In my journalism classes on the morning of the election, I was imparting some received wisdom to my students. “If you see North Carolina go for Hillary, then it’s all over for Trump. It should be an early night,” I told them, confidently.
How wrong I was.
Of course, I wasn’t alone (not that that’s any consolation). From the polling organizations to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com to the country’s major news outlets, many, it seems, missed not just the boat but the entire lake by a pretty wide margin.
Jim Rutenberg put it this way in The New York Times:
“The country’s major news organizations, as surprised as anybody by Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the presidency, faced a question from their audiences on Wednesday that was laced with a sense of betrayal and anger: How did you get it so wrong?”
Journalists Out of Touch?
I’m not a polling expert so I’ll leave that end of things for others slice and dice. As for the news business, the post-mortems have focused mostly on major news organizations. A common refrain is that reporters ensconced in newsrooms in Manhattan or Washington were woefully out of touch with Trump’s growing core of support in places like the hill towns of Appalachia or rustbelt cities in the Midwest.
As media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post:
“Journalists — college-educated, urban and, for the most part, liberal — are more likely than ever before to live and work in New York City and Washington, D.C., or on the West Coast. And although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt, we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.”
Sullivan makes a pungent point about reporters from elite news outlets parachuting into Trump strongholds for brief forays. But she’s being parochial when she claims that most journalists ply their trade in the corridors of power in major metro areas.
In fact, with some 1,300 newspapers still operating across the country, most journalists still work for small and medium-sized publications and websites. News outlets like these don’t get much attention nationally, but some of them may have been more attuned to the Trump’s rise than their big-city brethren.
A Feisty Local Website
Tom Sofield is the founder of LevittownNow.com, a scrappy news site that obsessively covers the blue-collar town in the suburbs north of Philly. In an area seen as a bellwether for presidential elections, Sofield says he saw support for Trump growing early on.
“During the primary, I spoke to voters in (nearby) Bristol Township who voted for all Democrats except for Hillary,” Sofield told me. “Many said they were planning to vote for Trump in the general election. Although Clinton won the Levittown area, Trump seemed to have lots of support.”
Recalling campaign stops in several local towns, Sofield added: “When Mike Pence visited Bensalem, he received a huge crowd of close to 2,000. The Tim Kaine rally in Newtown seemed to have trouble drawing more than 500.”
As we spoke, Sofield was banging out a story on a lifelong Democratic committee member who was one of Trump’s biggest local supporters. “He’s been saying his blue-collar Democratic friends were voting for Trump,” Sofield said.
Coverage at Charlotte’s Major Paper
At the much-larger Charlotte Observer, columnist Eric Frazier admits that his paper was surprised by Trump’s victory.
“What we didn’t see was the lack of support for Clinton, especially after the Democratic convention, when she and Sanders had supposedly papered over their differences,” Frazier said. “The young people still weren’t buying what she was selling.”
But with North Carolina being a key swing state, the Observer’s journalists produced an enormous amount of campaign coverage.
“We had both candidates and their surrogates here more times than I can count,” Frazier says. “I think having both campaigns so active here likely meant that we ran more copy on the campaign, as both kept holding press conferences and having events. Plus you had to think and report about how the national campaigns were affecting downballot races, and vice versa.”
Lessons for Aspiring Journalists
Frazier says there are clear lessons for journalists in the way the campaign coverage played out.
“Even in an age of sophisticated data and social media, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned shoe- leather reporting,” Frazier says. “Let data and social media guide you to the people at the center of the issue/story, but never mistake data and social media for the real story. The story with a human being at the center of it is always the one that will move people the most.”
Sofield says he’s learned never to “underestimate voters who are passionate about their candidate. And try not to lose sight of your mission of reporting on all the candidates without bias.”
He adds: “Report independently and don’t follow everyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions of people who have popular and unpopular points of view. And talk to more people than just the politicos.”
Indeed, that’s pretty much what I was telling my journalism students the day after the election. After analyzing the results and critiquing the news coverage, I simply said this:
Get out of the newsroom. Hit the streets. Knock on doors. And talk to real people.