How the media missed President Trump, and what comes next for journalism
Coastal bias. Over-reliance on polling. Too few reporters talking to red state voters.
Those are just a few factors that played into an enormous oversight on Election Day: Journalists across the United States vastly underestimated the number of Americans who backed the candidacy of President-elect Donald Trump.
Now that Trump is headed to the White House, journalists are coming to grips with two questions: How could they fail to fully appreciate his support among American voters? And how will a man who spent his campaign trashing reporters behave in the White House briefing room?
To better understand both issues, Poynter conducted interviews with 10 reporters, editors, columnists and media observers who explained where the media went wrong and what Trump's presidency means for the future of journalism.
How did the media miss the wave of support for Donald Trump?
Brian Stelter, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources":
Journalists didn't miss the wave, but the size of the wave was mismeasured. It's going to take months to fully understand the polling and modeling failures. But the journalistic failure wasn't solely the fault of misplaced confidence in polls. That was a big piece of it, but I see several other factors. Groupthink. Acela corridor bias, which is a specific subset of liberal media bias. Some wishful thinking. A failure of imagination.
This was a rural roar, and journalists on the coasts had a hard time hearing it. Tuesday is a reminder that national news outlets are not covering race, class and inequality well enough.
But we can't decry elite media failures in a vacuum. The campaigns themselves mismeasured this wave. Many Trump aides did not expect to win on Tuesday night. The markets and other institutions didn't see this coming, either. Journalists take cues from these sources, and all of these sources contributed to a mass delusion.
Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post:
We didn’t fully miss it. We underestimated it, and, perhaps more important, underestimated many Americans’ visceral rejection of the return of the baggage-bearing Clintons to the White House.
It was hard not to see the huge, chanting crowds at Trump rallies, and certainly there were many stories that captured very well how non-urban, non-coastal citizens were reacting. We also knew that Bernie Sanders’ supporters were fervent about his candidacy, deeply disappointed at how he was treated, and lukewarm, at best, about Clinton as the nominee.
As news continued to emerge about the DNC’s treatment of Sanders and insistence on Clinton, about the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email practices, we failed to understand the depth of dislike this was producing.
As a woman, I also see an element of sexism here that we failed to appreciate fully in advance. In our newsroom bubbles, where women are decision makers and colleagues, journalists never quite got a handle on this — though we circled it a bit in stories about Clinton being seen as shrill or how she should smile more.
I can’t prove it, but I believe that it was a factor, perhaps an unconscious one for many. When I visited Nate Silver’s 538 offices recently, managing editor David Firestone told me that his staff was very cognizant of some unknown factors — for example, who will actually come out to vote. I would add that some of those who may have told a pollster that they were undecided or leaning toward Clinton could not bring themselves to vote or her once they entered the voting booth.
Finally, for many well-educated, socially liberal, city-dwelling journalists, the idea of the intemperate Trump as a president — given his racist, xenophobic, and sexist utterances, and trail of bad behavior — was unthinkable. Literally unthinkable. So we engaged in our very own year of magical thinking. It couldn’t happen, therefore it wouldn’t happen. Until it did.
Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, senior adviser at LifePosts, former managing editor at The Washington Post:
Historically, the media have come up lacking in covering people who feel marginalized. And, yet, in newsrooms across this country, there are ongoing conversations about how to deliver inclusive coverage. It takes hard work, and we haven't always gotten it right.
And even though we wave the banner of objectivity as one of our greatest values, we have to acknowledge that we bring our own sense of right and wrong to our work. In circumstances in which people in our communities espouse views or values that run counter to our own, we have to try harder to understand what's underneath the rhetoric and even vitriol instead of dismissing it. That's the only way we get to the "why" of what is happening in this country.
Suki Dardarian, managing editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune
A number of polls were telling us something else, so it wasn't just the media — it was the whole country and the campaigns that didn't see this coming. But I saw the feelings of supporters for Donald Trump represented throughout the media. We talked to them and captured why they felt that way.
I think that it's clear why they were supporting Trump if you looked to the media. We did some polling in our own state, and our polling came pretty close. Our polling identified the support for Clinton. The difference that we saw was among people who described themselves as independent shifting to Trump in the ballot box.
We also talked to voters who said, "hey, I know there were flaws for my candidate, but I'm voting for them anyway." So it wasn't that they had a sense of infallibility for their candidate.
I think there were insights. But I think I'd have to credit the national polling with sending everybody in the wrong direction.
Andy Alexander, visiting professional at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, former Washington Post ombudsman:
There is no singular, simple explanation. To some extent, it’s because the political press and many of its sources have continued to operate in an echo chamber where faulty assumptions can be reinforced and amplified.
We can also blame an excessive reliance on polls that told who was ahead or behind, but didn’t adequately interpret why. And we can assume that the increased clustering of journalists on the coasts has meant that the press is not sufficiently attuned to what’s happening in the interior. All these things contributed to a failure to capture the depth of anti-establishment (including anti-press) sentiment among the electorate.
But my sense is that there are two other factors that merit attention, and both relate to journalism in the digital age. First, the obvious: candidates increasingly can control their message and deliver it unfiltered and direct to targeted audiences. They bypass traditional media gatekeepers and speak directly to voters who either want their views reinforced or aren’t inquisitive enough to explore other sources. Second, we need a deeper exploration of the impact of hoax stories that spread on social media, especially Facebook.
In this election, there were a stunning number of fabricated stories masquerading as legitimate journalism. They constituted a massive volume of civic misinformation that tended to be believed by many who do not understand the importance of news literacy.
Joel Christopher, vice president of news for USA Today Network-Wisconsin
I wish I had a full answer for it. I don't. I think it's obvious that we relied too much on polling. In Wisconsin, for instance, we have the Marquette University poll, which has been remarkably reliable in previous elections, and signaled pretty clearly that Hillary Clinton was in control of the state. That fit the narrative you were seeing with every poll. So in addition to national polling, you also had state polling telling you the same thing.
And if we're introspective and honest, we have to admit that we as journalists probably weren't associating with enough voters across the spectrum. In our interactions with people in our personal lives and professional lives, we weren't seeing the wave of support that Trump rode to victory.
Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism:
The news industry is stuck in its mass-media worldview, trying to create one product for all. Its worldview is limited by its creators' lack of diversity — ethnic, economic, geographic, political (and let's finally admit that most media and journalists are liberal).
We must do a much better job of listening to more communities — African-American, Latino, LGBT, women, of course, and also the angry white men (and women) who bred Trumpism — so we can understand and empathize with their needs, serve those needs, gain their trust, and then reflect and inform their worldviews.
I argue that media and funders should start new news outlets that serve conservatives with fact-based, responsible, journalistic coverage so they are not left with the only choices they have now: Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, et al.
Tracie Powell, founder of AllDigitocracy.org:
- They weren't in tune with the electorate. They are too busy trying to keep up with pollsters and pundits.
- They were lazy. Too few journalists actually report these days. It's all about parroting and aggregating what someone else has said or reported. Much of everything now is a re-write.
- They don't push back. Journalists were too unwilling, or uncomfortable, with pushing back on voters and pundits who said things that didn't quite make sense or were outrageously racist.
- To make matters worse, journalists were often dismissive of these people, as if they were crazy extremists or an aberration. No sir, the racial resentment was/is real. If only journalists had pushed back more on these people rather than doing silly man-on-the-street videos to garner clicks and giggles. Or, had they actually spent time in communities talking with people of color, we could have told them how deep the resentment runs. But journalists didn't do that, so they missed the story.
- As I stated in yesterday's piece, journalists are either unwilling or unable to explore the complexity of race in America. Even today we have NPR reporters talking about the "alleged" racist undercurrents in Trump's campaign. This is the worse kind of journalism because it masquerades as some kind of objective reporting when it actually aids and abets unconscious bias and only makes matters worse in terms of race relations in this country. As I said in yesterday's piece, we have to be willing to call a spade, a spade. We have to speak truth to power. When you have a presidential candidate backed by the KKK, that's not alleged racism, it's just racism.
- Again, even today you have journalists reaching for any number of reasons for Trump's so-called surge, but they refuse to talk about the elephant in the room, as noted so eloquently by Van Jones last night on CNN. Many white women journalists today are attributing Trump's win to sexism in this country. But this argument completely misses how this sexism intersected with the racism of his campaign. That's the bigger, more nuanced story that journalists are struggling with or just don't get.
David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University:
News organizations — and especially the largest, most respected ones — put far too much stock (and far too many resources) into the “science” of predictive polling. With the decline of landline phones, the proliferation and mobility of cell phones and the clear propensity of many voters to avoid or lie to pollsters, it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” It doesn’t matter how many tens of millions of times you model data if the data are fundamentally flawed to begin with.
Meanwhile, the number of reporters out in the field, and especially in smaller cities and rural areas, has declined dramatically over the past decade. That left us largely reliant on New York- and D.C.-based journalists who parachuted in to do clichéd accounts of Trump supporters. Our journalistic tentacles were too far too few and far too short.
Ken Doctor, media analyst:
As business fortunes have now turned down for about a decade and desks emptied, self-doubt has further eaten into the journalistic mission. Write shorter and quicker, many are told, even as the news companies’ missions to report deeply and analyze better have never been more needed.
So when self-flagellation rules the media today, I’d hope we’d go beyond the kneejerk mea culpas. Is “media” really clueless about what’s happening west of the Hudson and outside the Beltway? Of course, that’s always true to a degree, and those of us who worked as editors in “flyover” America, as I did long ago in the Twin Cities can attest to it.
Lori Bergen, founding dean of the college of media, communication and information at the University of Colorado
News organizations are made up of elite, educated and employed professionals, located primarily in urban settings. Many have down-sized (so much) that covering what’s happening in rural and Rust Belt America is neither a priority or a possibility.
Citizens who can’t count on government, business, media, science or education aren’t about to trust a pollster or a journalist with the truth of their frustration. Elites who ignored the plight of a suffering middle class couldn’t possibly believe in the legitimacy of a candidate they perceived to be a demagogue.
News organizations got it wrong because they failed to hear the frustrations of many people, and then they didn’t take seriously the candidate who did. To ignore is at the root of ignorance. No wonder news organizations missed the wave of Trump support.
What does a Trump presidency mean for journalism and open government?
I don't know what will happen. But I know that Trump's actions during the campaign are a cloud that will hover over the next four years. For example: a Trump administration might not try to revoke anyone's press credentials or ban anyone from events. But everyone in the press corps will know that Trump did so during the campaign. He might not smear and demean any individual journalists. But everyone will remember what he said about Megyn Kelly and Katy Tur and some of my colleagues at CNN. I'm concerned about a potential chilling effect.
Covering this new administration, journalists will need to hold Trump accountable; tell uncomfortable truths; stand up to threats to our profession; and have newfound humility in our approach to the audience.
The signs aren’t good. Here’s what we know from the campaign and his previous history: He has sued journalists. He has blacklisted journalists from his campaign coverage after they did tough stories. He has proposed the removal of legal protections for the press. He has praised and favored the worst media organizations — from Sean Hannity on Fox to Breitbart to InfoWars to the National Enquirer; meanwhile, he has punished or lambasted those that are deservedly well-respected, including The Washington Post. He has been secretive about his tax returns, and has shown no inkling of understanding about the role of the press in the American democracy.
All of this is why the Committee for the Protection of Journalists took an unprecedented stand against him. Some of that could change when he actually takes office, but there is cause for serious concern.
As for what a Trump presidency means for journalism, my concern is that the distrust that exists between large groups of people in this country and the media will continue to grow. That undermines the credibility of the work that journalists do. We had a real wakeup call during this election with people outright dismissing journalism that runs counter to their own beliefs as partisan.
I can't predict that. There are certain things a president can do all by themselves, and there are certain things we require Congress and Supreme Court help them with. We do have a First Amendment, and it's very important, and there's plenty of case law supporting it. Certainly, his vitriolic assailing of the media causes concern, and you wonder about the opinion that the folks who voted for Trump might have about the media.
