Sleepwalking into 2020

By Akintunde Ahmad, Adam Gabbatt, Lauren Harris, Savannah Jacobson, Ed Pilkington, and Jim Waterson

This series was reported in partnership with Guardian US. Sign up to be a Guardian Member, or follow Guardian US on Facebook or Twitter

In the weeks after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the American press realized it had failed. Nearly every major media outlet had spectacularly guessed wrong on the outcome, had failed to see the rise of the electorate that would elect Trump, and had not covered Trump as a serious candidate. Those sins, along with an obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails and a wrongful dismissal of Russian involvement in the American election, pumped oxygen into the toxic political environment that helped produce the Trump presidency.

This time around, the press has pledged to do better. Yet, with eleven months to go before Americans go to the polls again, there already are signs that journalists will repeat the mistakes of 2016.

Once again, CJR and The Guardian have teamed up to talk to journalists who cover the election, and to some of the people who monitor what they do. What follows are excerpts from those conversations.

 

“We fight the last war”
An awareness of the stakes of the election and its effects on journalism.

 

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post: The press is under assault and democracy is under assault right now, and these two things are related. 

One of the things we didn’t do well covering the presidential election last time was that we failed to distinguish between the serious and not so serious – the term false equivalency comes to mind. So Trump and his financial situation, sexual assault claims, business record, history of racism – all those things were made equal to Hillary Clinton’s emails. Today we’re calling it a little better. When things are “racist” we’re willing sometimes to use that word. We’re willing to use the word “lie.” We’ve come a ways in that sense, but I’m still not particularly positive about how we’re going to deal with 2020.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times: In 2016 I think the media got the country wrong. I don’t think we got Trump. We didn’t understand how much the country was angry at elites, upset about the fallout from the economic crisis. And I don’t think we understood quite how much the country just wanted to shake things up. We covered it as usual, the way we always cover elections, as a clash of two ideologies, and I think it was much, much deeper. 

Chris Hayes, host of “All In with Chris Hayes,” MSNBC: To me, the biggest sin of 2016 was proportionality. Particularly vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton and the email story, and then the Wikileaks story. When you look at the word cloud of what people heard from the news, there’s one huge word in the middle and that’s (Hillary Clinton’s) emails. There’s no justification whatsoever for the proportion of coverage devoted to that story. And sometimes I think people want to defend the coverage by using the strawman of, it was news. Yeah, it was news. It was a news story when it turned out Ivanka Trump was using unsecured communications at the White House, it was a news story when it turned out Nikki Haley was using unsecured communications as UN Ambassador, in some senses. The president uses unsecured communications. Those have all been news stories. Then everyone moves on to something else because it’s not that big of a story. The proportionality is one of the key challenges here. 

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News: The media has this incredible quadrennial habit of learning all the lessons of four years ago and applying them when the medium has already moved on. Things keep changing, yet we fight the last war. So I think the media is totally prepared not to repeat the mistakes of the last cycle, like giving Trump endless livestreams and letting him use provocative tweets to dominate the conversation, but I’m sure we will fuck it up in some new way we aren’t expecting. 

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Teen Vogue: People are worried and we don’t have an answer. The US president is openly attacking journalists. He has convinced a third of the country that The New York Times is fake news. We can criticize the Times all we want for substantive reasons, but it’s not fake news. We have to have some general understanding: outlets like the Guardian, The New Yorker, these are not fake news.

Jorge Ramos, Univision news anchor:  In 2016 there were 27 million Latinos eligible to vote and 13 million of them decided to stay home. In 2020, according to Pew research, there will be 32 million Latinos eligible to vote and I’m very concerned that the story might repeat itself again: that Latinos decide to stay home because they don’t like President Trump but don’t trust the Democrats either. That would be terrible for Latinos. So my main concern right now is the lack of participation in the fastest-growing block in the United States.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist: The environment is tough. The Economist has traditionally been hard to pigeonhole in the partisan geography of American politics because we’ve been socially liberal and pro-free markets. That ground is ever harder to occupy in this environment as there’s a tendency of both sides to pigeonhole the other. In such a polarised environment there’s a kind of tribalism coming out.

Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of The Bulwark: Going back to 2016, when I was part of what you’d consider to be the conservative media, it’s difficult to remember that there was still a lot of diversity of opinion in conservative media. There were a lot of conservative commentators and talk show hosts who were very critical of Donald Trump. What’s really changed is how increasingly tribalized the media has become. I always thought of our talk radio show as “the other side of the story,” with the assumption that people would hear one side of the story and then hear our point as well. And somehow it morphed into these alternative reality silos—one step beyond an echo chamber or a bubble—because they’re impenetrable.

Steve Adler, editor-in-chief of Reuters: There’s a critique—a pretty serious critique—of trying to be objective and trying to be dispassionate, and that critique essentially says that in reality— if you’re on the right or the left—then the other side is destroying the country, and that to take any other position is wishy washy and non-courageous. We take the opposite position. We exercise a craft, and our craft is digging out information when the average person doesn’t have the skill to do that, and sorting accurate from inaccurate information, then providing the background and the context and the knowledge base that helps people figure out where they stand. We don’t take the position that somebody’s definitely, absolutely, for sure right, and the other side is definitely, absolutely, for sure wrong. We are not just doing “he said, she said”—we’re trying to provide accurate information with context. 

