The Media in the Age of Trump and Brexit

I went along to a Shorenstein Center event this evening featuring the BBC’s Helen Boaden and Anne Marie Lipinksy of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The two speakers focused on the implications for the media of the political insurrections that took place on both sides of the Atlantic last year.

Boaden begin by offering an overview of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union. She noted the criticism her organization has faced, primarily from supporters of the Remain campaign, that the BBC was “impartial at the expense of being informative”. Yet Boaden countered by noting the curious complexities of how the campaign played out: the divide within the Tory party meant that government ministers were seldom sent out to make the case to Remain, and there was misinformation and fanciful prediction on both sides. Still, Boaden noted that a plurality of Brits (34%) cited the BBC as their most important source of information about the referendum, ahead of newspapers (20%) and social media (16%).

Lipinski then turned to discuss the media’s role in the presidential election. She noted two very contrasting approaches taken to Trump’s emerging movement: on one hand, the Huffington Post rejected Trump’s campaign as a sideshow, deciding to cover it in their Entertainment rather than Politics vertical. On the other hand, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos was one of the first to get to grips the nature of Trump’s support, publishing an August 2015 article in which he described a “confederacy of the frustrated”. Lipinsky was also pointed in her critique of a “Big Data” approach to politics, suggesting that an over-reliance on data caused many journalists to miss the real stories of the election. Finally, Lipinsky observed a shift to oral culture away from textual approaches to politics, pioneered by the Trump campaign, whose website prominently featured minute-long videos of Trump discussing his policies in vague terms — in stark contrast to Clinton’s detail-oriented site. Lipinsky suggested that journalists also needed to come to grips with this evolution in communication culture.

In the ensuing discussion, both panelists pivoted to the future, offering several lessons that might be learned by the media going forward. An emphasis on reporting over punditry, to create an informed rather than an incited populace; paying attention to good news as well as bad, especially at the local level; and above all, showing respect rather than disdain for the audience, were just some of the recommendations made. Media organizations, like everyone else, are still coming to terms with the tumultuous twits and turns of the past year. But much like last week’s conference on fake news, this seminar sketched some of the ways that the media might move forward.