In case you missed it, Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday. How could it happen? This is the question that many journalists try to answer.
Blame the Media (and Journalists)
The media portrayed Trump supporters who believed he had a shot as being out of touch. It was the other way around.
- The media didn’t want to believe Trump could win. So they looked the other way, wrote Margaret Sullivan in her day-after column for The Washington Post.
“To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get that the huge, enthusiastic crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies would really translate into that many votes. They couldn’t believe that the America they knew could embrace someone who mocked a disabled man, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and spouted misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism. It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn’t happen.”
- 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.
- Reporters’ personal views got in the way of their ability to hear what was happening around them. Journalism’s moment of reckoning has arrived. From the Columbia Journalism Review:
“There is so much else to do, and so much to learn from last night, including diversifying our newsrooms so they more accurately reflect the country we’re supposed to be covering; breaking out of the reporting silos of official agencies and spokespeople; and de-emphasizing social media so people can pursue stories that are important and true, but may not result in a flurry of retweets over a 15-minute span.”
- So reporters have been victim of their own confirmation bias. The same prejudice confirmation that they attributed to Trump’s supporters. Journalists didn’t question the polling data when it confirmed their gut feeling that Mr. Trump could never in a million years pull it off, according to Jim Rutenber (The New York Times). Cognitive bias can catch you out, whatever side of the political spectrum you sit on.
“Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that the polls, and the projections, had underestimated the strength of Mr. Trump’s vote, and the movement he built, which has defied all predictions and expectations since he announced his candidacy last year. […] Journalists didn’t question the polling data when it confirmed their gut feeling that Mr. Trump could never in a million years pull it off. They portrayed Trump supporters who still believed he had a shot as being out of touch with reality. In the end, it was the other way around. […] Whatever the election result, you’re going to hear a lot from news executives about how they need to send their reporters out into the heart of the country, to better understand its citizenry. But that will miss something fundamental. Flyover country isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.”
“USA Today is the most-circulated newspaper in the country and until this election year, had never taken sides in a Presidential election. In 2016, it asked readers not to vote for Donald Trump. […] In total, Clinton had 57 endorsements to Trump’s 2 from the 100 US newspapers with the largest circulation per the American Presidency Project, which tracked endorsements. […] It appears the endorsements by the major newspapers were largely ignored by voters. Just like the polls that generally predicted a significant win by Clinton.”
- How should journalists respond to Trump’s triumph? As Charlie Beckett wrote (on the eve of Trump’s triumph):
“For journalists: Don’t confuse cries of ‘post-truth’ with the fact that journalism has not been attentive enough to the diversity of opinion out there. We are in a world of plural, often emotionally-driven political narratives out there. But that does not mean they are false. Trump was not a weather-event. He was not random. Clinton and her machine messaging was all too familiar. So we did not deal well with it. But we must learn, and so must the politicians and public. What do we all want?”
- Jack Shafer (Politico) has a different opinion: Trump was not a media fail. “The press succeeded in exposing Trump for what he was. Voters just decided they didn’t care,” he wrote.
Blame Polls (and Journalists)
It’s a bleak moment for polling and, in particular, the media’s increasing reliance on it (often for faux news stories) and the decreasing use of reporters to actually spend lots of time with voters on their terms.
- Yes, the election polls were wrong. Here’s Mona Chalabi’s opinion.
“I have a few ideas about what went wrong. In the four years I’ve spent as a data journalist, I’ve been concerned by how much faith the public has placed in polling. Just like you’d check the weather before getting dressed, many people checked presidential polling numbers before heading out to vote. That’s understandable. Politics can feel as unpredictable as the weather, and who wouldn’t want to eliminate uncertainty? The world is a scary and confusing place right now.”
- The question is: How did we get this thing this wrong? Long story short: Statistical power is important, and any misrepresentation of the population in the sample or weights can lead to unusable results.
“New forecasting models of aggregation like FiveThirtyEight’s are marvels in increasing predictive power, and work well in smoothing out the kinks of individual state polls by increasing their statistical power in groups, but when those polls suffer similar problems, those models might theoretically amplify their discrepancies.”
- As election polling blows it, press self-flagellation begins. EVERYONE WAS WRONG! is the New York Post headline, its excoriation including the Polling Industrial Complex that has propelled efforts like FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot.