Jill Abramson, former executive editor, The New York Times: The stakes for democracy in the outcome of this election are incredible. We have a president who flouts the core principles of our democracy. And seems not only to violate but be ignorant of the basic principles of the founders. He needs to brush up on reading the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So for the health of this country, there’s that, and there’s the whole failure of the Republicans and the Congress to carry out their function for checking the abuse of power by the executive. That’s just been abandoned. It’s just been terrible. 

 

“Try not to get caught up in the theater”
Weaning off of a Trump media obsession

 

Frank Bruni, columnist, New York Times: There’s a real tension in the media as we go into 2020, and a real challenge. We are an industry that is hardly swimming in revenue, we are competing fiercely for the eyeballs we need to stay alive. And we’ve learned that if you write a story about the ridiculousness of Trump’s latest tweet – whether that story is riveting to his fans or to his foes who cannot marinate enough in their distaste of him – it gets a lot more traffic than an analysis of Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-all plan. Trump understands what news catches people’s interest, he has a very acute sense of what people will click on. So I’m concerned that we are going to end up giving Trump more than the lion’s share of media time all the way up to election night. 

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief, USA Today: I make no apology for the amount of coverage we give President Trump, because I think he warrants it. He’s the president. If he says something that’s incredibly provocative or does something that has far-reaching ramifications, we have an obligation to report it. I do think one of the things that we’ve tried to learn is to not be distracted by a bright shiny object. So if the president tweets something provocative, it’s not that we’re going to ignore it. We’re going to write about it. The key is not to let that distract you from doing things about far-reaching implications of policy toward NATO or his plan on addressing homelessness in California.

Hayes, MSNBC: The old cliche of man bites dog is true: dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is news. But if there’s a man who bites a dog everyday, the news value of that diminishes. Outrageous tweets, things like that, they’re just not newsworthy. Trump rallies were more newsworthy in 2015, 2016 than they are now. They were more novel, they were more surprising. Now they’re dog bites man. Donald Trump just did a rally and he said a bunch of crazy stuff. That’s what he does. There are two poles: normalizing behavior that is abnormal and aberrant, particularly if the standard was applied to anyone else, and allowing yourself to be sucked into a constant attentional vortex on the other. 

Ramos, Univision: This is not 2015. When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015 and when he ejected me from a press conference, we told everyone, ‘Listen, this is someone who’s making racist remarks, he’s attacking the press.’  Yet very few people pay attention. Today I believe it’s a completely different story. Things are changing. Journalists are being much more aggressive than they were in 2016 and I think that’s very positive. We have many reporters who are making sure Trump is accountable for all the lies.

Adler, Reuters: You don’t run away from the viral story because you think you’re superior to it. But on the other hand, it shouldn’t deflect you from focusing on important issues that you think actually matter in people’s lives. It’s just the big question in journalism—how much you lead and how much you follow. I think you have to do a bit of both.

Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent, New York magazine: Trump is sort of blowing everything up. And the way he has done that has provided more opportunity for reporters to be creative. In the Trump White House, nothing works like it’s supposed to. And so I think there’s opportunities that you can skillfully take advantage of, or that you just happen to be lucky and stumble into. I guess there’s more room for serendipity.

Baquet, New York Times: When you cover a theatrical politician you must try not to get caught up in the theater. Having said that, I’m one of those people who thinks theatrics are still worth covering – they are part of the way he leads the country. And we have to cover that.

Adrienne Shih, audience engagement editor, Los Angeles Times: Because we have such a small staff, it’s actually worked in our favor because we’re not able to catch everything that the president tweets. It’s not always a number one priority to get on that, because we don’t have the bandwidth to, because we don’t have that many reporters, so in strategizing for our coverage, we can only focus on the things that really resonate with our readers. 

Kara Swisher, tech journalist and founder of Recode: Donald Trump is really quite good at Twitter. It’s gross. I mean, he uses it quite effectively. He’s campaigning by Twitter, and he’s governing by Twitter … He’s perfectly created discord, confusion and lying. The press just runs after it. You kind of have to cover it. I think you have to treat the tweets like they’re press statements. He puts a little bit of truth in there. It’s propaganda, putting a little kernel of truth in a lie. The dumb tweet of the day is like, really? What is it? Okay. It sucks. It’s devastating to our civility, but let’s stop obsessing on it. You know, if I see Chris Cuomo one more time, going, “Can you believe what he said?” I’m like, “I believe it!” I believe what he said. Tomorrow’s going to be some person without a leg. He’ll make fun of them. And then there’s a fat person that he’s going to fat shame and then there’s this and you’re going to be like, yes, he’s an asshole! I want to talk about actual policy and how it affects real people. 

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology, Columbia University: It may not be easy for journalists as individuals to stand against the corrupted norms. It may be necessary to take some sort of collective action. During the first Gulf War, the Washington bureaus of major news organizations – spearheaded by Harper’s together with the networks and a number of major news organizations – said, ‘We’re not going to go along with the ‘minders’ scheme.’ Such collective action is not beyond the bounds of the imagination for 2020. What would be required is for news organizations to understand that this president has declared war on them, that it won’t do to let him pick them off one at a time. They would have to understand they have a civic duty to act on behalf of a public good, which they are rather reluctant to do.

Beddoes, The Economist: I think there is some debate in certain quarters about whether the media should be taking one side or another – stand in opposition to Trump – and that’s in part what is feeding the sense of polarisation and people living in two entirely different ecosystems in the US.

Abramson: I’ve gotten off of every social media platform, and I feel much more clearheaded and informed than when I was on. I’ve even abandoned Instagram, which I used to somewhat enjoy. But certainly if I was covering the campaign, I’d have to be monitoring Twitter because it’s where news first breaks now. That’s just the reality.

