How to do good journalism between now and Election Day
Up until recently, many news organizations have been reluctant to use the "L" word to describe Donald Trump's many falsehoods. When The New York Times finally did — on Sept. 16, 2016 — it was seen as “kind of a big deal.”
In the days since, The Times has tried to make up for lost time, publishing at least eight pieces that have referred to Trump’s lies in headlines. In contrast, some other news organizations have chosen to avoid using the word "lie" to characterize Trump’s statements.
The question of how to report on an election that is anything but ordinary has challenged journalists since 2015, when Donald Trump first entered the race. He immediately started to get more press coverage than any of his opponents as well as more positive press than any of the other Republican candidates in the race, according to a recent report from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.
Nicholas Kristof’s column earlier this week asked how reporters should “report on a duplicitous demagogue.” He exhorted journalism organizations to “remember that to expose charlatans is not partisanship, but simply good journalism.”
On Sunday, Jay Rosen wrote a framework for how to understand this election, which is well worth a read and includes this call to action: "If journalists are to rise to the occasion in the final six weeks of this campaign, they will have to find a style of coverage as irregular as Trump’s political style. There are powerful forces working against this. But if they don’t try, they are likely to regret it for the rest of their careers.
So what are journalism organizations to do? There are 41 days until Election Day, which isn’t a whole lot of time to change course midstream. I reached out to journalism professor Jeff Jarvis to see how he thinks news outlets could be most effective between now and Nov. 8.
Jarvis has been a vocal critic of how the press has covered this presidential election, as well as an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton. On his blog, he’s asserted that political journalism currently fails to “inform and cultivate an educated, empathetic, [and] engaged society.”
His proposed alternative? "...A journalism that mirrors the many and diverse communities and concerns in societies and convenes these communities in dialog so they can foster empathy and understanding."
That ideal journalism may not be possible between now and Nov. 8, but there are changes news organizations could make. Here are some of his suggestions.
News organizations often plan out their election coverage well in advance. I suspect there will be debriefs and retrospectives on how news outlets have covered this election — but I'm curious if it's possible for them to change their coverage plans midstream, and, if it is, how they should do so given this election is so radically different.
I asked just this question of [Atlantic contributing editor] Norm Ornstein, who has been performing good press criticism on Twitter, after he gave The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza a brilliant lecture on journalism. Here are Ornstein's Storified answers. Example: "Treat Trump as possible president, examine in detail and not once his business dealings, his foundation, relationships."
Mine: News organizations should ask how every report and every minute of a journalist's time helps voters make more informed decisions. The rest — predictions of who will win, advice on what candidates must do to win, scoring debates and speeches, commenting on performance, following fake scandals into the ground, interviewing surrogates — is just, as [New York University professor] Jay Rosen says, their attempt to look savvy. It's not helpful. It doesn't inform. It's not journalism.
When I wrote from my own perspective of partisanship in this election (#ImWithHer), it helped me see what a bad job our profession does of reflecting, empathizing with, and informing the worldviews of many constituencies, from angry White men for Trump to inner-city African-Americans for Clinton. We must do a better job of reporting from their perspectives, but that is a much longer term goal.
What should news organizations do this October? How could their coverage be the most effective?
For the short-term — and it is very short now — I would say that news organizations should endeavor to:
- Help assure that voters are informed on the candidates' policies (I see next to none of that now). A model for that is WNYC's Brian Lehrer's 30 Issues in 30 Weeks.
- Call lies lies. I cannot believe we are praising The New York Times for suddenly taking up what should have been its job from its birth.
- Follow real scandals. That is, follow the example of David Fahrenthold with his reporting on the Trump Foundation finding apparent violations of law; compare and contrast to The New York Times' collection of innuendos on the Clinton Foundation.
- Abandon false balance. As Rosen says, asymmetry fries the circuits of political journalism. Deal with it. If Trump is a worse liar, bigot, or misogynist, say so without resorting to a next segment about Hillary's damned emails.
