Almost immediately after the 2016 presidential election, news organizations began analyzing why their expectations differed so much from the outcome. Polling techniques, social media, fake news, in-the-bubble journalism, October surprises, campaigns, and voter turnout have all been blamed in one way or another. I taught a class this semester on media, voters, and this historic election, and my students and I were also surprised how the election turned out. While it’s important that journalists and journalism educators take this sort of post-mortem discussion seriously and consider how they might contribute to improving future election coverage, it’s imperative for the post-mortem to expand beyond the usual talking points of presidential election coverage and speak to journalism’s responsibility in a democracy.
With Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton, Republicans gloated and Democrats, shocked and shaken to their core, pointed fingers. The mainstream media vowed to look inward as they always promise after an election in which the news industry is widely criticized, but that promise is no guarantee that they will look in the right places or accurately interpret and apply what is found. Social media sites also need to accept the responsibility that comes with being the primary platform where voters turn for news. What Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms deliver is more than just news; fake news, opinion, conspiracy theories, and tweets that fail the fact-check test are mixed in with news produced by credible news organizations.
Journalism educators’ responsibility
Now that the 2016 presidential race is over, we journalism educators have a responsibility that extends beyond what we typically do in our classrooms. In addition to using class time to discuss the outcome of this historic election, how journalists covered it, and how voters voted and why, our students should be encouraged to express their personal feelings about the 18-month-long election that exposed a divisive, vile America that spewed hate and bigotry. We also must be sensitive to the fact that our Millennial students, who represent the most diverse generation in America, may feel anxious and even afraid because of disturbing statements the incoming occupant of the White House made about Mexicans, Hispanics, Muslim Americans, African Americans, women, undocumented immigrants, and others during the campaign. Some of our students may also be uneasy because white nationalists have flocked to Donald Trump, his chief strategist and top advisor is the head of Breitbart News, a news platform for the alt-right that espouses racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic views, and hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise.
As journalism professors, we also must educate the public at large about the press’s responsibility in a democracy. That message can be delivered with AEJMC’s News Engagement Day initiative, which encourages the public to engage with news from credible sources. Additionally, we have an obligation to reach out to local and national news organizations to share our expertise and observations about 2016 presidential election coverage. Our insight will be vital to the post-mortem. Similarly, our perspective on the quality, quantity, and sometimes inaccurate reporting of national and statewide polls should not be ignored. Neither should the attraction of fake news, which voters engaged with more than mainstream news. We can help local and national news organizations answer these questions:
- Were all citizens, regardless of where they lived, their education or income level, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political party or ideology provided with sufficient accurate information about the candidates and the issues they cared about so they could make informed decisions before casting a vote?
- Did national polls, predictions, and 2012 assumptions blind journalists to 2016 realities that included non-traditional nominees and a demographically different mobile-first electorate connected to social media 24/7?
- How can news organizations restore trust, increase news literacy, and fight against what, without intervention, could become a post-truth, fake news world?
Need for watchdog and good neighbor journalism
This 2016 presidential election post-mortem is not just important for future presidential election coverage — it is mandatory for reporting on Donald Trump who will become the 45th President of the United States. And now that one party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, the Fourth Estate’s watchdog role is even more important. But so are the press’ good neighbor sensibilities. In fact, in research my colleagues and I first conducted in 2006, we found public support for a press that was more like a good neighbor. The press as good neighbor did not mean being a lapdog but being “caring about the community, reporting on interesting people and groups, understanding the local community, and offering solutions.” Interestingly, in the 2016 presidential election, key voter groups — women, African Americans, Hispanics, and the working class with less education and less income—were the same groups in our original study a decade ago that preferred the press act more like a good neighbor. If the press has any hope of rebuilding trust that has fallen to a historic low and re-capturing news consumers lost during the presidential election of 2016, it must learn to balance being as vigilant as a watchdog and caring like the good neighbor who lives next door.
But doing journalism as a watchdog with good neighbor tendencies may not be enough because the public views news organizations as harming instead of protecting democracy. According to my new book, News for a Mobile-First Consumer, only 20% of Democrats, 11% of Independents, and 8% of Republicans strongly agree that news organizations protect more than harm democracy.
Most important post-mortem election question
While safeguarding democracy is one of the Fourth Estate’s most cherished responsibilities, it is unclear how seriously the press took that responsibility. It appeared more news coverage was devoted to horserace polls, Electoral College maps, campaign strategies, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Donald Trump’s tweets than the 14 issues that the Pew Research Center said mattered most to voters
Low voter turnout, the failure of the 45th president to win the majority of all votes or even the popular vote, despite having won the Electoral College vote, and the press’s credibility, which has eroded to an all-time low, raise questions about the health of our democracy and threaten the press’s ability to protect our democracy. That’s why the post-mortem of this historic presidential election must be guided by the question: Is journalism harming democracy?
What is done with the answer to that question will no doubt have a role in whether in the future, the public is informed and engaged, the public believes the press protects democracy, and our democracy, which took a hit during the 2016 presidential election, is able to recover and become stronger than ever.
Paula Poindexter, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is founding director and editor of AEJMC’s Center for News Excellence and Engagement. News Engagement Day was one of Poindexter’s most important initiatives during her 2013-2014 term as AEJMC president. Contact: @paulapoindexter or firstname.lastname@example.org.