 

“When he lies, it’s complicated”
Covering untruths, and the future of facts

Glenn Kessler, editor of The Fact Checker, Washington Post: The database of Trump’s false claims is a very depressing duty. It just drags you down to have to go through it, like reading one of the president’s rally speeches. Just one speech will have 60 false and misleading claims, most of which you’ve already fact-checked and said were false. Just to see it there again, over and over again, it’s incredibly depressing. 

Hayes Brown, senior editor and reporter, BuzzFeed: When you look back at the Nixon impeachment situation, people only had a few news sources at that time. They had their local paper, they had the big three networks. And that was it. Maybe if you were very fashionable in the middle of the country, you somehow got the New York Times delivered. And you read the news magazines, but that was really it in terms of media. Now people can go to wherever they want to find the facts that they agree with. On the one hand, this breakdown, this splintering, that has allowed for the rise of new voices, allowed for more diversity, allowed for more opinions to come forward, without having this, you know, establishment system saying, ‘Well, these are the stories we care about.’ On the other hand, it’s made it much harder for the average person to look out there and figure out what is the objective truth.

Page, USA Today: There is much more impressive fact-checking than there was in 2016. One of the things that we’ve seen happen is not to let something that we know is inaccurate stand unchallenged. I don’t think we understood in 2016 how much you have to make sure you do that in ways in which readers are seeing. A lot of people read a tweet but never read the story. So we don’t let inaccuracy or untruth stand unchallenged in a tweet.

Tanzina Vega, host of “The Takeaway,” WNYC: We have to say what the president is saying. On the other hand, if what the president is saying is clearly not true, then the burden is on us to make sure we’re clear about that. And that’s where the press has got to rid itself of the idea of a false equivalency. What has gotten caught up in this moment is basic fact. That’s something I worry a lot about. If we can’t look at a red car and agree that it’s a car and that it’s red––we can talk about whether it’s fast, or well made, or how much it should cost––but if we can’t agree that the red car is red and that it’s a car, then we have a problem. We’re grappling with that. It’s a serious issue that journalists have, to not just repeat what the president says, but give it some sort of context. It’s not easy. 

Ramos, Univision: I’ve covered Latin America for many decades and i think that has prepared me for what I’m seeing here in the United States. To have someone leading the country who is an authoritarian, who is not telling the truth, who’s constantly lying in a country that is completely divided.

Betsy West, Columbia journalism professor and co-director of the documentary “RBG”: One of the scariest developments in our political landscape is that disinformation is moving from print to video. We saw this foreshadowed this year with two different videos of a supposedly drunken or stammering Nancy Pelosi that were crudely faked. These videos were quickly revealed to be phony but not before millions of viewers saw and shared them on social media. You can just imagine the potential havoc created by a video showing a candidate doing or saying something inappropriate that comes out on the eve of an election.

It’s one thing to write a false story that gets disseminated. It’s something even more powerful to create a video that appears to be real. 

Errin Haines, Associated Press: I think that the issue of voter suppression is hugely important heading into 2020 because I think that what we saw in 2016, and again in 2018, was that voter suppression is definitely alive and well. 

I spent most of my career covering the legacy of the civil rights movement and talking to a lot of people who were active in that movement and fought for the expansion of the franchising of rights for black people to vote. And I mentioned that because I think that having that experience definitely helps me to recognize those pressures when I see it today. And I think back to just the midterm election. I was doing a story down in Randolph County, Georgia, where  the black community there noticed a newspaper ad, saying that, you know, they’re going to be closing precincts in their county. And you know, this is going to be much harder for them to get access to vote.

Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief, Axios: What makes me somewhat optimistic is that four or six years ago we didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about deep fake, fake video and audio, misinformation, the manipulation of social media, the end of truth. Now we know that these are things, we can talk about it and help voters identify what is true and what is not.

Kessler, Washington Post: I’ve covered just about every presidential administration since Reagan and this administration has the least fidelity to truth and honesty of any I’ve encountered. They’re generally uncooperative in terms of responding to inquiries. There’s not even an effort or a pretense to have a daily briefing. The president sets the tone and this president has little adherence at all to keeping the facts straight and it just extends throughout the US government. In some ways it makes it easier because they don’t respond. We’re always willing to take into account the commentary of people that we’re fact-checking and look at their evidence and see where it came from. The Obama people hated getting Pinocchios and they would send you the names of 10 different professors to back them up, and they would be calling up until 11:30 at night making their case to prevent the president from getting the Pinocchio. They were very, very active in terms of responding to this stuff.

Steve Brill, co-CEO and founder of Newsguard: The metaphor I always use is, if you walk into a library, the books are arranged by subjects. They’re on shelves. You can look at the book jacket, read something about the author, who the publisher is. Best of all, there’s a librarian who can tell you, you know, “read this.” If you want a conservative viewpoint about the minimum wage, here’s this magazine or this book to read. If you want a progressive viewpoint, there’s this. If you want something down the middle, there’s this. Imagine if, instead, you walk into the library and there are just 2 million pieces of paper flying around. You grab one and start reading. Who wrote it? Who is financing it? Is it by a Nobel economist? Some crackpot? Who knows? That’s the internet

Swisher, Recode: If you look at the discussion and debate about political ads [on Facebook], the heart is that a small group of unelected, homogenous people who have never experienced a day of fear in their lives are causing all kinds of problems and propagandas and allowing autocrats to survive without any gatekeepers, editing, or respect for facts. 

