Want to really improve election coverage? Do less
Donald Trump’s election incited a chorus of media criticism and collective journalism introspection, but most of the discussion has been focused in the wrong direction.
In the immediate aftermath, seemingly every media commentator asked, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” Just as quickly, a narrative emerged that the coastal media’s out of touch with the largely rural population that voted for Trump, which is why they missed the story. Everyone agreed that data journalism is dead. The call to action became that journalists need to escape their filter bubbles and start interacting with more diverse communities.
That’s a good conversation to have. But there’s one problem: plenty of mainstream outlets did see this coming.
FiveThirtyEight clearly predicted it would be a close election. In fact, they did so even after rival sites criticized their predictions. Meanwhile, as On The Media pointed out, there were plenty of stories about angry voters in Middle America turning to Trump. If anyone in the media truly didn’t see it coming, they weren’t watching.
Here’s the better question the media should be asking: “Did we do all we could to help the public make an informed decision?”
The answer, in this election and every other, is no.
The unfortunate truth of public service journalism is that too little of it is produced and delivered in a way that optimizes serving the public. Responsible reporters certainly aim to do that, but there are a number of reasons news outlets fail to produce purely informative content.
UNDERSTANDING > VOLUME
There’s a nomenclature in marketing that provides a nice shorthand for thinking about the problems with election coverage. When a company designs products and services from the perspective of what’s best for the customer, it’s called customer centricity. When they take the opposite approach, creating a product or service from the perspective of what’s best for the business, it’s called product centricity.
In those terms, too much of news is product-centric, not customer-centric. It’s created from a perspective of what the company is built to do and what would best serve its competitive interests, not from the perspective of what would truly be of most value to its audience.
Consider the standard unit of written news information — the article. These are relics of print journalism. They aren’t designed because they’re the most effective and efficient methods of transmitting information. They are produced to fill a newshole, because publishers need content to sell advertising around. If they help inform people, all the better, but they still need to be produced even if there’s nothing informative to say. The business dictates the amount of product being delivered more than its customers.
That inevitably leads to a lot of articles that are unnecessary. When it comes to election coverage, the result is a lot of stories that distract from what voters really need to know. Politicians’ policies and plans are largely solidified during the middle and end of campaigns, but reporters are forced to continue filing daily dispatches. That’s why we see so much substance-free “news,” simply repeating whatever rhetoric the candidates spewed that day, adding almost nothing to voters’ understanding of how their lives will be impacted by the opposing platforms.
During this recent campaign, Jeff Jarvis summed up this reality simply:
For every report on the election you hear in the next weeks, ask: "Does this help voters make a more informed decision?" If not, why bother?
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) September 23, 2016
Journalists aren’t trained to think this way. They’re taught to think in terms of volume — more reporting, more investigation, more stories. Naturally, that’s how they defended their coverage of the 2016 presidential election.
“You can’t say that this campaign was undercovered or that this result is because of some failure to report on these candidates,” David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, told The New York Times. “I think it’s presumptuous of anybody — media or anybody else — to suggest that the reason for the result is some information failure.”
Again, that argument presumes that it’s the amount of information that’s important. Today more than ever, that is the wrong metric for measuring journalism’s effectiveness.
The last thing people need today is more information. They need more help understanding it.
“The problem is that if you think of campaign journalism as not just a series of stories but a collective effort to produce public understanding as an output, then we have failed,” wrote Matthew Yglesias in the days after the election.
INFORMATION ≠ INFORMATIVE
It’s well-documented that while there is more access to information than ever before in history, voters remain woefully uninformed about their government. It’s pretty clear that more information doesn’t create more informed people. If voters don’t know the essentials, an endless stream of articles about new developments isn’t helpful.
But it’s not simply as if all this extraneous content washes over people. The more disturbing reality is that it can actually distort perceptions, which is precisely what happened this past election.
In the article quoted above, Yglesias looks at findings from a Gallup research project that examined what people had heard about the candidates. Here’s how he analyzes the results:
“People heard loud and clear that Clinton was in some kind of trouble related to email whereas the stories about Trump … do not seem to have broken through. Indeed, there’s the alarming possibility that Trump actually benefited from the sheer range of negative stories about him. To cover any one Trump story — his refusal to disclose his income taxes or to commit to putting his business holdings in a blind trust — as extensively as the Clinton email story was covered would have necessarily required that less attention be paid to other important lines of inquiry into Trump. But by trying to cover all the different negative storylines about Trump, the press created a muddle in which nothing in particular stood out.
Conversely, the fact that there actually weren’t very many negative angles to pursue against Clinton ended up blowing the email story out of proportion. If you have journalists assigned to cover Clinton, they need to do some kind of stories. And they’re going to want to do some tough stories. So if the only topic to do tough stories about is emails, you’re doing to get a lot of stories about emails. And a natural implication that people are going to draw is that Clinton’s email server is a crucially important story.”
Just in case you’re wondering how much the media covered the email story in comparison to any of the hundreds of Trump scandals, Alvin Chang at Vox charted two years worth of news coverage. He found that it was the lead story on both The New York Times and Fox News websites far more than any one Trump scandal, and more than every policy story combined. It’s almost certain that this imbalance in coverage warped the perceptions of many voters.
