Anatomy of a Failure

Bottom line in the 2016 election: journalists missed the story. From start to finish serious journalists failed to grasp and report Donald Trump’s pull.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour put it this way:

We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us…

… The winning candidate did a savvy end run around us and used it to go straight to the people. Combined with the most incredible development ever–the tsunami of fake news sites–aka lies–that somehow people could not, would not, recognize, fact check, or disregard.

Or this from the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan:

To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of Americans wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it…Make no mistake. This an epic fail. And although eating crow is never appealing, we’ll be digesting feathers and beaks in the next weeks and months—and maybe years.

The Merrill School Election Watch project concludes with students analyzing twelve elements of failure. They present each in depth, with extensive reflections from the panel of professionals.

Overestimating Political Resumes

By Karen Vanegas

On July 27 at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama said: “There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America.”

Throughout the campaign we monitored network nightly news. On Election Day, we realized the media underestimated President-elect Donald Trump’s rise for numerous reasons. We now know that journalists overestimated the importance of a candidate’s political resume.

According to Former Executive Editor of NPR Madhulika Sikka: “This was probably the biggest error. The lessons of the GOP primary showed that his political resume really was immaterial.”

On the contrary, for Jim Warren, Chief Media Writer for the Poynter Institute, this was a problem, but not gigantic: “Trump-Clinton was a classic example. But only history will tell if Trump was a one-off and whether we are overanalyzing things.”

Regarding political resumes, for Soledad O’Brien, CEO of Starfish Media Group: “It’s always worked that way. There was this idea that there were people who were classic candidates. … They all played out of the same basic rulebook.”

“But we’re in an era where no one is being judged on who is the most qualified, it’s completely irrelevant,” O’Brien added.

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute: “There isn’t a precedent for someone with no political experience at all.”

However, for Rosenstiel this was bigger than the media. “The establishment of experts along with political journalists … all said there’s no precedence for this, so this is not likely to happen.”

Journalist Hooman Majd offers a different perspective. “Qualifications matter less, I think, than the emotional response people might have to a candidate and his or her positions on issues,” Majd said.

Whether overestimating the importance of political resumes was the biggest error or whether we are overanalyzing things, as journalism students we will continue our work of monitoring and understanding journalism as the 45th president of the United States takes the oath of office.

More from the pros:

  • “Having political experience, which is what journalists were measuring, was interesting for journalists, but completely irrelevant to people who are actually looking to vote.” -O’Brien
  • “This is the year where having a political resume works against you.” -O’Brien
  • “If he’s deemed to be a successful president, you’re going to see people try to do it immediately.” -Rosenstiel
  • “Clinton was an especially poor candidate at this period in time. … Even if she does wind up winning by nearly two million popular votes when the final counts are done.” -Warren
Polling: Big Data, Little Meaning

By Hallie Miller

President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning victory on Nov. 8 left many scratching their heads — and understandably so. The morning of the election, sites like Real Clear Politics showed Clinton leading Trump in 10 out of 11 featured polls.

Though they disagreed on her margin of victory, most pollsters awarded Clinton at least a three-point lead over her opponent. When Trump asserted that the polls were rigged, many brushed it off as inaccurate bombast.



But pundits, journalists and voters who relied on big data to predict this election woke up to a rude awakening on Nov. 9. How could the numbers have been so wrong?

Several possible explanations behind these faulty polls exist.

According to author and journalist Hooman Majd, respondents may not have admitted to supporting Trump because of perceived social costs.

“Perhaps as such, they were ‘silent,’ even anonymously,” Majd emailed.

He also asserted that Clinton’s higher poll numbers in competitive swing states simply did not translate into votes.

“The weakness of Clinton as a candidate was underestimated, which meant that many people who were undecided easily [went] toward Trump at the end of the day,” Majd added.

Madhulika Sikka, former executive editor at NPR and Mic, suggested that pollsters misjudged how much certain groups sought change and were willing to overlook Trump’s flaws.

“Pollsters and journalists didn’t understand the depth of the vein that Trump tapped in his racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic talk,” Sikka emailed. “No, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or sexist etc., but they were willing to put aside these factors in order to vote for a candidate who promised them something else.”

NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik said false assumptions about voters, coupled with President-elect Trump’s novelty as a candidate, played a part in the polls’ shortcomings.

“Because one of the candidates was such a radical departure from what either of the two parties has put forward in recent decades, [the pollsters] had no data to show how various demographic groups [would] go for him,” Folkenflik said. “They just assumed that [white] women wouldn’t go for Trump, but if you read the exit polls, over half of all white women voted for Donald Trump.”

And Jim Warren, chief media writer for Poynter, blamed the press’ tendency to over-cover the candidates and under-cover the country.

“It's easier to cover the candidates, and their events, than to get out with lots of folks and just talk to people everywhere,” Warren emailed. “It's time consuming and expensive.”

Moving forward, will polls carry the same weight in the networks’ election coverage?

A Clash of Personalities

By Seema Vithlani

The media largely miscalculated Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, perhaps due to an emphasis on character and personality over issues.

With unconventional candidates and an influx of “scandals,” the networks tended to focus on what each party had said or done. Coverage of issues and policies was often overshadowed by “scandal” news that attracted viewers; many of the policies covered were extreme ideas, such as Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants.

The media scrutinized Trump’s statements and indiscretions, bearing in mind they would likely disqualify any other candidate. Meanwhile Trump was — as former CNN political anchor Candy Crowley put it — defying gravity.

Did the media let Trump turn the election into a battle of personalities?

Myriam Marquez, executive editor of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, said Trump’s background made it easy to focus on character.

“I think there was very much a temptation to be focused on the personalities because Trump has such a strong one, and he is such a showman,” said Marquez. “He has such an experience on reality TV, and so he knows his market … and he had very specific messaging that he wanted to push out.”

Marquez said the media also focused on issues, but it was hard to pinpoint some of Trump’s specific policies.

“I think virtually every paper who wrote about Hillary’s positions early on … Trump still hadn’t quite crystalized them,” she said. “It was all about, ‘Well, it’s gonna be huge. It’s gonna be great.’ … And for virtually every question that had to do with policy, you would seem to get that response from him.”

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, also said the media focused on the outrageous statements Trump made without realizing his supporters were more interested in the change he promised.

“All of this stuff about the latest outrage to come out of Trump’s mouth seemed like the story of the day, and he was extremely skillful at directing it like that,” Sullivan said. “To many people — urban, college-educated people — some of those things he said that seemed so completely outrageous that they were disqualifying … many voters just didn’t feel that way. What they were more interested in was that he was talking about really shaking up the status quo, and the status quo was not working well for them.”

Crowley said lack of serious coverage of issues is a “perennial complaint” each election season, and the issues were covered for those interested.

She also said stories of what Trump had done or said outnumbered stories on the issues, but those scandal stories didn’t sway many of his supporters the way some of the media thought.

“[The stories] didn’t make a dent,” she said. “People were attracted to Donald Trump for a variety of reasons. I think chief among them: economic fears and economic anxieties.”

Crowley said the media’s biggest failure was the heavy emphasis on Trump without focusing more on his supporters.

“So much time was spent covering the vessel, which Donald Trump was — he was the vessel for all that anxiety and all that angst, all that disgust with Washington,” said Crowley. “We were concentrated on the vessel rather than the people who gathered around him.”

While there was coverage of the issues and policies, stories on candidates’ actions and statements dominated most media, especially the three networks. So with a focus on the ‘”battle of personalities,” Trump seemed to be losing through the perspective of the media, but many of his supporters meanwhile were focused on the change he symbolized rather than what he did or said.


More from Candy Crowley:

  • I think that the media’s biggest mistake was that Donald Trump was absolutely a ratings-getter. People … were interested to know what Donald Trump had said that day. They tuned in for what Donald Trump was saying, so that’s where the ratings were. The story, to me, was about the people who were supporting Donald Trump. Who are they? Where are they coming from? Why is it that he can say this about John McCain or that about … Muslims … and it doesn’t make a dent? … What does this group of Americans see that he is offering? That, quite frankly, most of the media did not see.
  • I was struck that The New York Times sent people out post-election to “Trump country” to find out what the issues were out there and what prompted people. … Why wasn’t that done last year, and January, February, March, April, May – prior to the election?
  • People who lose generally think the people who won just didn’t know what they were voting for, or they weren’t informed. And had they been informed, they wouldn’t have voted for him. Guess what? There were plenty of places where they could’ve been informed. … And to suggest they weren’t informed … Maybe they were informed and didn’t care. Maybe they thought the tax plan was fine. I don’t know what they thought. I think it was a lot of things. I don’t think everybody thought one thing.
  • Nobody saw this. Nobody thought this because generally the national journalism and the politics of the United States are born and raised on the coasts – on the East Coast and the West Coast, and … not in rural areas, but in big cities. I don’t think it was that they ignored it or were blinded by it, I think it was that they weren’t familiar with it. I think by and large, there was a backlash against elitism, there was anxiety about the economy, there was this sort of fear of the American Dream going away – all of these things that created a perfect storm for someone like Donald Trump to come in.
Underestimating the Anti-Establishment

By Cam Rogers

Donald Trump’s victory can be viewed as a symbol of voters’ hatred toward Washington D.C. Perhaps journalists underestimated their anger. But can this ingredient stand alone to explain Trump’s win? Our media pros paint a complex picture worth careful thought.

Some of our pros saw it as an outright issue. Soledad O’Brien, CEO at Starfish Media, said, “People just don’t feel like reporters understand them.” She mentioned some voters feel they don’t have many opportunities to advance in the workplace.

Author Hooman Majd echoed O’Brien’s stance. He said the media doesn’t speak for everyday people. The media is more representative of the wealthy: those in “the bubble.”

“It is easy to forget how the rest (or majority) of the country feels about the establishment and the system, which has in many cases failed them (while rarely failing those in the bubble),” he said.

Former Executive Editor at NPR and Mic, Madhulika Sikka, doesn’t see voters’ hostility as a stand-alone explanation. She argued there’s always been hostility toward the elite. “It’s just this year people really acted upon it because they had a candidate who was out for the ordinary,” she said. “Maybe the mistake was [the media] realizing how that candidate could survive.”

Other pros took different viewpoints. Author at the American Press Institute, Tom Rosenstiel, said oversimplifying voters’ anger is dangerous. “That could be hostility towards the Clinton family, it could be distrust of the Washington establishment, it could be also be that she didn’t run a good campaign, it could be voter suppression laws,” he said.

Publisher at the Tyndall Report, Andrew Tyndall, focused more on the coverage of the Republican Party. He argued there was an overestimation of the elite and populist divide. Tyndall argued the media’s portrayal of a GOP civil war was overblown. “The big story that they overestimated was the electoral consequence inside the Republican coalition (it may yet have a profound consequence in the conduct of a Trump Administration — we’ll see),” he said.

Did the media underestimate voters’ anger at Washington D.C.? Some say yes, others take different perspectives. Trump’s win stunned the mainstream media, and left us searching for answers. It is clear we are still looking.

More from our pros:

Madhulika Sikka

  • “Nobody expected Donald Trump to win (even his own side I think) given the past tools that have been used to assess elections.”
  • “We need to be careful to not lump all media did together. My understanding is that this year the three broadcasts did less issues coverage than ever. There was a lot of fantastic reporting this year across a lot of organizations, the fact was it didn’t matter. This year a candidate won who [would not have] stood a chance in previous years if they had suffered the ‘scandals and revelations’ that Trump did. Exit polling showed that people ranked Trump lower in all sorts of categories compared to his opponent but still voted for him.”
  • “The primary was ultimately seen as an aberration that couldn’t possibly hold for the general [election]. Again, I would say that a more diverse newsroom and decision making structure might have paid more attention to the things being said in the campaign that would appeal to a lot of people who might not want to admit it to pollsters.”
Andrew Tyndall
  • “There is no evidence whatsoever that the network newscasts underestimated Donald Trump as a newsworthy phenomenon – and newsworthiness, after all, is the criterion according to which journalists pay attention to any given candidate.”
  • “On the contrary, they lavished a disproportionate amount of coverage on ‘his rise and his appeal to voters.’ Most of the criticism of TV news (broadcast and cable combined) during the course of Campaign 2016 has been that they overestimated his candidacy, enabling him to translate the lavish amounts of coverage he received into free publicity-and-promotion. Especially during the primary season, this enabled Trump to bypass the normal protocols of fundraising, organizing and TV advertising.”
  • “Let’s divide the campaign into three periods: pre-primary (coverage in 2015), primary season (January through June 2016), and general election (July through Election Day 2016). You will see that in each period Trump was overestimated, measured by the amount of coverage on the network nightly newscasts, rather than underestimated.
Pre-primaries (mins) Total ABC CBS NBC
Donald Trump 327 121 84 122
All Other Republicans 214 72 62 81
Hillary Rodham Clinton 121 35 24 62
Primaries (mins) Total ABC CBS NBC
Donald Trump 556 206 147 203
All Other Republicans 113 36 35 42
Hillary Rodham Clinton 195 82 49 64
General (mins) Total ABC CBS NBC
Donald Trump 588 228 170 190
Hillary Rodham Clinton 312 116 100 96″

Soledad O’Brien

  • “I think that there is a tremendous hatred of the establishment. From people who very rightly should hate the establishment, they can’t keep jobs, they can’t afford their college education, they’re  massively in debt, they can’t live well, they can’t afford all the things that they want and they haven’t gotten a raise and they’re done paddling like hell not to lose their homes… It’s not just President Obama, it’s also President Bush, and they just think that they’ve been screwed and they’re not really 100% wrong about that.”
Stereotyping Trump Supporters

By Alex Green

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump touted himself as the political outsider who would, “drain the swamp,” and bring jobs back to middle America. Many saw Trump as an unqualified candidate who made offensive and lewd remarks, while others saw him as their only hope to get back into the workforce.

In the failure to recognize Trump’s appeal, did journalists fail to understand that latter group?

All three networks focused much of their coverage on Hillary Clinton and Trump’s rallies and the speeches each candidate gave. The networks also had interviews with Trump supporters, but oftentimes, they used clips with people making offensive comments or wearing offensive clothing.

The idea of the radical Trump supporter was not unfounded. People had signs with swastikas and wore shirts that suggested lynching journalists. Supporters often attacked the media at rallies, who were forced to stand in a designated fenced off area.

There were few instances where media outlets tried to find Trump supporters who were not as extreme as those who attended the rallies, but simply wanted someone in Washington who would listen to their concerns. It was also rare if the networks interviewed Clinton supporters attending her rallies.

Perhaps one reason that can help explain why the media predicted the results so incorrectly is that the media concentrated too much on the statements the candidates made at rallies without learning about the people attending the rallies. Maybe the media also bought into the stereotype of Trump followers as racists, nationalists and angry and failed to recognize the moderate supporters.

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik agreed that Trump supporters were stereotyped.

“[Reporters] went in with a picture in their mind of who the Trump follower was and they found those people for their stories,” he said.

Zurawik continued and said that if more reporters had genuinely listened to Trump supporters they would not have been so surprised by the outcome.

“Those voices were here, and it’s our shame as a profession, that for all the technology we have and all the education, we didn’t listen, we didn’t hear, we didn’t report those voices and bring them back into this discussion.”

Former NBC correspondent and anchor Connie Chung agreed with Zurawik.

Chung said the media was complicit in Trump’s rise to popularity as they gave free airtime to his, “outlandish, egregious and inflammatory statements.”

By the time the media began to take Trump and his supporters seriously, it was too late Chung said.

“The media had been lazy—making assumptions that Trump supporters at rallies were simple, uneducated people who just wanted an afternoon of entertainment,” Chung said.

NPR’s Michel Martin does not agree with the narrative that this was, “a gross media failure.” She believes it was more a failure of the tools of measurement for polls, “which are not owned by anybody.”

Former NBC correspondent and anchor Ann Curry said the most important reason the election was incorrectly predicted was that the media does not tend to cover middle America.

“[Journalists] didn’t hear a wide swath of Americans in the middle part of our nation who have been crying out for change, because they were not listening.”

The media tended to only focus on Trump supporters who would give the networks the most ratings.

Zurawik concluded that, “This is a great example of how we tuned out the American people and we listened only to the elites.”

Personal Bias

By Summer Bedard

Personal bias — our tendency to see the world through a lens tainted with our own experiences, opinions, and thoughts—can seem like an inescapable obstacle. Is it possible to fully separate our preconceived notions from our view of reality?

News organizations call on their professionals to do just this. The duty of a journalist is to report facts and remain neutral in the process.

The presidential election that unfolded in 2016—or perhaps more accurately exploded in 2016—was unlike any in American history. That much is obvious. What’s less obvious is why the vast majority of journalists were so sure Hillary Clinton would win.

Could it be that personal bias crept into the very institution based on its exclusion?

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik said he saw many journalists buy into the reasoning that Donald Trump’s faults gave them an open door to cease fair reporting and personally crusade against his nomination. “It doesn’t matter if you think this guy is terrible, professionally we still had the obligation to cover him as [we] cover other candidates.”

Zurawik pointed to a Vox editor calling for rioting at Trump rallies in a tweet and the New York Times calling Donald Trump a liar as examples of this break from traditional practices.

Despite these instances of explicit bias, former Today Show anchor Ann Curry said that many journalists were not at fault. “This is the group that follows the highest calling of journalism, which is to strive to give both sides of a story to the best of your ability, to aim not to tell people what to think, but to respect them enough to give them what they need to know to form their own opinions.”

Former president and CEO of NPR Vivian Schiller pointed out that the tendency to overreport on Clinton’s emails shows that personal bias was not a widespread issue. While Schiller said journalists tend to be more progressive and liberal, most that she knows “will report against their own biases if necessary.”

However, Schiller did see a media bias “towards the way things have always been”. She said that journalists suffered from a “failure of imagination” to envision or report the changes in voter priorities that led to Trump’s victory.

Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan outlined this more insidious personal bias in her article, “The media didn’t want to believe Trump could win. So they looked the other way.”

“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,” Sullivan wrote. “It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn’t happen.”

As a source for this unconscious bias, Sullivan points to the trend that most journalists are primarily left-leaning, college-educated progressives who live in coastal urban areas.

Former editor of the Boston Globe Matt Storin said the sheer newness of Trump’s candidacy and journalists’ inability to relate this election to any in America’s recent history was a factor in this blind spot. “[We were] going with a combination of our own instincts and our own personal standards.”

The problem of bias goes beyond individual journalists to the top of news organizations.

Former CBS and ABC correspondent Jack Laurence said that personal bias was not noticeably present in journalists’ hourly coverage of the election, but there were important exceptions when media outlets “actively promoted the fortunes of one candidate over another.”

Jack Laurence, Ann Curry and former CNN anchor Connie Chung pointed out the trend that many media outlets now include more opinion and commentary.

Curry explained how bias played a leading role in these outlets’ election coverage: “It’s pretty easy to miss a story when you are engaged in opinion-based reporting and analysis from pundits and guests who largely agree with your narrative, and this caught liberal opinion media in the 2016 presidential election in the same way it will likely catch conservative opinion media in the future.”

Chung was the bearer of bad news.

“Unfortunately, media is infiltrated with personal bias these days,” she said. “Sadly, there is no turning back.”

Certainly, there’s no rewinding this election and allowing journalists to correct their mistakes. But with hard reflection into the anatomy of this failure, perhaps the future does not have to be so decidedly dismal.

Overemphasizing the Debates

By Pablo Roa

The media misjudged Donald Trump’s rise in many ways. This race disproved everything we knew about politics — most strikingly the importance of presidential debates.

ABC, NBC and CBS each dedicated hours to the debates. The deemed them “critical,” and predicted that they would have a major impact on the results.

Before the last debate, for example, the networks agreed that Trump needed a great performance just to have a chance.

On Oct. 19, NBC’s Lester Holt previewed the debate saying, “The question tonight, can he have a game changing moment and can she avoid one of her own?” Chuck Todd added, “Donald Trump’s back is against the wall…this is last big shot.”

CBS even tied Trump’s previous debate performances to his declining poll numbers:

CBS Evening News.

CBS Evening News.

Of course, Trump won — despite the fact that Clinton, by the networks’ standards, outperformed him in the  debates.

For author and freelance magazine writer Hooman Majd, however, the networks didn’t necessarily over-hype the importance of presidential debates. Rather, he says, they may have been mistaken in their definition of a debate “winner.”

“The standard by which we judge a “winner” or “loser” of the debates does not match many fellow Americans’ standards — and that is where the networks may have failed their audience,” Majd said. “Having pundits and analysts proclaim Hillary the winner because in any ordinary academic setting that would [be] true does not make it true for many of those who voted for Trump.”

Majd also said that the networks should have learned from the GOP primaries that Trump doesn’t need to be a great debater to win an election.

“The networks should have probably looked at the primaries and at least acknowledged that Trump could win even if his debate performances were weaker than Hillary’s, as judged academically,” he said. “What the media also failed to see was that they were seen as biased towards Clinton and part and parcel of the ‘business as usual’ that Trump was threatening to upend. As such, his weaker performance as judged by the networks probably actually helped, rather than hurt, his campaign.”

For former NPR news director Madhulika Sikka, the media might have over-hyped the debates, but that’s nothing new in presidential politics.

“People always overestimate the debates, they are watched and commented on but generally don’t change minds,” Sikka said.

Despite the results of the election, Madj doesn’t believe networks will change their approach to future debate coverage. At the end of the day, he said, the debates brought mass ratings and revenue for the media — regardless of whether or not they influences the results of the race.

Groupthink in the Newsroom

By Barrett Goldberg

How could the media have missed Trump’s rise?

After vetting many ideas, each member of the Election Watch team has taken a topic back to the pros one last time to explore this question.

I was tasked to concentrate on groupthink in the newsroom.

Groupthink happens when like-minded individuals make similar decisions and conclusions. They confirm each other’s biases. They make similar choices. Creativity and diversity are discouraged.

Our pros thought this point was not something to be ignored.

Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist for the Washington Post believes it’s “stunning” how like-minded newsrooms are.

“But the truth is they’re all the same kind of people,” said Sullivan. “Whether you’re an editorial writer or a reporter, you’re probably, at least at the Times, you’re probably a graduate of an Ivy League school, who has come up in a very similar way, and it’s not surprising that you tend to think the way you think.”

Ken Auletta, writer for the Annals of Communications and The New Yorker, said groupthink is a product of excluding certain viewpoints in the newsroom.

“When people talk about diversity, they usually mean more Blacks, more Latinos, more women, more gays in the newsroom,” said Auletta. “They too little talk about the need for more conservatives and more libertarians. It’s just an important thing that we often overlook in newsrooms and I think we pay a price for that. And the price is groupthink.”

Most news outlets are in New York and Washington, D.C.

Dean Emeritus for the Columbia School of Journalism and contributing author for The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann, attributed groupthink to journalists being trapped in this regional bubble.

Lemann said this North Eastern area is heavily democratic, and most reporters don’t know many Trump supporters.

“There isn’t this instinctive sense of something happening out there,” said Lemann.

In our final effort, we can only hope to scratch the surface of this gigantic topic. However, one thing is clear. If journalists continue to think as one mass and not individually, the mistakes from this election are bound to be repeated.

Failing to Listen to Rural America

By Becca King

Among the journalistic failures of the 2016 election is an urban media’s blind spot when it came to rural and small town Americans.

Like other major media outlets, ABC, NBC and CBS are concentrated in large cities. Does this put the networks at a disadvantage while covering other Americans?

That’s what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested.

“Urban centers tend to almost always vote blue, and so when the networks were sending reporters to the Rust Belt, to Appalachia, to the Heartland, all of that, it was the way a foreign correspondent would cover something.”

She said this caused reporters to produce a story “that has a lot of distance in it and doesn’t perhaps truly understand and reflect the deeper issues and the deeper feelings among those voters, among that part of the electorate.”

Among those deeper issues was a rejection of government.

“They wanted to issue a major repudiation to kind of the bi-coastal, elite system that had left them behind, including the media. And their votes for Trump were one of the ways they did that — was a powerful way that they could say that. But we couldn’t hear it. We didn’t hear it.”