If you’re not scared when Mark Zuckerberg says it’s okay for politicians to lie, especially in the context of a system that iterates and iterates and iterates and is so viral compared to any other media, you should be afraid. This is a person with a lot of power who cannot be fired, but who has no idea what freedom of the press means. What Mark and others have tried to do is conflate paid speech with free speech. It’s intellectually bereft. Paid speech is not free speech. This is targeted-advertising-free-speech.

Sullivan, Washington Post: The Sunday TV talk shows will bring on people like Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counsel, who is just an inveterate liar. By having her on, she is allowed to say things that aren’t true and although she can be challenged, it’s still a very strong message having her on air. My feeling is, don’t have her on, you know she’s going to lie her way through every broadcast. That’s not censorship. Censorship is government action that disallows things being said, but judgments made by editors and producers are not censorship.

Abramson: There are so many traditions of journalism that Trump has sort of made impossible to fulfill. And the tradition is we cover what the president says. But when he lies, it’s complicated … It’s migraine-producing for an editor. 

 

“I’m seeing more reporters who are not believing the polls”
Reckoning with the mistakes of 2016 and searching for a new model

 

Larry Sabato, pollster and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics: All of us pollsters got to eat a large, bitter, humble pie after election night in 2016, which came as a tremendous shock. We’d all expected Hillary Clinton to win by three points or so, giving her over 300 electoral college votes. When Trump won we were forced to relearn that polling is not the word of God or handed down on the Mount to Moses. 

Baquet, New York Times: All of us in the media were just so convinced Trump couldn’t win. But he was outside of the paint-by-numbers game we have developed.

Sabato, pollster: The polling industry has tried to correct itself after it was so badly caught off-guard. We used not to weight by educational level and it turned out that if we had done so we might have been more accurate in 2016. So now everybody is weighting by education. We also had our fingers burned over the electoral college. The polls got the popular vote more or less correct, with Clinton winning the popular vote by two percentage points. We should have thought more about the profound electoral college impact that gave Trump his victory. 

Daniel Arnall, executive editor, MSNBC:  One of the things that we are doing differently than in the last cycle is focusing more on issues, and coverage of issues that folks across the country are interested in. That is going to be driving our coverage. We’re going to be substantially less interested in taking live candidate events.

I will tell you that I still am hesitant on polling, and I think there’s been a real reluctance by a lot of major organizations to come to terms with the failures of that through the last cycle. I think that’s a potential weak point that a lot of people should be focused on and pushing their organizations on. I’m still like, ‘What are we doing differently this time?’ I was in the briefing three days before the election where Republican and Democratic and independent pollsters were telling every organization that it’s statistically impossible (for Trump to win). It’s not like it was just our internal people. And so I think there is a real danger in polling because I think it’s probably not what it should be.

Maryann Wolfe, named one of the best 50 high school teachers in the nation by NPR:  I remember in 2016 the kids coming into class (this was after the election), heads down, some of them crying, and we just kind of sat there in the room and didn’t say anything, for I don’t know how many minutes. And it was because we read all those articles. We looked at all those polls, and everyone was so certain the Democrats were going to win. All these kids have gone out and done their civic engagement projects, most all of them were supporting the Democrats. The pollsters tend to do these national polls. They were not really honing in on certain states to enable us to know just how close the election was. The national polls might tell you that Hillary Clinton’s ahead, but might not tell you what the results in the electoral college are going to be. 

Page, USA Today: You have to rely both on quantitative and qualitative interviews. Polling is really valuable, but it doesn’t tell you everything. You don’t want to go to a town, go to a diner, interview six people, and pretend like you know what people are saying. You want some quantitative data that enables you to say, ‘Hey, Pete Buttigieg is doing really well among older voters,’ then go out and talk to older voters about why that might be. 

In the USA Today/Suffolk poll, which is our big national poll, Joe Biden continues to do very well in the Democratic horse race. But we always do call-backs to people we polled to talk to them, to gather quotes. There’s just a different quality to the information you get in a conversation as compared to the data you get in a poll. And one thing we’ve noticed is that people who tell us they support Biden do not have the fervor of people who are supporting other candidates. And so by doing the callbacks, it makes us realize that that number is soft—we don’t know that it is going to change, but it might change. When you talk to Bernie Sanders voters in callbacks, they’re with Bernie. They’re not going anywhere. When you talk to Biden voters, they would go someplace else if they had somebody they liked better or somebody they thought as more electable. I think people who do one thing or the other are mistaken. You really need to do both.

Ramos, Univision: I’m seeing more reporters who are not believing the polls and doing their homework. I personally am listening to conservative radio stations in Miami that I didn’t listen to in 2016 trying to understand Trump voters, specifically Latino Trump voters.

Sabato, pollster: As for forecasting models, they need to be dropped entirely. Most readers didn’t understand what probability really means. It just confuses people, and to do it again next year would be to plant a bomb that could explode in your face. Is it really worth it? The answer is no.

Caitlin Byrd, political reporter, Charleston Post and Courier: What we may hear at a campaign event really may be limited to that campaign event or the fact that we’re running into certain people more. We want to make sure that our anecdotes aren’t just anecdotes, but that they can be rooted in fact. So polling is still one of the closest barometers we have of that until an Election Day actually happens.

 

“Horserace coverage is dead”
The press once again struggles with covering a big, diverse field

 

Sullivan, Washington Post: I see sexism in the coverage of women candidates. It’s improved since Hillary Clinton ran but it’s still not great. The disappearance of Kamala Harris has some of that wrapped into it, and the constant discussions about whether Elizabeth Warren is likeable enough to be elected reflects inherent sexism that we haven’t really dealt with. There’s research that shows that women who are seen as ambitious have a strike against them. Well, if you’re running for president, guess what? You’re ambitious.