“Polls showing that the public considers Hillary Clinton, a minor fibber at most, less trustworthy than a pathological liar is prima facie evidence of massive media failure,” wrote Paul Krugman more than a month before the election.
Sure, the large majority of these individual stories were carefully done by passionate, professional reporters and writers. That’s not the issue.
The quality of journalism isn’t the problem. It’s the quantity.
LESS > MORE
Responsible news organizations truly interested in creating a more informed public need to fundamentally rethink their mission. It’s easy and comforting to say we need “an overwhelming dose of good journalism,” but aren’t people already overdosing on information?
“With the enormous expansion of news sources and information available in today’s environment, it is no longer possible to assume that what traditional news outlets cover is what is getting through to the public,” a group of political scientists wrote in the release of the aforementioned Gallup research.
In this modern cacophony of content, the primary mission of journalists should be cutting through the noise to offer clarity.
What would an approach engineered to create more understanding look like? Consider one alternative: a single webpage continuously updated with relevant information that would aim to make voters’ decisions easier.
As candidates confirmed their positions and announced new policies and plans, the page would be updated. Reporters could also factor in information about the candidates’ character, like how often they lie in their campaign statements. They could consult experts on the likely impacts of those plans in terms of how voters would be affected, so that the public could get clear, concise information on which campaign platforms would actually benefit them most.
You could imagine it like a polling model, except instead of simply reporting how people might vote, it could help people decide how to vote. Wouldn’t that be a better way to inform a populace already drowning in media, desperate for easy-to-understand information that eliminates clutter?
An approach like this may address a lot of misconceptions and confusion. There might be days in which no updates are made. And that’s fine from the perspective of keeping people informed.
But many of the most popular news outlets are actually disincentivized from purely focusing on solving their audience’s problems. After all, they made billions this past election breathlessly covering every update and scandal. Readership and viewership was way up across the board, which wouldn’t have happened if publishers and broadcasters only covered stories that served to inform and educate.
“The reason the media covered Trump so extensively is quite simple: that is what users wanted,” wrote Ben Thompson in Stratechery. “And, in a world where media is a commodity, to act as if one has the editorial prerogative to not cover a candidate users want to see is to face that reality square in the face absent the clicks that make the medicine easier to take.”
Of course, you could argue that news organizations are indeed customer-centric; they’re just giving the people what they want. And that’s fine. But that should then belie the belief that the media’s primary directive is to serve as the Fourth Estate. As currently constituted, its mission is to create new material people want in order to keep their businesses going.
— Lee Procida (@LeeProcida) November 23, 2016
It isn’t news that scandal gets more attention that substance. What’s the real shame is that even when responsible organizations aim to cover subjects of substance they don’t do enough to make the facts stick.
The conventional response has been to distribute more and more facts. Unfortunately, that reality creates so much content that it’s harder, not easier, for voters to decide. It puts a major burden on voters to read new dispatches every day, connecting the dots between dozens of stories, covering dozens of issues, to form a coherent and rational opinion. Journalists will defend that approach by saying, “We just report all the facts, and let the people decide,” but that just ignores everything we know about how people interpret the news. It’s an ethos ungrounded in reality.
Whatever the answers, this is the much more important conversation that journalists need to be having. How can we help people better understand complex issues? How can we value veracity over volume? How can our business models accommodate clearer, more explanatory information, while greatly reducing the amount of distracting noise? How can public understanding become the metric by which we value our journalism?
It may very well be that we don’t need more news during the next election. We might need far less.
For more background and context, here’s a list of the links hyperlinked above:
- Matthew Ingram’s post-election take.
- Margaret Sullivan’s post-election take.
- Jim Rutenberg’s post-election take.
- Joshua Benton’s post-election take.
- Poynter’s Q&A with 10 media experts on election coverage.
- FiveThirtyEight’s post-election recap.
- Huffington Post contributor’s Evan Cohen’s now-embarrassing criticism of FiveThirtyEight.
- On The Media’s election recap.
- New York Times’ R&D Department’s brilliant rethinking of articles.
- Georgetown Professor Jason Brennan’s candid look in Foreign Policy at how uninformed voters are.
- Pew’s 2015 survey of American news IQs.
- Pew’s in-depth 2007 research into how American knowledge hasn’t changed despite the media revolution.
- Jim Rutenberg’s post-election take.
- Matthew Yglesias’ brilliant look at how Clinton’s relative uncontroversial campaign actually hurt her in the media.
- Slate made a list of at least 230 things Trump said that should have disqualified him from the presidency.
- Alvin Chang’s incredible research into how much the Clinton emails story was covered.
- Paul Krugman’s look at false equivalency.
- Jim Rutenberg’s look at fake news.
- Gallup’s research into what the public heard about each candidate.
- Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter.
- FiveThirtyEight’s Election Forecast page, a good model for how a simpler election decision-making page could be constructed.
- Coverage of CNN making record profits this election. This fact seriously undermines the moral high ground of journalism serving to create an informed public. It sure makes it seem like it’s much more about entertainment.
- Politico’s take on how the media actually won the election, in terms of booming business.
- Ben Thompson’s look at fake news on his brilliant website Stratechery.
- The American Press Institute’s interview with brilliant behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman on biases in journalism. His book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” should be required reading for everyone in media.