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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.