Vega, WNYC: Kamala Harris, as one of the few women of color on the campaign trail, and the only black woman on the campaign trail, had often both from the left and to a certain extent from the right, had been criticized for her role as a former prosecutor in California. At the same time, Amy Klobuchar, her competitor, also was a prosecutor. And somehow the media narrative wasn’t as focused on that particular issue. … Now, the front-runners are all white. We’ll see how Elizabeth Warren, for example, is portrayed. Warren has had inconsistencies in how she’s tried to explain her Medicare for all plan. That’s a valid criticism. At the same time, she’s been portrayed as being professorial, and being “unlikeable” in the eye of the voter. I think that really represents a certain narrative that woman candidates across the board have to fight. And I think that often comes from the media and its way of thinking. It’s reflective of the way these media narratives have taken hold. 

Page, USA Today: On the day that Donald Trump announced, my assumption was that he was not going to be nominated for president. And it took a while for me to realize what voters were saying, which was that he would be. So that is a lesson that I think we tried to apply this time, by looking at the Democratic field and not making assumptions about who’s going to be in the top tier of the bottom tier, who could possibly end up rising to the top. Even today, so close to the primary caucuses, we’re trying not to make assumptions about who you ought to take seriously. It’s not up to us. It’s up to voters.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: I am worried about this many candidates and their ability to hold everyone’s attention. One thing we’re seeing with young people is that they are having trouble following the deep nuances between candidates. It’s kind of boring to really point out some of these policy differences because they’re not really that different.

Gitlin, Columbia University: Talking to individual voters is valuable, but you can’t use it as a proxy for “American sentiment.” I think about this when news outlets write “Nation mourns” after a celebrity dies. I walk around outside my house, and people are relatively cheerful. It’s a bit of an absurd example, but there’s both a myth of a single public consciousness and a laziness to the sort of reporting that could reveal something interesting about a particular group of the people that make up our country. For example, where’s the reporting on voter suppression? That’s a huge part of the story. We’re not all one thing.

Sykes, The Bulwark: There are people who are trying to figure out what this political moment is — very, very uncomfortable with the extremes and really liking the fact that we can talk to one another. So in the typical feedback that I get, I would say 80% of them begin with something like ‘I am a liberal Democrat, but I don’t like…’ or there will be other people who say ‘I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but I can’t stand what’s happening.’ I consider myself kind of a political orphan.

Smith, BuzzFeed: Horserace coverage is dead. Our audience actively hates it. We have to think about a way to replace it in a way that is compelling and that cares about the personalities and the policies and all the revealing and strange things that elections provide, while always keeping in mind that there are real things at stake. Now it’s kids in cages. I mean, who cares that somebody fires his political consultant? And I say that as somebody who has broken a lot of stories in my time about people firing political consultants.

Shih, Los Angeles Times: Our reporters are doing a lot more listening on the ground. Because of things that happened in 2016, we realized that we can’t necessarily be focusing and reporting on things like polls. A good example is something that one of our reporters, Matt Pearce, did. He basically just started a Google form where he asked people that are following him on Twitter, ‘What do you want to know about during this election cycle?’ And we manually parsed through thousands of responses, and we saw that California readers were very interested in [immigration and climate]. A lot of people weren’t as interested in things like the state of the horse race, they wanted more profiles of candidates.

Adler, Reuters: Sometimes, what journalists focus on as news is an incomplete understanding of what people care about. People care about politicians’ characters, they care about people as human beings. They care about human stories. That is part of the fabric of what news entails. If you strip that out and you say you’re only interested in policy papers, you’re missing an important dimension of the story. Clearly, people vote based on a combination of things. And one of them is their assessment of how good a leader and decision-maker a president is likely to be. So that’s partly about what the policies are, and partly about how they present themselves, how intelligent they seem and thoughtful they seem, so all of those things are important.

Hayes, MSNBC: Horserace coverage is fine. It is interesting in the context of covering a race if a candidate is struggling with African American voters or has gone down considerably after being attacked over Medicare for all. Those are news stories. It’s not that that’s not a thing to cover, it’s just that that is not all you cover. 

Byrd, Post and Courier: Horserace journalism really isn’t our goal … We’re more interested in how issues are evolving on the trail and what it means when the trail stops in South Carolina, as opposed to who’s doing really well. Otherwise we’d be writing the same story every week. 

 

“Everybody’s a regular person”
How to cover America between the coasts 

 

Sarah Kendzior, author of “The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America”: National media is making the same mistakes as in 2016. The midwest has become the sort of stand-in region for what the national media think of as the “forgotten voter.” What a lot of these coastal outlets are doing is parachuting in here with the narrative pre-written trying to find people who fit their preconceptions of what people in the midwest are like. None of this authentically captures what’s going on, and it really does a disservice to this whole region. It’s diverse demographically, racially, ideologically. Honestly the best way they could fix this problem would be to hire people who actually live in these states.

Al Cross, director, University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: It’s not just boots on the ground. You can’t have a parachute mentality. You have to have some rural sensibility or an appreciation of rural sensibility. You deal with them as people and you have an appreciation for how they live their lives, and be respectful of that. And if you show that to them they will show that to you.