“Many have reached a precarious stage with mediocre response rates, respondents lying, some underfunded, at times questionable methodologies, too many robo calls — and media outlets that believe all you need do is find a calculator and average a bunch of polls to bring a patina of utilitarian coherence to an inherent mishmash.”
Blame Fact-Checking (and Journalists)
The country has elected a candidate who was more untruthful than his rivals and who successfully projected that same criticism onto his opponent and onto the media. Half the country is not interested in factual arguments you thought they would be interested in.
- But if you believe in the truth, there’s only one response: Get up and get back to work. That’s Kelly McBride’s advice to fact-checkers.
“Just because the worst thing happened, doesn’t mean that what you value is meaningless. Instead, it means that the job in front of you is a lot harder than you thought it would be. That happens. […] In a way, that’s the task that journalists are facing this morning. Tell stories. Maybe we were telling the wrong stories to the wrong people. But we know that stories help people understand each other. So we have to keep looking for stories to tell.”
- On the other hand, Alexios Mantzarlis (Poynter) is convinced that fact-checkers cannot be accused of not taking Trump seriously from the go. And that’s why:
“His claims earned early and critical attention from the ‘Big Three’ fact-checkers (Factcheck.org, PolitiFact and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker). But that isn’t enough for ‘post-truthers’, because Trump won despite all this fact-checking. How is it possible, the canned argument goes, that a candidate so universally billed as untruthful by the fact-checkers could win? The argument is fatally flawed: Political actors, not the media, are supposed to defeat other political actors. Outsourcing electoral success to fact-checkers is to rob voters of their agency and severely misunderstand the role of the media. Had Clinton won, would it have been fact-checking ‘Wot Won It?’ Of course not.”
- But fact-checking shouldn’t end on election day. Bill Adair’s call to journalists: “Keep on fact-checking!”
“Politicians don’t stop lying on Election Day. […] There’s also the importance of serving readers and viewers. One of the primary reasons for fact-checking is to satisfy the curiosity of people who hear a political claim and wonder if it’s true. The claims will continue long after today’s election. The fact-checking should, too.”
Blame Social Media (and People)
“Sorry to say, but this could have never happened without f***ing Twitter,” that’s how a prominent Italian journalist analyzed the results in one tweet. It’s true that Social Media causes some users to rethink their views on an issue, but it’s wrong to think that this works only in one direction. Anyway, the central role of Social Media among the electorate gets mixed reviews.
- Mathew Ingram is probably more accurate in his criticism: “Were there other forces at work in the rise of Trump? Yes. But Facebook’s echo chamber and its fake news problem was part of it”
“The issue isn’t just that Facebook creates so-called ‘filter bubbles,’ in which users are presented with information with which they are likely to agree. Such bubbles have existed forever. In the past, before the age of mass media, living in a small town accomplished much the same thing. Even after mainstream media emerged, newspapers and TV stations made it easy for people to restrict their information diet to only those things with which already agreed. Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth argued that the news feed isn’t any worse — and might be even better — than these traditional sources. ‘It isn’t perfect, but it is at least or more diverse than the alternatives which dominated consumption in the late nineties,’ he said. Facebook, however, has arguably made achieving and reinforcing this kind of bubble easier than it has ever been, and it has increased the speed and scale with which bubbles can be created. The network’s inability to control the distribution of fake news has exacerbated the problem.”
- Not everyone agrees that Facebook is to blame, even partially, for the rise of Donald Trump or his victory in the election. Mike Masnick of the technology analysis site Techdirt, for example, argued in a recent post that anyone who believes this is “an idiot.”
- The truth is that the 2016 presidential contest was the first real Social Media election. Facebook and Twitter were central in the shaping of voters’ perceptions of the U.S. political climate and the two presidential candidates.
- Seeing other opinions on Social Media can change minds. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen: one in five Social Media users modified their views about a political or social issue because of a social-media post, according to a Pew Research survey published last month.
- Mark Zuckerberg rejected the ‘crazy idea’ that Facebook’s fake news swayed voters. Those who think fake news is why someone voted for Trump show ‘profound lack of empathy’ and fail to internalize the president-elect’s message, he said. He compared the current media landscape to 20 years ago when people only had access to a few major TV networks and newspapers. “You got all your news filtered through that.” With Facebook, he said, most users have friends who have different political views to their own. “Even if 90% of your friends are Democrats, probably 10% are Republicans. Even if you live in some state or country you will know some people in another state, another country.”
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