Photo of Donald Trump doing a media interview

Election 2016: What lessons should journalists—and journalism educators—learn?

By Wendy S. Loughlin

November 11, 2016

Four Newhouse professors share their thoughts on what happened, and what should happen next.

The surprising election of Donald Trump on Tuesday has caused soul-searching among many Americans, including members of the news media. Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times explored what he saw as “the breakdown of mainstream political journalism” in his column published the morning after Election Day. A PBS NewsHour panel conducted a postmortem on the media’s election coverage. The Columbia Journalism Review called for “the return of the journalist as malcontent.”

Newhouse School professors Hub Brown, Steve Davis, Aileen Gallagher and Joel Kaplan—all of whom had careers in journalism before joining the faculty—share their thoughts on what happened, and what should happen next.

Is the news media “broken”?

Brown: No, but they are damaged, in the eyes of the public and their own eyes. News organizations have a lot to answer for—the entire tone of the coverage [and] the failure to apply proportionality instead of he-said/she-said false equivalence being at the top of the list of issues.

Davis: The election does suggest there are problems that are worth thinking about: We put too much faith in polls.; we fell in love with the idea Trump “couldn’t win” and Hillary “couldn’t lose,” so much so that it was difficult to even consider what became the actual outcome; the national media in particular no doubt is out of touch with the constituency that voted Trump. Here’s the issue: None of these bullet points suggest how difficult it is to address the problem, which is systemic and requires invasive surgery rather than cosmetics.

Gallagher: The media isn’t broken, but it is certainly challenged by lack of trust from the public and economic uncertainty that limits or drives many of the industry’s decisions.

Kaplan: Not broken; it's in intensive care. This election probably came at the worst time for the traditional media, since all aspects of legacy media are dealing with declining ad revenue, circulation or viewership, and a decline in interest by the public. So Trump, the master celebrity, came at the perfect time to salvage the cable news networks, who took full advantage of the increased ratings and revenue.

Did they fail at covering this election?

Brown: They failed as they often do—by not looking beyond the beltway. The surge for Trump came from rural areas, and because journalists were chasing the campaigns and the controversies they were manufacturing, they never saw it coming.

Gallagher: The media failed in a few ways, most notably by ignoring or not seeking the voices of many voters who felt left behind. That certainly includes white male Trump supporters, but what about the white suburban women who voted for Trump? The media failed to get a sense of the Latino support for Trump and the African-American voters who felt taken for granted by Hillary Clinton. And not just that those people exist, but why they feel the way they do. The media reported from the top—the leaders, the elites—and missed the story on the ground.

Kaplan: I think the campaign was actually covered fairly rigorously by the leading media companies. The problem this year, which has been the problem the last few cycles, is the utter over dependence on reporting on the polls. Coverage of who’s ahead and who’s behind has dwarfed all other coverage… So this year, the major failure had everything to do with the polls, and since the media spent so much time on them, the poll failures became the media failures.

Is the news media disconnected from large groups of Americans? How do journalists do better at giving voice to the issues, interests and struggles of all Americans?

Brown: The national media is completely disconnected from rural and small-town America, and see it in tremendously stereotypical ways. They cover it as a problem to be solved, a lot like the way they cover the inner city. Journalists need to go and tell the stories of people there, and [if they had] they would have gotten a sense of the contempt in which Washington is held. They had no idea of the depth of that feeling, because when they do go to small towns they go to write a story, instead of looking and listening for one.

Davis: We need to make our newsrooms more diverse, and we need to a better job reporting out in the country, with bureaus and with journalists based full time in these areas, rather than practice… “parachute journalism,” [where] journalists would “parachute in,” report for a few days and leave. Now, with newsrooms shorn of many jobs and with many bureaus closed, leaving us with that coastal bias, we are in trouble. We covered this election across the country with a brand of “parachute journalism.”

Gallagher: This is a symptom not only of editorial myopia, but also the consequences of gutting local news organizations and/or mandating clicks instead of meaningful journalism. Even news organizations that have the means to report across the country too often fall into the narratives dictated back at headquarters. For months, stories about Trump supporters framed them as some fringe element instead of mainstream. Journalists missed the story.

Kaplan: This has always been a problem… What has protected media in the past was intense coverage by local media—local newspapers and broadcast news stations. What's happened lately has been the consolidation of broadcast stations and a shrinkage of local newspaper resources. That means more and more news consumers are relying on national media, who are out of touch with the local issues and what people in those communities are doing and thinking.

How do we address the loss of faith in the institution of journalism that we see among many Americans?

Brown: We have to start by being more open about our professionalism. We have to have the courage to call out those who spread falsehoods, who allow lies to be told in their pages and on the air without challenge.

Davis: We need to fix the problem. That is a long-term and costly process; that should surprise no one. There are no easy fixes. But all institutions in our country are facing a faith crisis, not just the media. Politics is facing the same problem, too, and for the same reasons the media is in trouble. Out of touch. Unable to the see the world as much of its constituency does. Focused on the wrong things. Narcissistic and self-centered.

