In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the press received some rather harsh criticism about its national coverage. Type in “press failures of 2016,” and Google will unkindly deliver a long list of critical analysis about the media and how it handled the Trump vs. Clinton battle for the White House.
Disillusioned voters blamed the press for a failure to present Trump as a viable nominee, let alone as their likely future president. Some declared that journalists missed the story of the Trump voter entirely.
That type of criticism—that the press had missed the Trump story—wasn’t entirely fair, according to Peter Wallsten, senior politics editor at the Washington Post.
“If you look back at the Post’s coverage, we saw Trump as an interesting and important story from the beginning, and we had reports out across the country,” he said. “But I think if there was a mistake across the media, it was that people made assumptions. I’m not saying that it is a mistake that the Post made, but I do think there were assumptions about whether Trump could win or not. To the extent that it was a phenomenon of 2016, we are reminding our reporters that an important part of our philosophy for covering politics is to not make assumptions and to not be predictive in our coverage.”
The press has also been lambasted for burying the ledes and focusing too often on personality and the outrages du jour rather than on the candidates, their policy positions and the direct impact on the lives of the American people.
Asked how the reporters and editors at the Washington Post plan to strike a balance between personality and policy in its 2020 coverage, Wallsten said, “We see personality as an important aspect of political coverage. The stories do very well. Also, those stories can tell you a lot about the candidates and their character and what kind of president they would be.
“For instance,” Wallsten continued, “we had a piece that we published on Cory Booker and his relationship with an Orthodox Rabbi. It’s a fantastic story, and in some ways, that’s a personality story, but you learn so much about Cory Booker and the kind of person he is when you read that story. Those sorts of stories can engage readers—and readers who aren’t necessarily interested in the political story.”
Covering policy is essential, too, Wallsten said. “You have to write about policy in an engaging way. A story that illustrates how we want to take on policy is a piece (we did) about Elizabeth Warren. We took a deep dive on her idea of a ‘wealth tax,’ and how that was the center of all her policy proposals. We added up the cost of all of her policy proposals, and then looked at whether it was realistic that a wealth tax could pay for it. It was a deeply substantive story—also, very readable…Campaigns are a contest of ideas, in addition to being a contest of personalities, and we see both as crucial for our coverage.”
For some news businesses, collaborations have been born out of necessity—the need to “do more with less.” For others, collaborative journalism makes sense logistically and for the benefit of the content.
Julie Pace is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press (AP). Over the course of her career, she’s covered four presidential elections, and now leads a team of political reporters and editors who are based all across the country.
“One of the things that was a real priority for me this cycle was to ensure that our political team wasn’t just based in Washington and New York,” she said.
The AP’s greatest strength, she said, is that it has talented political reporters in every state. For 2020 coverage, Pace’s goal was to integrate all of those reporters, to encourage greater collaboration and communication, and operate as a single national political team.
The AP’s 2020 team will be guided by what Pace referred to as three pillars: “You want to cover the ins and outs of the campaign operation and the candidates themselves—how they’re strategizing and how they’re positioning themselves. You want to aggressively cover their policy rollouts—what they’re saying about what they’d do as president. And then the third piece of it—and I think this is equally important—is that you want to cover the voters.”
Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Annah Backstrom Aschbrenner is the USA Today Network’s 2020 campaign editor. She’ll be directing a team comprised of reporters from all across the country, working in tandem to fully cover the 2020 campaigns and election. As the campaigns kicked off, reporters were assigned to each of the candidate’s campaigns, and in the cases where a candidate has some local or regional context (Amy Klobachar and Minnesota, for example), local reporters will greatly contribute to coverage as well.
“We’re approaching this from all angles, to make sure that we’re utilizing the resources we have all over the country—ideally, getting a better perspective and painting a more accurate picture of the thoughts of the country,” Backstrom Aschbrenner said. “I think the USA Today Network has a unique opportunity because of the scope of the network. We have large papers in Iowa, in Wisconsin, in Michigan and Ohio, and several papers in Pennsylvania, and those are states that will be in ultra-focus in 2020. I feel like we have a little bit of a leg up when it comes to coverage. We’re not visiting these communities; we live in them.”
