About News

With Huge Stakes, Maybe Media Will Cover Campaigns Right This Time

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Donald Trump has presided over multiple crises in America, but don’t forget that Joe Biden has said some stupid things during campaign speeches.

I have just engaged in a prevalent failing of the mainstream political press: false equivalency, which means to give a similar volume of attention to two dissimilar and unequal sets of facts in order to appear fair and balanced. You might recall “But her emails…” from the presidential campaign coverage of 2016.

As we head toward an obviously monumental presidential election on Nov. 3, nonpartisan political reporters are doing their best to avoid their highly consequential mistakes of 2016 and some previous election cycles. With such a stark contrast between the two presumptive nominees – uh oh, I may have just engaged in the also common press failing of tempered euphemism – the stakes couldn’t be higher for the performance of the press over the next three months.

Constructive press criticism helps the media do a better job of fulfilling its role in the democratic election process, or at least of avoiding past blunders. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, for instance, recently offered her ideas on how the political media can avoid the “epic journalistic failure” that was presidential campaign coverage in 2016.

Very helpfully, three academic researchers reviewed more than 300 articles of press criticism from the 2000 presidential election through the one in 2016. Using industry trade publications such as Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, Elizabeth Bent and Ryan J. Thomas of the University of Missouri and Kimberly Kelling of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh identified continuing problems in press practices ($). (Political journalists could argue that the press criticism isn’t accurate, but this is a pretty big sample size to be all wrong.) Two main takeaways from the researchers’ work: the political press doesn’t break bad habits very well, which is a scary thought right now, and 2016 was an especially flawed showing in hindsight.

Some more-specific findings from the article in the latest issue of the Journal of Media Ethics:

  • Coverage focuses way more on “the horse race” – who’s winning and why – than on policy. The authors cite one study of the 2016 campaign that found four times more space for the former than for the latter. (A good upcoming test case: Will coverage of Joe Biden’s VP choice emphasize her track record and fitness to be president, or the voting blocs she’ll appeal to?)
  • Despite the emphasis on the horse race, the press still gets it wrong sometimes. Many national outlets wrongly declared Al Gore the winner of the decisive state of Florida in 2000, prompting complaints not only of irresponsible haste but also of dissuading some people from voting. Heightened caution followed. In a different kind of error, in 2016, reporters’ excessive faith in polling led them to present a too-certain picture that Hillary Clinton would win.
  • Polling has been a “constant problem,” including overemphasis on polls that may not truly reflect public opinion and failure to present or adequately explain margin of error. (Brief data journalism lesson: If Candidate A polls 51% and Candidate B polls 49% with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, who’s winning? Answer: You can’t tell. If you polled everyone instead of using a sample, Candidate B could poll as high as 51% or as low as 47%.)
  • Even outside of polling, national political coverage has frequently failed to reflect key segments of the population, primarily racial minorities and voters who are rural and conservative. Not recognizing the mood of the latter group was an especial problem in 2016. Local and regional journalists did a better job of reporting on the views of “red state” citizens and Trump’s appeal than national outlets did.

Trump’s win, according to the researchers’ review of articles, prompted new debate over the merit of polls, new reporting practices intended to hear more diverse voices, and calls for “a more radical rethink” of campaign coverage. One press critic wrote in 2016, “When your reporting and storytelling toolbox is challenged by a norm-violating candidate, acknowledge it and innovate – fast.”

The national political media have indeed started to bust some routines, such as reluctance to prominently call out falsehoods. But it’s vital for the next three months that they address all areas of past failures and that they rise to current new challenges, such as exposing the multiple efforts under way to suppress voting and rooting out how re-election considerations influence pandemic decisions. Many such articles have appeared. Three months is an eternity in the election process, though. A lot of time left to go wrong, and a lot on the line, because a 2020 repeat of 2016 wouldn’t be disastrous only for the press.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.