I fear a dark road ahead for journalism and open government. Let’s be clear about the performance of the press in Tuesday’s presidential election. It failed to detect the Trump wave, but it didn’t fail to do hard-hitting journalism. There was plenty of it. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t read David Fahrenthold’s superb investigative pieces on Trump’s charitable giving.
Looking ahead, the problem is that Trump is a notoriously thin-skinned press-baiter, and we should expect that to continue. There is little to suggest he will embrace open government because it invites scrutiny he detests. This opaqueness, coupled with his gleeful taunting of the press, emboldens authoritarian leaders around the globe who already are predisposed to limit press freedoms and punish journalists.
We should respond by doubling down on quality journalism that is independent, accurate, fair, ambitious, probing and transparent about how and why we hold those in power accountable.
I wish I had an answer for you. I have no idea. The concern that I and every journalist have is very real. At some point, if someone tells you what they plan to do repeatedly, you have to take them at their word. And the clear message that he said during that campaign was one of an assault on the press.
I take solace from his message during his acceptance speech that we are going to see a different Donald Trump. But it's going to take time and it's going to take clear actions on his part to know that the press isn't under assault.
We can't know yet. Obama promised an open and transparent government and disappointed. Trump has proven that he is secretive (he got away with never revealing his taxes) and controlling and vindictive. I'm not optimistic.
As I have said multiple times during this campaign season, when a person shows you who they are, believe them. Donald Trump has already told us what he thinks about journalists and journalism. He has no respect for the institution. We complained about the lack of transparency of the Obama administration, I expect the Trump administration to withhold information at the same rate, times 10. Trump will make Obama look like the transparency king.
We don't know much about how Trump will handle policy issues such as media mergers because journalists rarely asked him about this, if ever. But he reportedly is against media mergers, so perhaps that bodes well for journalism in terms of slowing the rate of consolidation. That could be a good thing. Still, I can't help but feel that Trump has already told journalists how he feels about them. That just means we have to double and triple our efforts in reporting on a Trump Administration. Journalism is now more important than ever.
Most Americans don’t realize that the current administration has been one of the worst in history for open government and press freedom. From issuing blanket subpoenas of reporters’ phone records to prosecuting government whistleblowers, from prohibiting federal employees from speaking with the press to closing off photographic access to previously public White House events, the Obama administration’s disregard and disrespect for the crucial role of the Fourth Estate has been appalling.
Now, enter a new president whose open disdain for the press and for First Amendment freedoms was a cornerstone of his campaign. Every American — not just journalists — should be deeply concerned. And journalists should not be at all shy in pushing this discussion front and center, beginning today.
As is often the case, it is Rupert Murdoch who may have the last laugh. Trump TV moves into the White House, aptly named for the first elected President to get an endorsement from the KKK in decades, and the new spiffed-up Fox News can simulcast it. Who needs Megyn Kelly at $20 million a year when you’ve got Donald Trump for free?
A few blocks away, the New York Times saw itself energized in its pursuit of Donald Trump as it taught itself new ways to deal with “lies” [“Dean Baquet on calling out lies”]. As the Times comes to grips with those print ad losses, and its own succession drama, how will the Times emerge into 2017? Trump will paint it as the enemy. It’s his perfect foil, as he’ll try to put a dunce’s cap on the Times, and maybe allude to its pointy noses as well.
Might it thrive — especially with forlorn readers — as an “opposition” news company, much as Fox built its standing first in the Clinton and then in the Obama years. It’s a journalistically uncomfortable mantle, but history may place it on the Times’ shoulders.
Journalism’s traditional role as watchdog may well be eclipsed by a new role: Lie detector. Fact checking, verifying and holding public officials accountable for their words falls front and center in journalism’s franchise of truth-telling.
Failing to do that before helped contribute to Trump’s early, and then continuing, success. Journalists should be vigilant and courageous and willing to call out lies and fake news perpetuated in social media and elsewhere. Open government and transparency will be even harder to achieve with a president with open disregard for the press and who refused to disclose standard information like tax returns and medical records.
The new president won’t be alone in obfuscating open government however — the bar is already low for access at a time when data are easier to gather, share and harder to interpret than ever before. Looking ahead, expect to see even more secrecy and a bar set even lower for transparency.
Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Christopher. We apologize for the error.