At USA Today Network’s newspapers and across its 2020 coverage team, trust and accuracy are part of every conversation, Backstrom Aschbrenner said.
“After 2016, there has been some lack of trust in the media, and all of us are cognizant of that and take the responsibility very seriously. We are educating an electorate,” she said. “We’re not just covering the churn-and-burn of the day; we are trying to arm people with the information they need to cast an educated vote.”
In speaking with editors and reporters covering 2020, another trend emerged. There is a sense that it’s not enough to simply not repeat past perceived mistakes; they’ve got to be proactive and innovative in how they’ll cover campaigns and the election.
“We’ve built the biggest campaign team that the Washington Post has ever fielded,” Wallsten said. The reporters tasked with 2020 election coverage are members of distinctive teams, yet there will be overlap and collaboration among them. For example, the Post has a core campaign team, with approximately a dozen reporters and three editors.
“We’re particularly excited about this group, because it’s a mix of campaign veterans and other reporters who have never covered politics and bring a valuable fresh perspective,” Wallsten said.
The newspaper’s Congressional and White House reporters will also provide 2020 coverage and context. There’s also the muscle of the investigative team, which Wallsten said has “embarked on a vigorous vetting of all the candidates and their backgrounds, their records and their policies.” They’ve also added a seven-day-a-week politics breaking-news team and a new campaign newsletter.
Post reporters will be tasked with covering candidates and particular campaigns, but Wallsten noted that flexibility in how reporters are assigned will allow the news team to “change it up as the dynamics require.” Though some candidates may garner more attention than others by virtue of those dynamics, the edict at the Post is to cover even the race’s lesser-known ones.
“We recently had a big story on Andrew Yang and the phenomenon around him. We have another story that’s going to run on the front page about Marianne Williamson and her campaign,” Wallsten said. “We’re not intimidated by the big field. We actually relish the big field. It makes for an engaging, lively campaign—that gives us a lot to write about.”
Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s vice president of news, joined the company in the wake of her work heading up 2016 presidential coverage for Politico. Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Roberts transformed how the news organization would newly cover campaigns and public policy. Under her leadership, McClatchy launched The Influencer Series, a four-state program that surveyed more than 200 community leaders across political ideologies, economic circumstances and professions. The series unfolded over the course of six months, and it allowed McClatchy reporters to deeply explore policies important to the publisher’s audiences.
“By the time we got to the end of 2018, we had delivered a body of journalism that was directly relevant,” Roberts said. “The response to that was so strong that we’re going to be building out that model for 2020.”
What the initiative revealed was that readers wanted two different things pre- and post-election.
“The political media, generally, gave them a lot about the candidates themselves—about their personalities and what they were saying, about what they were tweeting, about the intrigue inside their campaigns,” Roberts said. “We know that our audience in 2016 wanted that because it was a traffic bonanza. We know it was being consumed. But what our readers and viewers were telling us after the election was: ‘This wasn’t serious. We needed a serious conversation around policy.’”
The dialogue between McClatchy’s political reporters/editors and readers/voters continues. The Influencer Series does too, under a fresh rebranding as the Priorities Project. Live events are also fundamental to the project. In November 2019, McClatchy will host another such event, which will mimic the previous one held last November.
“We brought together 50 influential leaders (to Florida). We split them into working groups, which were each tasked with a set of recommendations for the state legislature on the policy problem that our audience had identified as among the most pressing this year,” Roberts said. “It was an extraordinary experience because we set up working groups that included people who would never work together in any other setting. We had people on the guns panel who came from completely opposite ends of the spectrum on gun-control issues, on school safety issues. And they were able to come up with a set of agreed principles and suggest solutions for state lawmakers to pursue. We did that for multiple topics. That turned into a white paper, and then, we printed it up and hand-delivered it to every member of the state legislature in Tallahassee. It was a mind-blowing experience, where we were able to demonstrate not only the convening power of McClatchy and the Miami Herald, but our ability to bring together a group of people who would be at odds with one another, and come up with a constructive solution.”
Though McClatchy’s titles may not have the deep pockets of major market national and international newspapers, it can leverage the collective power of all of its political reporters, across the company and really connect the dots for readers between policy considerations, and how those choices will impact their lives at the local level.
“Over the course of the last 2.5 years, the leadership of the company and the leadership of all the newsrooms have worked very hard to make those 30 news organizations into one organization,” Roberts said. “The product of that is an ability to leverage the strength of the political reporters in 30 news organizations.”
Waging War on Disinformation
Just recently, an altered video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was making the rounds on social media, designed to mislead viewers/voters about her physical and mental wellbeing.
At the Washington Post, “a fair amount” of time is spent detecting, correcting and rooting out disinformation.
“(Disinformation) is a big new development that we’re dealing with,” Wallsten said. One of the reporters on the 2020 campaign team will even be partly focused on disinformation.
“We’re not just talking about foreign interference,” he continued. “We’re talking about all sorts of information that can spread quickly on social media-and at times is spread by candidates, politicians, and even the president. We need to be prepared. We have a fact-checking operation here that is fully engaged in that and has really set the standard for calling out politicians when they speak untruths.
“The fact-checker is going to be a big part of coverage this cycle. Not only do we want to call out the disinformation, we also need to be prepared to deal with it when it comes to us over the course of our reporting. There is, no doubt, going to be efforts to try to get us to publish inaccurate information, and we have to be ready for that. Part of that is being absolutely rigorous in the vetting of information and sources.”
McClatchy’s Roberts largely sees fact-checking as a journalism “niche” that sprang forth from the 2016 election aftermath. Third-party fact-checking organizations continue to help voters sort fact from fiction, and Roberts noted that they’re partnering with tech companies like Google and Facebook to combat the glut of digital disinformation.
At the Associated Press, at least two reporters will be tasked with fact-checking and reporting on the origins of 2020-related disinformation.
“We’re putting actual sources behind it,” Pace said. “We recognize that it’s not something that we can just ask our political reporters to do, even though they need to be on guard for it. We have to put people on this project. It’s that crucial to our coverage of the election.”
Election security, as a subtopic, will be part of the AP’s reporting mission, too.
“We know, for sure, that there will be other attempts to meddle and interfere in the election. The challenge for us is that there will be probably be different players besides just Russia,” Pace said. “There will probably be different techniques beyond what we learned about in 2016. How do we stay ahead of the curve? How can we make sure we’re in a place where we are understanding what is happening and are able to inform the public about what is happening?”
She continued, “One of the challenges is also trying to understand the real impact on the election. In 2016, we now know—because of the intelligence community and Bob Mueller has put it plainly—Russians interfered with the election. They did so to try to help Trump win. But what we don’t know is what the impact of that was. We don’t know if Trump won because of this effort. We don’t. But we have to try to figure out the impact, and that’s really a complex reporting endeavor…A lot of groups don’t have an incentive to talk about this, but we have to be really aggressive on that front in this cycle.”
Advising the Press
Campaign and election seasons are sprawling, and the trail leading to Nov. 3, 2020 will be long, bumpy and hazardous for the press.
Already with several female candidates in contention for the Democratic nomination, there may be evidence to suggest that women candidates aren’t getting as fair a shake in the media as their male counterparts, according to an ongoing study being conducted by Storybench, which (at press time) had analyzed the full text of 1,397 articles.
Polling is also potentially hazardous for the press—not necessarily reporting on polls, but rather, allowing polls to sway coverage decisions.
Roberts said, “Avoid national polling and making all coverage decisions based on national polling. I have been warning reporters and editors alike for years about their over-reliance on polling to make their decisions about campaign coverage. National polling and state polling are weak. In fact, state polling is weaker than national polling. Relying on them is going to serve media organizations poorly and the public poorly in turn.”
Wallsten explained some of the edicts in place at the Washington Post as its journalists journey toward 2020: “Keep our eyes open, and be ready for everything, and to not be predictive in our coverage, but to capture the dynamics as they are, as they’re happening—to keep our eyes and our minds open to every and any possibility.
“I think that’s been a signature aspect of our coverage for many recent elections,” he continued. “It is part of why we’ve been able to often capture dynamics earlier than others. And it also explains the fact that we’re covering the whole field, and we see everyone and every new dynamic as a way to sort of use the election to write about what’s happening in America.”