Let me begin by saying I’m not making a value judgment here about who won the 2016 presidential election. Instead, I want to discuss a phenomenon now in full bloom: journalistic navel-gazing and whether this period of reflection about the role of journalism in the election means anything significant. I certainly hope that it does, but for reasons that go beyond the election.
The screenshot above is what my computer conjured when I went to Google News and typed “journalism election.” It’s clear that many, many observers believe journalism — our profession — contributed to something terrible this week. I’m inclined to agree that we have gotten into some really lazy habits, and that would be true irrespective of the outcome. I believe too many journalists were reduced to punditry, reprinting tweets and scouring the crowd for nutty outliers rather than reporting on what it’s really like to live in places like Pierre, S.D., New Iberia, La., and Half Moon Bay, Calif. A related problem is reliance on data rather than human interaction.
Here is an ugly truth: Many people in our profession don’t attempt to know much about the people who buy their product unless that knowledge is conveyed on an analytics dashboard. On a national level, when they parachute into flyover country, journalists often return with stories of the man-bites-dog variety. These stories sometimes read as if written by Spanish explorers in correspondence to the queen. You won’t believe what they are up to in the savage country! …
Let me give you an example. Last week, the New York Times published a terrifying and in many ways terrific portrait of a Georgia militia that is part of the “3 percenter” movement that believes it only takes a few armed people to begin an insurrection. I read every word. I have no doubt that the group exists, is training for end times and was accurately portrayed. The trouble is the story didn’t provide much information about the local electorate as a whole. I get that it’s just one story and you can’t expect every story to be all things, but where is the honest portrait of Jackson, Ga.? By focusing coverage the way it did, the New York Times effectively ignored all but the 3 percent.
While the “parachute problem” might be especially acute for the national media, the rest of us aren’t always doing such a great job of representing the full spectrum of humanity in our very own communities. Too often, we rely on the mayor, the chamber president, the school principal. I don’t think many of us in community journalism attempted something as ambitious as, say, reporting on what the presidential candidates’ policy statements would mean where we live. At least not in any detail. And I know we could all do more to report on “the disconnected.” These are people who aren’t going to city council meetings. They may not vote and they certainly don’t write letters to the editor. They are disconnected from the institutions that would bring them in contact with a reporter from time to time. Discerning what they think is much more difficult than reporting on the business community or high school. They may or may not be ill-informed; we don’t know because we so rarely ask. This week we learned their votes count, too.
Asking a local banker about whether migrant farmworkers can get credit is like asking a meteorologist about the weather on mars; he may have an idea, but he’s never lived it.
We made mistakes in the run up to the presidential election, but I don’t think they were confined to a lack of fact-checking or that we created a false balance between the candidates’ failings. Where we failed, I believe, was in understanding and representing real people and real problems across the fruited plain.
I have some ideas about how we can address that in our own communities and I’m sure we’ll talk more about it in the weeks to come.