Sykes, The Bulwark: I’m in Wisconsin and I do a lot of work on the coast as well. I’ll be on an MSNBC show, and people on the panels start talking about Wisconsin voters as these strange throwback figures, saying rural Wisconsinites are “nostalgic for a time when men were able to slap women around” and it was like, ‘Wait, no.’ First of all, understand that these are people who have their own values, their own communities, and every time you talk about them in this way, you deepen this red, blue divide, this thing. I mean, I am as frustrated by some of these folks as anybody, but there is this culture of contempt that’s easy, I think, for people in the media to fall into. And I think it’s dangerous, because once you are contemptuous with somebody, you’re not going to take them seriously, and you’re not going to listen to them, and therefore, you’re going to miss things.

Gitlin, Columbia University: There was a sense after 2016 that we weren’t listening to enough people in diners in Ohio. That wasn’t so much misguided as it was inflated. The average Trump voter has above-average income. Overall—to generalize—news media went from not noticing people whose life chances are impacted by the rustification of the Midwest to thinking that they are now the central story. It’s an absurd overcompensation. This is another instance of pack journalism, from ignoring a population to doubling down on a population. And in both cases, it’s a stampede reaction, not grounded in sociological knowledge or political science knowledge, but rather in a kind of feeling of having failed to get the odds right during the campaign. [Reporters felt] that it was incumbent upon them to find a simple solution or simple remedy. Simple compensation. ‘Okay, we blew that. We’re going to do it better this time.’ Except it’s a false solution. It’s a solution on the cheap. It doesn’t come to grips with the way in which a career racketeer got away with presenting himself as a plausible politician.

Astead Herndon, political reporter, The New York Times: I think there was a conventional wisdom that Trump was a metaphoric political figure, not a literal one, and that the voters were not actually taking his word seriously and voting based on that. And that’s just something that I found hard to believe, and now that I’m in a position to go talk to these folks, I don’t find that to be true. I think the throughline between primary and general in 2016 was a real over-reliance on top-down beltway reporting, and not bottom-up grassroots stuff that would’ve made you see the increased energy in Sanders, or that Trump was relating to the Republican base on culture and things like that. And that also would’ve led us to really understanding what was going on in the general election. Washington does not have a monopoly on political thought. And more so than that, they’ve been proven pretty incorrect in recent times. Your reporting should take that view into consideration, but counterbalance it with voices on the ground, because I think that’s the only way we get a more full political picture.

Swisher, Recode: I think everybody’s a regular person. That’s one thing I hate when reporters go, “we’re going to talk to regular people now.” I’m a regular person. It’s weird that that’s the way [journalists] think of these people, like creatures in a zoo or something. 

Rachel Stassen-Berger, political editor, Des Moines Register: The national media have certainly made an effort to recognise the need to go to the center of the country, much more than in 2016. And sometimes they hit the mark and sometimes they miss the mark, and they certainly have the resources to explore some of the stories where I’ve seen the result of that. There is great political parachute journalism where they really can find themes that we are too close to see. But I think that when you are there every single day and covering these issues and these people for years, you get a deeper breadth of understanding. I think there’s certain assumptions that journalists make for the sake of time that if you don’t pressure test you’re going to be proved wrong. And I think that’s a mistake that has been made since time immemorial.

The problem is when you decide what your story is before you talk to the people who are involved in your story. It’s very hard to just go and listen. But if you go to a place with a specific narrative in mind, and without pressure testing it, it may be a great read but it won’t reflect the reality on the ground. 

Nuzzi, New York: Generally speaking, I haven’t found there to be much room for changing hearts and minds on the subject of media fairness—from people who are skeptical of the media and distrust the media—if we’re defensive about it.  Totally anecdotally, the only times that I’ve had any luck talking to people who are skeptical of the media about whether or not they ought to be is when like I’ve been honest—’Yeah, I definitely lean to the left on issues that are important to voters. And I would never endeavor to hide that. But obviously I’m not motivated by any kind of partisan objective in my work.’ That shouldn’t be controversial to admit. And I think most people in newsrooms—by virtue of being from the coast or living on the coast, or coming from elite universities—kind of share a similar world view. But I feel like when people don’t feel like you’re like bullshitting them, at least in my, again, very anecdotal experience, I’ve been able to have more honest, less confrontational conversations than when I’ve been like, ‘No, the media’s fair! What are you talking about? Everyone’s objective! Nobody’s biased!’

Byrd, Post and Courier: I think growing up in the South, you start to see––even as a young person, I started to see the same descriptors used to talk about places where I was from: ‘Backwoods, dirt road, small town, quiet, Mayberry-like.’ You see these same tropes over and over and over again. But one thing I’m appreciating more this cycle is it seems that more national reporters in particular are really realizing that the South is more complicated. And it cannot be limited to one short descriptor.

Abramson: I think the biggest problem in 2016 was obviously the failure to recognize that Donald Trump was a very durable candidate who had huge popularity in the red parts of the country. And that was because reporters had not spent enough time in the red parts of the country interviewing voters. Journalists were, in 2016, too out of touch with red America, basically, and the well of anger towards elites that had been building during the Obama years.

 

“News media feel more comfortable now in calling Trump a racist”
While the coverage of Trump and race has improved, diversity inside newsrooms largely has not

 

Ramos, Univision: It took a while for reporters and news organizations to say, ‘Hey listen, that’s a racist statement.’ So when Trump said in June 2015 that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, that was a racist statement but many people were not comfortable calling him out on that. Since then he’s made many other racist remarks like saying that people from Haiti and African countries come from shithole countries, and I do feel that reporters and news media feel more comfortable now in calling Trump a racist.