Kaplan: This is one of the most difficult questions to answer. I'm just not sure we will be able to do that unless journalism institutions receive the resources they need, and I'm not sure where those resources will come from. To me, this is the scariest issue we Americans face. If we cannot rely on the media to be the Fourth Estate as a check on government excess, then I'm not sure how we survive as a democracy.

Is there a liberal bias among mainstream media? Have they stopped valuing objectivity?

Brown: No, not nearly as much as the right accuses them of. To the extent that there is a bias along political lines, I believe it is a conservative one. Things happen on opinion media (most of which is conservative) that would never fly on legacy media. But there are bigger and more dangerous biases than politics. The bias toward conflict and away from analysis in stories produces pieces that are big on heat and small on light. Conflict is the oxygen of cable television, and it's part of the reason why Trump got so much more free media than anyone in the race. He's a conflict machine, and the networks loved that.

Davis: I would not say we’ve stopped valuing objectivity. We have decided, not consciously, that objectivity is too expensive. Objectivity comes not from making sure stories are artificially “balanced,” but from over the long term understanding of the country by being stationed all over it and by realizing a day of reporting in rural Missouri does not begin to capture “the mood” there. More likely, it will reinforce the wrong thinking burned in our brains. I really dislike statements that there is a liberal bias in the media because all they do is simplify a complex reality and turn the conversation to the kind of polarizing conversation that seems to have wrecked our nation in many ways.

Gallagher: Not even the conservative media saw this coming, so you can’t blame this election on the liberal media. The audience stopped valuing objectivity. The audience wants news that’s relevant to the them and adds context to their world. The audience also doesn’t care where their media comes from. When "I read it on Facebook" is a verification standard, we have problems.

That again feeds into the business model of modern media companies. Our audience is on social and that’s where we have to reach them. We’re competing with so many other sources of information that all looks the same within the Facebook template. The audience has a hard time discerning one source from another, and either way tends to favor the "news" that reinforces what they already think.

Kaplan: There is a bias towards controversy and conflict. Liberals think there's a conservative bias and conservatives think there's a liberal bias. This election, however, did expose the problem with the media's reliance on objectivity and what some see as false equivalency. The result is that towards the end of the campaign, many members of the media decided that the values of objectivity resulted in Donald Trump getting away with multiple lies. These media organizations decided to call him out on this. The end result, however, is that the public did not seem to care.

In the internet age, how do we address the rise of overtly slanted media that are viewed by many as equal to, if not superior to, traditional, fact-based news sources? How do we overcome an apparent trend toward opinion being valued over fact?

Brown: It will take decades to wean people off of lying, opinion-based media. We need to start educating children about the value of seeking the truth from a variety of sources. Otherwise, political decision-making in this country will get more and more diseased.

Davis: We do a better job daily. That will help the most. We do it by investing in more “traditional,” expensive journalism. This is a problem, because there is a lot less money to go around to hire people, and to keep experienced people. People are expensive, especially experienced ones, and good reporting is expensive… We are seeing the consequences of our disinvestment in high-level reporting and in young journalists who care about important things. Years in the making, the problem will be years in the fixing, at best.

Kaplan: That's another problem. The general wisdom was that the cream would eventually rise to the top and credibility would ultimately win out. That certainly isn't the case now.

What can journalism educators do to repair what may be broken with political journalism?

Brown: Journalism schools need to teach the value of truth-telling to the larger university. Media literacy and awareness courses should be required. We teach people to be producers of media, but we are uniquely positioned to offer instruction on how people can be better, more discriminating consumers of media.

Davis: No doubt it is a teachable moment. But I am worried about a lot of things, including students’ lack of interest in politics, reporting on it and understanding it. You can’t blame them, because they are reflecting what’s happening “out there.” This is a trend among professors, too, frankly, who are under a lot of pressure to teach our students how to do so many things in the “new media world,” and most of these things have to do with delivering and sharing the news (new platforms, new tools, new social media creations by the day) rather than producing the news. At the end of the day, there are fewer jobs available for all of our students, including those who might want to cover politics. The news shared on social platforms often is thin, if not wrong. We share more but produce less of any quality.

It was interesting that the newsstand issue of our local paper had the presidential race “too close to call” Wednesday morning while the student newspaper printed copy declared “Trump wins.” The “kids” at The Daily Orange stuck with it to get that headline in the middle of the night. Sure, the local paper had the “latest” online, but that too-expensive-to-produce newsstand issue, home-delivered as a PDF and on newsstands as a thin collection of headlines, had to be “put to bed early” by editors in another state who’d replaced the local team. Money saved. Credibility lost. Someone needs to parachute in to save our business, and they’ll need to bring bags of money. Do I sound “negative?” You can say so. I say I’m worried.

Kaplan: It's a teachable moment not just for journalism students but for the public. Journalists should do what they always do: pursue the truth. If the public wants to act on that information, then they can. Journalists' goals should be to give the public all the information they need to make intelligent decisions in their lives, in their political choices and in their social and economic choices. If they, in our opinion, choose poorly, that's on them. As long as we provide the information, we are doing our job.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons