Business of News: How Journalists Missed Trump’s ‘Surprise Win’

By: Tim Gallagher

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The autopsy report on how the press missed the rising popularity of President-Elect Donald Trump has been written. Disagreements over the reasons might continue, but one thing cannot be argued: we need to be better reporters who write about the reality of America and not what we hear in our echo chambers.

After weeks of discussing with dozens of journalists and citizens, I’ve concluded these are some of the ways we should consider changing in order to be true to this profession.

Meet and associate with people who do not work in government. The typical path for a young journalist is to cover a government agency. The reward for a good job is covering a bigger government agency. The problem is that we indoctrinate reporters into the belief that government is a problem-solving entity at the center of the American way of life.

We talk as they do. We report incremental movements in processes. We learn to explain Community Development Block Grants before we understand a private business’s balance sheet.

Many in American do not see it that way. Many Trump supporters saw government as a problem and journalists see it as a problem-solver.

Let’s resolve to first be relentlessly skeptical of government and second, to always meet and report on stories that have little to do with handicapping the next public meeting. Further, let’s commit to getting to know people and sources who walk their dogs, go to the car wash and shop at Walmart who do not work for the government.

Treat polls and “popular opinion” with the same skepticism. Between Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, we have seen two examples that challenge the accuracy of polls because of the methodology and the reluctance of voters to provide their true intent. Use polls as a data point and not a lead. Always report methodology and margin of error.

Fight the power. The election showed us the millions of people who do not trust the prevailing power structure. It does not meaningfully address the challenges in their lives. Bring those people into your reporting in a way that challenges the effectiveness of government “solutions.”

Be humble. Millions of Americans think of the press as the problem and not just because we are on the other end of the political spectrum. We have all met journalists who are arrogant know-it-alls. Who have forgotten that their job is to cover news, not comment on it. We are born with two ears, two eyes and one mouth. That’s a good ratio when considering how much time you should spend listening and observing and how much time you should spend talking. You can get more reporting done when your mouth is closed.

Report. Don’t conclude. Just days after the election, the AP reported on how Trump was filling his cabinet: “Trump’s hires were, at first glance, contradictory, though they fit a pattern of the celebrity businessman creating a veritable Rorschach test that allowed his supporters to see what they wanted.” That sentence is so wrong for so many reasons, but at the top of the list are its conclusions without attribution. Readers have been telling us for decades that they don’t want us to tell them what to think. They want us to provide facts so they can make up their minds. Vow to attribute, not opine. Disinterested might be the most important, yet infrequently spoken word in journalism today.

Be wary of the witch hunt. About 15 years ago at the Ventura County Star, after three days of top-of-the-front-page of my newspaper headlines bashing the chancellor of the community college district for examples of graft, my metro editor Marty Bonvechio came into my office and said, “We need to stop. This looks like a vendetta.”  I was stunned, but eternally grateful for Marty’s stop sign. We need to see ourselves as others would. What we see as reporting facts can be seen as taking it too far when it appears to be orchestrated. We can argue that the press only reported what Trump was saying, had said or had done, but to many Americans, it appeared to be a blood feud.

Many Americans live simple lives. They prioritize their faith in church, charity and small accomplishments in family or in business. They’re not controversial and they are not easy to report about. But they belong in our newspapers. They are voters.

 

tim-gallagher-new-headshot_r2_webTim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

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Published: January 17, 2017

8 thoughts on “Business of News: How Journalists Missed Trump’s ‘Surprise Win’

  • January 17, 2017 at 6:10 am
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    The fact that it took a lot of journalistic soul-searching to come up with these points is at the heart of the problem.

    Reply
  • January 17, 2017 at 6:50 am
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    In general, most journalsts are liberal and most editorial boards are liberal. Every day journalists would discuss new polls and as the polling appeared to reflect an insurmountable win for Clinton, journalists got caught up in the emotional hype. The story line journalists continued to report was Trump was a joke and could never win the presidency. Journalists fell on the sword of their own eletism. They were ecstatic and drooling for election night to watch the political death of Trump. Journalists drank their own kool-aid.

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    • January 17, 2017 at 8:20 am
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      Really, talk to people who are not in government to find out what is going on in the REAL world? How many meetings did it take to figure that out? Pardon my skepticism, but as long as you hire “journalists” out of college with a built-in bias (thanks to the college) against anything conservative or even moderate, you are going to get the same results in the future that you got in the past. The TV journalist Diane Sawyer got out and interviewed the people who don’t make $100,000 a year but are trying to make it on $25,000 or $30,000 and even less. At least she is trying. There are more of them than of the $100,000 and more crowd in this country. Of course, they don’t give the swell parties and the great lunches that the upper crust gives, but maybe they are a little closer to the REAL world and to what is really going on in this country. Which is where any journalist worth his or her salt should be.

      Reply
  • January 17, 2017 at 6:59 am
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    Thank you, Mr. Gallagher.
    Good points, all.
    Polls. I suggest you ought emphasize the distortive impact of polls in America today. Seems to me all of ’em were left red-faced after this general election yet no news medium held pollsters feet to the fire.
    2. More and more Americans interact on-line instead of in the queue at Wal-Mart or the front steps after church. Just how it is.
    Again, thank you for your piece.

    Reply
  • January 17, 2017 at 8:01 am
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    Watch out for the “attributed.” That does not equate to “disinterested.” Way back when, as I sat in court with other reporter-friends waiting for a verdict in a headline-grabbing case, we had to write stories when there was no story. The jury was still out. So I turned to John and said, “What does this delay mean for the verdict?” He said, “Guilty. What do you think?” I said, “Guilty, too.” So we both wrote, “Veteran courthouse observers expect a verdict of guilty due to the length of jury deliberations.” Two points. 1. We have always done this cruddy journalism. 2. We ought to stop it.

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  • January 17, 2017 at 10:26 am
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    It is about time someone in the media industry recognized all of this.
    It has been obvious for years.
    It is time for “journalism” schools to include a broader range of ideas and experiences – and they can’t all be “progressive.”
    They shouldn’t be in journalism to “change the world” and to “make a difference.”

    Reply
  • January 17, 2017 at 10:30 am
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    “Many American(s) live simple lives.” That sentence alone exposes the bias we simple Americans complain about. You don’t give your ever-dwindling number of readers enough credit. It’s not market fragmentation, business models or social media that is destroying the legacy media. People now know when they are not getting the whole story or just one perspective. It’s just that simple – people are now speaking truth to Journalism.

    Reply
  • January 17, 2017 at 10:59 am
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    Tim Gallagher continually moves towards the critical heart of the present situation. He offers thinking people balanced views, he approaches his work with equanimity.

    Reply

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