Haines, Associated Press: I am really seeing a lot more people of color on the campaign trail this cycle than were around, you know, even four or eight years ago. The reality is two thirds of the people who cover political journalism are white men. I think that is not just the right thing to do. To me, it seems to be a journalistic imperative. 

To have as diverse a politics team as possible is really to be best positioned  to talk about who and where we are in the country as journalists. So that, to me is about having a diverse politics teams. As we head into 2020, I am still on the campaign trail, quite frequently, as the only black woman in a room. Sometimes the only black person. But sometimes, I certainly do have quite the company. So to be able to walk into the campaign event and see several of my colleagues of color also on the ground, I know that there’s going to be a different perspective.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: I felt a lot of the conversations after 2016 were ‘Oh no! we focused so much on getting all these women in the newsroom we alienated all these white men.’ It was like after the election editors felt they needed less diverse newsrooms because they were concerned they had gone “too far left” or had incorporated identity politics too much and were alientating this white base that was all riled up for Trump. People didn’t say it explicitly, but there was a shift towards going back to what was seen as “objective” reporting – that we can only count on reporters that are “objective.”But “objectivity” is not even possible; everybody brings something to what they’re reporting on whether they realize it or not. 

Herndon, New York Times: Political reporting has danced around identity for too long, and always framed it around how people of color feel, and over-extrapolate that they only vote based on identity, whereas whiteness is seen as something that doesn’t play into people’s voting patterns or doesn’t play into how they’re viewed in the political system, when that’s not really true. You have to go [to some white Trump voters], and you have to connect to get them to really express [their views]. But you have to be clear-eyed. You need to not be afraid of confronting the openly xenophobic or racist views or whatever they can be, but at the same time, you need to understand that there’s a context here, and lay out that context. I really think that’s what journalism is. Sometimes I think that the problem with a lot of this stuff is a failure of imagination on the part of political reporting, not thinking that we can go to these places and ask these questions and do these things. And I think that once you free yourself of that, then there’s a lot of really interesting stories that are told, and frankly, that are undertold. 

Ramos, Univision: I do see changes. A Latino reporter can change the dialogue. The first presidential debate among Democratic candidates was organised by NBC and Telemundo. By just having José Diaz-Balart as one of the moderators, Spanish was spoken in that debate, immigration was addressed, and Hispanic issues were talked about. I happened to be one of the moderators in the second debate organised by Univision and ABC News and I did exactly the same thing. For the first time not only did we talk about Latino issues and immigration but I brought in Latin American issues – we talked about Cuba, Venezuela and Central America. 

Byrd, Post and Courier: One of the challenging things for us is we are the oldest daily paper in the South. Not just South Carolina, the South. And sometimes Southern newspapers haven’t always done the best job of representing African American readers. I am a white journalist but I think our job really is to make sure that we’re listening to those concerns and that we’re not afraid to ask those questions.When we’re talking about Emanuel [AME Church], we’re not only talking about a church that was devastated by a hate crime in 2015. The church in the South, and the black church in the South, isn’t just a place of worship. Time and time again, it’s the place where we see a break between white and black happen. And it’s also a place where the Civil Rights Movement really took root here. History is so important in trying to connect the dots of what does that mean now.

Abramson: [If I were working as an editor, my priority] would be first and foremost to have a diverse political reporting staff, because I think that’s the only way you can get the true pulse of the country and the voters. And I’m not talking about gender here, I’m talking about– I think that balance has had lots of improvement in the amount of women covering the campaign, but too few blacks, way too few Latinos.

Dwight Watkins, editor, SalonIt’s kind of unfortunate but I’ve been seeing the same people, same representatives, get out there and basically tell similar stories and make assumptions about whole groups of people. They talk about the Black vote as if it’s just one thing. So I think when you utilize the same players and the same people, they take their biases and they apply these biases to our whole group. 

 

“Get out of the house”
Thinking beyond the Twitter bubble

 

Johnston, Axios: My social media policy for the newsroom would be: delete your Twitter account and don’t use that as your window on the world; it’s a journalists’ echo chamber. Okay, that’s a joke. But I do think it’s important in newsrooms to talk about the impact that it has. You can sit at your desk all the time with your nine Tweetdeck columns open and think you are on the ball and informed but you are not. Instead, we tell our reporters to call people on the telephone, get out of the house, go wander the halls of Congress, fly someplace and talk to people.

Hayes, MSNBC: I think there are definitely some ways in which Twitter anchors perception of things that are distortionary. The fact that all of us in this industry have medical-level addictions to it is probably not awesome and probably has some deleterious effects. But for me, the massive upside is I could not synthesize the raw amount of information I need to without Twitter, particularly once RSS died. 

Brown, BuzzFeed: Twitter is an absolute cesspool. But I think as a journalist, you come to have a sense of who in your mentions is just yelling at you randomly and who you can actually have a conversation with. And I think actually more journalists should engage in those actual conversations with people who just seem kind of confused, not the people who are, you know, in your mentions screaming at you, calling you a liar, etc. But the people who are like, well, what about this thing? I know it’s not exactly replicable. But I have had conversations on Twitter where I had someone come at me with something that’s just not correct. And talk them out of it. I know, it’s weird. It’s wild, but it’s doable.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: If you looked at Twitter after the recent Democratic presidential debate, my entire timeline was filled with criticism of Pete Buttigieg. Meanwhile he’s polling really well. That discrepancy reminds me of something – we thought Trump couldn’t win in 2016 because we all hated him and thought he was a joke. I’m seeing the same thing happening with the Democratic candidates today. That to me indicates that we haven’t learned anything.

