really formalized. The Guardian, traditionally, has held liberal positions, but I’ve noticed that you’ve also been focusing more on conservative media and coverage of more conservative areas of the US.
The Guardian does have a liberal position, and our coverage of the political landscape always reflects that. But during the campaign and after the election, we always came back to the idea that to understand the political and economic context we’re going through right now, journalists need to report from the opposite side. Our readers understand that, too. They feel that to understand the Trump landscape they need to be well-informed and look at how “the other side” is thinking.
There are two ways we approach coverage. We make a concerted effort to the masses of people who are currently organizing to oppose the government. For example we launched a big project called “The Resistance Now” to cover the people, the actions, the ideas of the protest movement in the States right now. But we also come back to that question of how do we cover the other side?
One answer comes from Jason Wilson, who writes the “Burst Your Bubble” column. He’s worked diligently for the past year—well before the election—to carve out a niche when it comes to covering the far right. He’s covered militias, fake news, the influence of talk radio on politics. So we came up with the idea to do a column sort of rounding up what conservative media is saying every week.
We know that most of our readers have neither the time nor inclination to religiously follow right-wing pundits or conservative news. And when you don’t know a thing about conservative news, when it’s not in your media diet, you might not know where to begin. So we think of it as a bit of a service to our audience. Jason reads everything from Breitbart to Libertarian magazines, and gives you a sense every week of what the debate is on the other side of the political spectrum, from “Never Trump” conservatives to people who all fully anchored to Trump’s agenda. Jason is really gifted at explaining why a certain aspect of the debate should matter to liberals. For example, he’s documenting the range of criticism aimed at Trump from within the Republican party, which is a healthy thing to do for a democracy. This week, he was looking at how conservatives are responding to TrumpCare. Most of them hate it, and that’s interesting. If you only read quote-unquote “progressive media,” you might miss a lot of that nuance from within the conservative media.
You’ve also focused on the far right not just at the national level, but in specific local areas in the US.
One area we’ve focused coverage is the rise of militias in rural areas. Our role is to explain to our readers why the ideas behind that sort of movement are gaining ground. As journalists, we have to document why rural areas in America are more and more seduced by militias, and it makes sense once you really look at how some communities feel squeezed in an economic vice. They feel forgotten, the local industries are in decline, so that leads to a collapse in public services funding in things like local sheriffs, highway patrols, local jails. We’ve written for example about how people can’t get ambulances in some areas in Oregon. That leaves an enormous hole that militias can use. To document that is not just important to us, it’s fascinating. When all those services go, you’re left with a blank slate, and you have people coming in with radical ideas and proposals that allow for a radicalization in politics.
Given the political leanings of the Guardian’s readership, have you seen an interest from you audience in exploring this coverage and getting outside their “bubble”?
Absolutely. We’ve heard from people who thank us because they say they would never read the sort of conservative media we cover if they were left to their own devices. I can’t blame them. Whether we’re right-wing or left-wing or anything in between, it’s rare to have a very diversified media diet. I would guess most people are probably checking 10 websites at most, and now that people are consuming media via Facebook, they end up in a bubble. So people are happy to have it as a service. We’ve also seen, from our conservative readers, that they’re quite interested in how we treat media that reflects their views.
In your conversations after the election, what was the editorial thought process that went into the decisions you’ve made about how you would respond to the result?
Certainly right after the election, the term “bubble” came up, and it’s something that we immediately jumped on. But I will say that we had a couple of people who were telling us and our readers about this for the past year. For example, Chris Arnade has been doing a series called “Pride and poverty in America,” and for the last year he was saying the Trump was going to win. He would tell us we were in our bubble, but that he was seeing it in his travels around the country. Thomas Frank was saying the exact same thing. So we already had a sense of the bubble being a thing, and then the election happened and pretty much every media outlet had a moment of thinking “Oh shit, we probably failed in covering communities as much as we should have been.”
So while we feel like we’ve already done a lot of it, I really want to work with local reporters who know their communities inside-out. We have more than enough reporters in San Francisco and New York, so I want people across the country to pitch to me. I’m hoing that over the next four years under Trump, that we see some sort of local news renaissance, and that local news will become relevant again. God knows it’s needed. Local news is such an important part of the democracy puzzle, and I really want to form partnerships with local outlets and local reporters who have a network and who can tell me what exactly matters in their communities.
What does that actually look like in terms of assignments? Are you using reporters already on staff? Or are you looking for partnerships with local outlets already on the ground?
We use some staff people and some stringers, but going forward what we really want to do is form solid relationships with people in as many states as possible who really know their communities. The whole parachute model of sending a journalist from New York to Missouri for two days and expecting him to write something as good as someone who has spent their entire life there [isn’t sufficient]. Both models can do a good job, but we need both. The best piece I published last year was by Sarah Smarsh, who’s in Kansas, on her community. It was a story called “Dangerous Idiots,” and was about how the entire population there was painted by national media as compared to what she saw living there.
What I’m talking about is not a transformation. We’ve been doing this before, but it’s something we’re more aware of now. As an example, Tom McCarthy is doing a series on the people of Northampton County in Pennsylvania. It’s a steel county that voted for Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump. McCarthy is returning each month to document what people are thinking about Trump. Those people have real concerns, and they make sense when you consider those concerns for what they are. We’re trying to shy away from it being an anthropology exercise; it’s just old-fashioned reporting.