- Devote less time and attention to polls and predictions and be more honest: We don't know what will happen.
- Also stop predicting — and thus dampening — voter turnout. With their self-fulfilling prophecies of low turnout, savvy journalists deprive Americans of their franchise.
- Stop booking surrogates. And fire paid surrogates (I'm looking at you, Jeff Zucker and Corey Lewandowski). This is a ridiculous invention of TV's that has gone overboard in this election to help 24-hour-news operations fill airtime and create friction. It produces all heat, no light.
- Listen. Go to the many constituencies who are unreflected in media and do not ask for quotes to fill in the stories you've already invented. Ask them what matters to them. And listen.
- Reporters and editors: Stop being reflexively defensive when you and your coverage are criticized and stop painting all critics as partisans. Your critics are often trying to help you do a better job of serving them. Listen to them, too.
- Judge your work not on mass-media metrics (reach and frequency; pageviews and unique users; ratings) but instead on whether the public is better informed because of your journalism.
How should news organizations report during the debates? Afterwards?
Assume that we all see the same thing and we don't need the analysis and entertainment critiques of thousands of commentators. Boycott the spin rooms. Again, avoid all surrogates. Fact check and call lies lies. Ask the questions that were not answered. Listen to what the public thinks.
Are there any news outlets or reporters that are doing it right this election? How so?
I am coming to see The Washington Post emerge as our best newspaper now. Fahrenthold's reporting is a model for journalism students everywhere. At the same time, though, The Post has some of the worst specimens of — to borrow Rosen's characterization — savvy political reporting. No outlet is perfect, of course.
Because of this election, I must say I'm suffering a professional existential crisis, and I see more than ever that we must reconsider journalism's mission and methods from the ground up, rejecting our mass-media presumptions and reimagining what journalism can do in a connected world. More on that later.
How are you getting your election news?
I use the same sources everyone does with some new paths to it: Twitter and Facebook, of course, and Nuzzel. Besides The Times, The Post, and CNN, I listen to (in my car) MSNBC most mornings and evenings. I am glad that I have Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, many writers at Vox, my colleague Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, and other alternative voices. I must say that going to Pennsylvania on weekends to register voters gives me a much better sense of the electorate than any story I read. What I see and hear — both anger and disaffection — worries me.
How do you cover a candidate who tells everyone that the media lies and not to believe the media? Is there even a way to reach his supporters?
It so happens I am working on a piece about that just now and so I'm still thinking it through. For starters: I will propose that liberal media — and yes, let's start by admitting they are liberal — and liberal funders should invest in responsible, fact-based, journalistic conservative news organizations to counter the political movements masquerading as media that are informing too much of America (including my dear, Fox-News-watching parents). That is only a short-term fix.
In the longer term, I will propose that we need to build new, community-based media organizations that first serve a public (for example, helping get jobs for the underemployed angry white men who became the petri dish that bred Trumpism) and second better reflect that public so both the media and other communities can empathize with them and their worldviews, needs, and goals (see J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" as a model). Only then can we begin to build the trust needed to have a fact-based discussion about, say, the real impact of trade on employment. Yelling at people about how misinformed they are is probably not the best way to inform them.
It's one thing for The New York Times to call out Donald Trump's lies. It's another for a small paper in NC or PA or Ohio or Florida. How does what the Times is doing localize?
I don't think it's that difficult, especially thanks to the link. The small paper can link to what The Times is doing — and the Guardian started doing with a weekly compilation of Trump's lies months earlier — and it can test the lies it sees that aren't being fact-check elsewhere.
I suspect a lot of people have just tuned out of election coverage all together, since it's seemingly been ongoing for a very, very long time. Is there anything news outlets should do to regain interest?
The problem is that we keep trying to get people interested in our coverage and content when instead our coverage should be more interested in the public and its needs. This is why we started a degree in social journalism at CUNY: to start with the community's needs rather than with our content. To listen.