Nuzzi, New York: Sometimes it feels like the whole world is reacting one way to a candidate or to something that happened during a debate or to a specific story that’s come out because of how loud a certain faction of society is on Twitter. So I do try to remind myself that the entire electorate is not represented in these couple hundred Twitter accounts. But it’s not like I have my group of ‘regular folks’ who I check in with when something like that is happening, to see if the ‘regular folks’ agree. But I do think some of the ‘Twitter is not real life’ stuff has been overblown—Twitter is part of real life. And it’s also very influential in terms of how the media seems to talk about what’s happening in politics. And in that sense, it can become real life pretty quickly, when it colors how the news is talked about. I don’t really have a definitive way to think about this, but it’s something that I am actively thinking about and trying to not be stupid about, especially going into 2020.

Herndon, New York Times: There are populations that are over-represented online: young people, college educated folks, a certain class of white folks. If you only extrapolate from there, I think people overdo that stuff from the left and underdo that stuff from the middle. And there are a lot of Never Trump views online that don’t have a constituency in caucus. I think that it is true that Twitter isn’t real life, but I’m pretty sure that a study said that the people who were most underrepresented on Twitter in the Democratic electorate were black people in the South who are not college educated –– that is not the demographic that people who say “Twitter isn’t real life” are talking about. I think that’s a reason we should go to those communities and reflect their concerns. That’s the conversation I wish came out of “Twitter isn’t real life” is one that’s about representing the full diversity of the electorate. But it’s usually not.

Haines, Associated Press: I think a lot about the intersection of race and this election, and what I realized is a few things. One, I think we say all the time as journalists, or black journalists, that black voters are not a monolith, you know, but I think it goes even beyond that. A lot of times the shorthand for black voters is the urban vote. And this kind of follows up into this kind of monolithic narrative.

That does not mean that they are not also issues voters, right. So when you think about black voters in those term, that means reframing who you’re talking about when you talk about women, when we talk about educated voters, when we talk about blue collar workers, or talking about Midwestern voters, faith voters, voters who care about the Supreme Court, voters who care about abortion. We often get into the default setting in thinking issues voters means white voters. And frankly that is missing huge swaths of the electorate who are highly influential in our primary and general election process.

Johnston, Axios: Political journalists tend to get swept up in the day-to-day drip, drip, drip of coverage. Amid the myopia of so much election coverage, big trends and big stories are overlooked. That’s why we identified the themes we want our journalists to think about in 2020 and then get them to go force the campaigns to talk about them. We picked seven issues that we think are very important and we plan to spend the election year going out on the trail and talking to the campaigns and voters about these issues. What if we find a candidate doesn’t have a policy on climate change, or China or the future of capitalism? That’s great, let’s go call and ask him to make one because we think this is an important topic that the next leader of the United States should have a position on.

Vega, WNYC: The fact that this is an administration that has been explicit about wanting to undo the legislative “gains” that communities of color have made in this country, including things like the Fair Housing Act and asylum policy and others, that is absolutely newsworthy. 

Adler, Reuters: We want to be very issue-oriented. One of our tenets is to cover what matters in people’s lives, rather than a lot of the noise that occurs. We picked as our main election themes—in part because they are of wide global importance as well as domestic importance—the economy, immigration, climate change, effects of the trade war with China, and the upcoming US census to define the electorate. We’re going to try to look hard at all those issues and look at how they affect people, both in the US and elsewhere. We’re obviously going to cover the race. You can’t not cover the race. But again, we’re going to try to look at what’s going on from the context of how it affects not only the US but the rest of the world.

Page, USA Today: We’ve always listened to voters, but you have to listen to voters in a way that doesn’t make assumptions about what they mean or what they’re going to say. That is something we are trying really hard to do, and the framework of our coverage for 2020 involves a bigger effort to make sure that we’re talking not only to campaigns but also to voters, and that we are prepared to hear what it is voters are telling us. I’ll give you an example of something I failed to do in 2015—I would do interviews at rallies, and people would tell me things that I knew were untrue, and I thought they were just fringey or just wrong. I did not understand that there was a disinformation campaign going on. So for example, I interviewed somebody at a rally and they said they were supporting Donald Trump. And I said, “Well, why are you supporting Donald Trump?” He said, “Well, the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump.” And I said, “You know what, I’m pretty sure that Pope has not endorsed Donald Trump.” And this voter said, “Oh, yeah he had. I read it.” And I just let it go, because I knew that the Pope had not endorsed Donald Trump. But what I should have heard was—maybe there’s a campaign to put out that information.

Nuzzi, New York: It’s very easy to get in the weeds on stuff that we feel like everybody knows, that’s actually not something that any normal human being would know and it would be interesting if you were to stop and explain it.

Brill, Newsguard: Most people don’t understand that if you’re doing a story about X, hours and hours and hours of work went into it. Because the only other time they see journalists is when they’re sitting on Fox or MSNBC or CNN just pontificating. Every time a news site links to something else that a journalist has done, whether it’s their notes or the text of an interview or anything like that, it really drives home the point that a lot of work went into this and we believe in our work and we want you to see our work.

Herndon, New York Times: I think if you avoid bad faith-ness and avoid talking down––it’s the same level of engagement I would give to a source if they didn’t like something that was in the story, or a politician that has disagreed with the characterization. I think that there are things that, if I am willing to give that to someone of means who can call the paper and get their concerns heard out, I can do that for regular folks who are tweeting that. I can’t respond to every single one, but I do think it’s an opportunity to just say what the thinking was. It doesn’t mean backing down from the reporting, it means telling folks that this is my role. 

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.