Switching Sides

Illustration by Sara Wong

I ran for office in 2018 to win—to become a state senator and represent my district in a quiet pocket of Brooklyn. I did not run to make myself a better journalist or glean new insights into the craft I had practiced for most of my working life. 

But a funny thing happened after I lost in the Democratic primary and decided to return to my old life in journalism: After taking stock of my campaign missteps—why we lost and how we even got this far in the first place—I began to think more about how my two selves, the politician and the journalist, blended, and what each had to teach the other. 

I was a journalist long before I had any interest in running for office. For an informative two years (2014-2015), I was a City Hall reporter at The New York Observer (owned at the time by Jared Kushner), chronicling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s early tenure. Later, I wrote for The Village Voice, CJR, and others. Like any self-satisfied young person, I assumed these experiences had taught me most of what I needed to know about reporting.

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In a sense, a candidate performs the partial work of a journalist. True, you aren’t outside, gathering quotes for a story, and you aren’t holding power to account in the same way. You are, ultimately, selling yourself. But you are also talking to people. 

If you’re doing it right, you are talking to thousands of people. Tens of thousands. You meet them when you knock on their doors. You meet them when you enter the subway, every weekday. You meet them outside supermarkets, festivals, schools, and wherever crowds congregate. 

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And if you want their vote, you have to ask questions. What is most important to you? What’s on your mind? How can I fix it? 

You find that expected narratives don’t always conveniently line up with reality. The woman in the “She Persisted” T-shirt answers the door in a neighborhood that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. NRA stickers show up in liberal enclaves. On one block, everyone cares about pedestrian safety, then on the next block people think cars around here drive just fine. 

As a candidate, you gather information like a foreign reporter, embedding somewhere and not leaving for months at a time. Journalism at its best pulls back the layers between the reporter and the people, and gets at the truth as best it can. What is a layer? The public relations field, which increasingly curates news for overworked, underpaid reporters who often cannot spend hours or days pursuing stories of greater substance. 

If you are a journalist writing on politics, as I am (once again), another layer is the political operative class and the pundits who purport to tell you what masses of people think. Many of the people who work in these fields are quite good, and I’m not here to disparage their contribution. I’m here to state the obvious: If you are a journalist assigned to cover a political race of any kind, get on your feet, get out of the office, and stay out. 

I’m one of the guilty. I’ve covered races for City Hall, the governor’s mansion, Congress, and the White House—and I’ve been lazy. I’ve sat in an office, typed up a few hot takes from operatives and pundits, and called it a day. From time to time, I spoke to real live human beings who had no connection to the political apparatus. But it wasn’t often enough. 

Looking back on my time as a City Hall reporter, I see the danger of cloistering yourself. It is easy to forget that the policies implemented by the mayor and the issues fought about on the campaign trail have a direct impact on the lives of millions of people. 

This is how groupthink and conventional wisdom are created and reinforced. Editors, even more removed from the neighborhoods their publications are responsible for, select stories and ask reporters to find the quotes needed to confirm narratives already in the making. The conventional “man on the street” interview tends to be little more than journalistic performance art, a demonstration to the reader that the news organization has listened, in some minor way, to the community. The sample size is absurdly small and entirely unscientific. 

What is the solution in this moment of journalistic precariousness, when many Americans assume that reporters make most of their reporting up? How do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy political reporting—especially now, when newsrooms have less money and fewer resources?

No single reporter, of course, has the time to speak with hundreds, let alone thousands, of ordinary people. There is little opportunity to wander the streets for weeks at a time. Door-knocking four hours a night is sensible for a candidate; less so for a time-stretched journalist. 

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Reporting on politics and policy must be a bottom-up endeavor. We learned in 2016 that relying on prognosticators, operatives, party leaders, and other people who were supposed to be experts to tell us what was happening across America was a tremendous mistake. It was mostly those journalists embedded in the towns, suburbs, and small cities that would swing into Donald Trump’s column who understood best what was going on. 

Beware the middlemen. Beware of any individual who believes they can speak for thousands. They can’t.

The practice of conceiving of a narrative or story direction long before actual people are interviewed must be reevaluated or ended altogether. In too many news stories, particularly those concerning politics, the people themselves are an afterthought, no more than fodder for quotes grabbed quickly to fill preconceived gaps. Editors must stop dispatching reporters into the street to lead interviewees in ways that simply confirm a narrative cooked up long ago. 

The best reporting jumps past the intermediaries. Beware the middlemen. Beware of any individual who believes they can speak for thousands. They can’t. 

Reporters, despite the economic pressures raining down upon them, must be given more leeway to wander the streets, talk to people, and—above all else—leave the newsroom. Filing micro-dispatches on every latest twitch of the news cycle is not only enabling shallower reporting that doesn’t hold power to account; it has also proved not to be economically viable, especially as Google and Facebook swallow up online ad revenue. 

What will this kind of journalism look like? It might be slower. It might not catch every ripple on Twitter. It might not capitalize on the latest outrage issuing from Trump’s mouth that will drive a few million hate-readers for the afternoon. 

It might not endear itself to gatekeepers—the people who believe politics is a game for insiders played between two competing sides, optics and angles and strategy taking precedence over how policy is created to help or hurt people. 

What it will do is remove the barriers between journalists and people, and tell us far more about what is happening in our communities. Our profession can’t afford another misfire like 2016. To be viable and relevant, we must immerse ourselves in the simple places we cover. 

There’s no other way.

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Ross Barkan is a journalist and writer from New York City. He frequently contributes to the Village Voice and his work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire and Reuters.