A Time of Opportunity

Good riddance to the political coverage that was

Jim Bourg / Reuters

In the summer of 2015, as Donald Trump began his campaign for the presidency, a bacterium was spreading in New York City. Twelve people had become sick earlier in the year; by August, the outbreak had reached more than a hundred and twenty. A dozen in the South Bronx died. The cause was Legionnaires’ disease, an airborne illness that can result in severe pneumonia, especially among the elderly and others with compromised immune systems.

It was a scary public health emergency that highlighted how difficult it is for officials to identify and trace the spread of disease, even on a relatively contained scale. New cases continued to surface, but the media’s attention soon moved on: Trump was finding his footing as a candidate-provocateur. He went on a live tirade against Megyn Kelly, saying that she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Then he released his first policy proposal, calling for an unprecedented crackdown on immigrants.

There was, all the while, another story that could have become a focal point for American journalism: in the year after Trump announced his candidacy for president, twelve hundred people were killed at the hands of police. The victims were two and a half times more likely to be Black than white. Not counted in that number were those who died in the summer leading up to the 2016 election—people like Alton Sterling, a Black man shot and killed by white officers in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, a Black man pulled over by white cops in Saint Paul, then shot to death while he was reaching for his license. Protests filled the streets while Trump whistled along the campaign trail.

During this period, the press obsessed over Trump. And when he became president, the focus remained on him. Everything has been viewed through a Trump lens: Poverty. The Middle East. Climate change. Race. He is no doubt complicit in making long-standing problems worse, but it’s dishonest to present him as the sole, dominant actor. Making him so is more about easy story lines and a simple villain than it is about good journalism. It’s a lot easier to riff for ten minutes about Trump the climate denier, for instance, than it is to understand decades of newsroom failure and corporate influence in the climate crisis. What’s lost are the undercurrents of how we ended up where we are.

Immediately after Trump was elected, journalism entered a whirl of self-reflection: How had we failed to take Trump and his electorate seriously? How had we so badly misread the country? Newsrooms examined their coverage, their coastal biases, their overreliance on polling. One outlet rented a bus to drive around the country and listen to people. The stakes went beyond PR; more than a third of America felt a deep mistrust of the press—some rejected it entirely. That created an opening for Trump and his followers to fill our screens with misinformation and manipulation, helped by outlets like Fox News and One America News Network, which present themselves as antidotes to “fake news.” Somehow, between the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2020, we lost the thread on self-improvement.

Now we’re in the teeth of a pandemic that has killed more than a hundred thousand Americans and a reckoning with our racist history that has sent even more into action. It is a pivotal moment for the country and for journalism. Good riddance to the political coverage that was. We have the chance to set aside superficial trivia and focus on systemic and institutional failures. We can tune Trump out. We can discard the caricatures we have in our minds about the people who support the president and his party. This is an opportunity, unprecedented in the middle of a contested campaign, to reset how we work.

Let’s report not just on what the candidates are saying, but on what they should be talking about.

 

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the deficiencies of America’s public health system, the most expensive on earth. The deep inequities in infection and survival, depending on your address and your income and your race. The two-tiered workforce, where clocking in from home to avoid the virus was not an available option for two-thirds of the country. The lack of any kind of economic safety net or family-support structure. The deep regional and educational differences at play in how we listened to experts and heeded their advice. When Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, killed George Floyd, a Black man, outside a grocery store, we were reminded again about the crisis of police brutality and its connection to the racism found in every corner of the country, from our businesses to our sports teams, our pop culture to our newsrooms.

All of these stories have been chronicled by reporters in the past six months. But let’s be honest about our faults: as important as the stories have been, every single one of those dynamics was in place and in force before the pandemic, and should have been taken more seriously. Part of the problem is embedded in who we are: journalists in America don’t remotely represent the country we cover. Less than 17 percent of staffers at print and online publications are people of color, even though minority groups constitute almost 40 percent of the United States. How can journalism adequately tell stories from which it is so far removed? For many Black journalists, the uprising that has followed Floyd’s death is hardly a surprise; the only mystery is why so many white Americans, and the news outlets that employ them, decided this time was different.

Good journalism is supposed to expose shortcomings, to shine a light on that which is wrong—before a pandemic or the murder of another Black person by white pursuers does it for us. Our job now is to put in the effort. Ahead of Election Day, let’s write and report not just on what the candidates are saying, but on what they should be talking about. Let’s serve up the institutional outrages and the systemic breakdowns that will demand the winner’s attention. Let’s point to who and what is blocking progress and let’s take seriously the people offering serious ideas about reform. And then, after November, let’s continue steering attention where it belongs.

 

This issue of CJR is about coverage of an election when the rituals of campaign reporting disappear. Simon van Zuylen–Wood examines the instaquote that is David Axelrod, the king of the pundits, who offers amazing insights like “Conventional wisdom is a perilous thing.” Pundits (who, especially when cited in print, tend to be white and male) are a sign of journalistic laziness, van Zuylen–Wood writes, as mainstream news outlets turn to the same sources again and again. But this election cycle, because of the pandemic, Axelrod was benched for a while; we meet him sheltering in place and carrying on as best he knows how.

Stephania Taladrid chronicles the way Univision News—which serves Spanish-speaking Americans in a way that other outlets cannot—responded to the shock of the coronavirus. We hear from Lourdes Torres, the senior vice president of political coverage, as she tries to strike a balance between helping Latino viewers survive the day-to-day and keeping their electoral interests in focus.

Jack Herrera shows how “Defund the Police”—a long-standing, meticulously thought-out proposal to abolish the prison-industrial complex—got suddenly co-opted as an election story. Josie Duffy Rice, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Alex Vitale discuss how the anti-racism protests are being covered in the context of the election season. Lyz Lenz looks back at the predictable, one-dimensional coverage of the caucuses in Iowa, where she lives, and warns of the dangers of parachute journalism where many local reporters have lost their jobs. Akintunde Ahmad writes about why mainstream news is particularly distrusted among young Black voters in his hometown of Oakland.

Adam Piore reviews MSNBC as a case study in how cable news lost the battle to personality. Nicholson Baker goes down the wormhole of YouTube, where more and more Americans are getting their political information. Alexandria Neason profiles Joanne McNeil, the author of a new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, who offers strategies to escape the harms of the doomscroll.

One of the challenges of covering this season in American politics is that we are doing it while our journalistic resources are hobbled. By collecting data from across the country, in collaboration with our colleagues at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, we have been tracking the job losses and putting them in context. Some swing states have been hard hit. Can national outlets make up for the decimation of local news? In the days ahead, we’ll continue to seek answers beyond our print pages, as part of an effort called the Journalism Crisis Project, focused on tallying and mapping the jobs lost, outlets closed, salaries cut, and people furloughed since the beginning of the pandemic and the economic slide that has followed.

That all of these threads are now coming together—a presidential election, a local-news void, a pandemic, and a reckoning with our national shame of racism—represents a major test of our profession. We have an opportunity to make long-overdue changes that live up to the moment.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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