Ken Auletta, a contributor for The New Yorker said Trump supporters felt angry and misunderstood.

“They felt disdained, ignored, belittled, you know categorized as deplorables or racists or rednecks or ‘alt-right’ or whatever.”

He added:

“I mean it’s always a problem in journalism to cover something without resorting to stereotype and without creating rigid categories and putting people in those categories. It’s hard.”

Auletta and Sullivan acknowledged some coverage of these groups, but called much of it limited and late in the campaign season.

But one Poynter article said journalists didn’t fail rural America.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Alecia Swasy defended other media outlets on their small town American coverage. She specifically praised the New York Times and The Washington Post, and criticized politicians for not being in touch with rural Americans.

“The reason is quite simple: the back roads of Kentucky and West Virginia do not attract $10,000 a plate fundraiser dinners of filet mignon and haricot verts,” she wrote in the article.

Perhaps journalists aren’t the only ones to fail this election season, and maybe some news outlets succeeded in covering what the three networks missed.

Overestimating Lack of Endorsements

By Jake Britton

The failure of the networks to correctly size up President-Elect Donald Trump’s rise to power was partly because they assumed traditional political rules still applied.

Many notable members of the Republican Party denounced the Trump campaign prior to the election. This included Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and former President George W. Bush, among others. Network news may have overestimated the importance of these denouncements.

But former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin said he did not think this was the case.

“I do think that the failure of establishment Republicans to endorse Trump was definitely news,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it was overemphasized.”

The networks also may have spent too much time covering traditional Republican candidate-endorsing newspapers’ failure to support Trump. Again, Storin disagrees.

He said newspaper endorsements of Hillary Clinton from The Dallas Morning News and The Arizona Republic were important since they had traditionally endorsed Republican candidates.

Vivian Schiller, former president of NPR, said that in past elections this would have been very important.

“Up until this election it was a big deal if members of a candidate’s own party disavowed him,” she said. “It was a big deal if major newspapers in traditionally red states endorsed a candidate from another party.”

Schiller said in hindsight there was probably too much emphasis placed on members of the Republican Party denouncing Trump and newspapers from traditionally red states endorsing Clinton.

“Those things used to be consequential,” she said. “But of the many…things that the Donald Trump phenomena has blown up, that’s two among many things we need to think about going forward in terms of how times have changed.”

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik said journalists placed too much importance on both the denouncements and lack of newspaper endorsements.

He also brought up a point Storin and Schiller didn’t mention: journalists found these denouncements important because “they listened to the establishment types way too much.”

Zurawik referenced the failure of George W. Bush’s denouncement to deter voters from supporting Trump.

“They listened to all these people who said George W. Bush was going to make all difference,” he said. “And it didn’t happen. They were all wrong because they listened to these establishment types.”

Moving forward it will be interesting to see if journalists will continue to turn towards establishment sources, or start to look elsewhere.

Trump’s Attacks on the Media

By Harris Blum

President-elect Donald Trump’s opinion on the media is no secret — in fact he’s waged a full on war with certain outlets. During his campaign Trump stripped media credentials from the Washington Post and attempted to pulverize the legitimacy of the New York Times and CNN. Trump targeted specific reporters as well, such as Fox’s Megyn Kelly and NBC’s Katy Tur.



Given Trump’s behavior during the campaign, one must wonder whether this warped reporters’ judgment during the campaign. Ken Auletta, of the New Yorker, says, “Look we’re human beings and if a human being is attacked it’s very natural and you would be defensive about that or affected in some way … And so did it affect reporters? I’m sure it did.”


Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, says, “I think that Trump made his distain for the media one of the crucial centerpieces of his campaign. And he would encourage his supporters to turn around and jeer at, or swear at, or worse, threaten in some cases, the reporters in the press pen. He was constantly rallying about the corrupt, dishonest, horrible media and it’s human nature to feel, when you’re under attack like that, it’s really hard to maintain your impartiality. And so I think that that did make a difference.”


Science supports the statements made by Auletta and Sullivan, according to an article in the Harvard Medical Journal that discusses the science behind the human body’s response to distress, “All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.”


Just as a person is able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car without thinking about what they are doing, a journalist may be subject to altering their judgment in response to verbal assaults against them. Still, Sullivan thinks it is going to be tough to get past what happened during the campaign.


“Frankly, there’s another element to this, which is that reporters aren’t wrong to feel that what he was saying and doing was offensive because it was. And his disrespect for press rights, talking about changing the libel laws and his remarks about, his being so offended whenever there was a tough story, his blacklisting of important media organizations during the campaign … I mean those things are dangerous to our rights as citizens. And while they didn’t resonate with a lot of voters, that doesn’t make them ok,” Sullivan said.


So where can the media go from here? Myriam Marquez, executive editor of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald newspaper, says, “I think what we need to get back to is knock on doors, sitting down, and talking to people.”


A Gallup poll conducted in September 2015, prior to the election, found that only four in ten Americans trust “mass media”. The same poll was conducted in September 2016 and shows only 32% of Americans trust the media, a record low. Clearly Marquez is onto something – there is some mending for the media to do.

Underestimating Voter’s Willingness to Forgive

By Alex Theriot

From the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy he made headlines with waves of controversial statements.

In his own announcement speech, Trump made the following statement about Mexican immigrants: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

In July 2015, Trump brought up Arizona Senator John McCain’s military service saying, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

He went after Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for asking him a question related to his treatment of women. In a different debate, he was questioned about his remarks on Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance.

He mocked a New York Times reporter based on his disability, insulted a Muslim Gold Star family whose son died in Iraq and ridiculed a former Miss Universe contestant for speaking out against him.

Keep in mind; Trump’s twitter account is a whole timeline of controversies in itself.

Almost a month before Election Day, and the Access Hollywood tape surfaced where Trump is heard joking about groping women without consent.

The three networks covered these stories because it was news. Donald Trump made statements that would spell political disaster for any other candidate and his candidacy quickly turned into a political phenomenon, one of unforeseen proportions.

As a class of aspiring journalists, we, too, doubted the existence of a Trump presidency.

We have each explored a range of topics in an effort to understand how the media, in general, missed the Trump train.

So then, how did “the media” get it so wrong?

Perhaps, one reason is that the media underestimated the American public’s willingness to forgive Trump’s rhetoric in order to vote for a candidate that promised economic change.

We turned to our panel of professionals to get their take on this theory of media failure.

Former editor of the Boston Globe Matt Storin said he felt personally confounded by Trump’s statements, but he did have an interesting point about Trump’s rhetoric and his supporters.

“Trump himself alerted us to this with his comment when he said, ‘I could probably shoot somebody on Fifth Ave. and it wouldn’t hurt me.’ He was already sensing that and maybe [the media] should have paid more attention,” Storin said.

Trump made this comment at a rally in Sioux Center, Iowa in January 2016.

Storin added that the difference in campaign message, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Clinton’s “Stronger Together,” might have contributed to Trump’s support.

“Trump had a message of change, a promise of jobs and [Clinton’s] was more vague. Basically, it was ‘we’re going to continue’ and [the media] now can see that was a problem for her candidacy.”

Former CBS and ABC correspondent Jack Laurence had this to say: “Personally, because so many Trump supporters mentioned it in the coverage I saw, I think voters forgave Trump’s indiscretions because they believed his promise to give them (and America as a whole) a better, less fearful life.”

However, Vivian Schiller, a former NPR and Twitter executive, said that the correlation between Trump’s business success and voter’s willingness to forgive him might not be related.

“Can you draw a line between voters willing to forgive him a because they thought he was going to improve their lives? We don’t know. I’m not sure we have the data to support that.” Schiller said. “People supported him for all kinds of reasons, some of which, you might say directly have to do with the economy, but I’m not sure we can connect those two without polling data.”

When it comes to matters of forgiveness, it’s possible that the media underestimated the public’s willingness to accept Trump’s rhetoric as just, well, rhetoric. Whether or not Trump’s business resume was a propelling force for voter turnout, we might not know, but what we do know is that voters wanted change.

Voters wanted the change the millionaire businessman was selling and, hopefully, it’s the change they bought.

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