Why did the media fail to predict the presidential election outcome?
“It was an enormous investment in prediction, instead of field reporting,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, speaking this week in Chicago at The Joyce Foundation’s Board of Director’s dinner.
He went on to tell the guests the answer lies in a combination of issues, including: technology, advancing control of algorithms, out of whack polling, fake news sites and the speed with which social media carries wrong information to millions.
As I listened to his list of reasons, it was clear each one traced back to the same thing — the diminished number of journalists. Actually, not just journalists, but good journalists practicing an ethical craft. Reporters, editors, producers and photographers with the time and experience to dig deeper, demand answers, knock on doors and tell better stories.
It’s More Than Technology
At its heart, journalism is about people. People connecting to people to tell stories. Investigative reporting? People fact-checking on the work other people are doing wrong or right.
It’s a simple craft. Anybody can do it, but not everyone can do it well.
My father, who was the city editor at the Chicago Daily News for years, said, “I can teach anyone how to write and be a reporter. What I need is someone who will keep doing it, day in and day out, and is smart enough to know what they don’t know and driven to find out.”
Done right, journalism is gritty, it’s hard. And to be good at it, it’s the same formula for any craft: You have to work at it.
In my decades teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Roosevelt University and Columbia College Chicago, I have had some phenomenal students. Many went on to do amazing things at top news outlets — but even those students were not great journalists when they left school. I found myself writing the same thing on evaluations, “to get better, the only thing you can do now is add time and experience. Keep writing. Keep reporting. Keep listening. But most important, always remember to keep learning.”
The best reporters are haunted by the errors they have made. And they know they would never be the best without the layers that shield them — great content editors and copy editors.
So, it’s a hard job. You need experience to get good at it. This all at a time when the jobs are going away and the pay is declining. Great combination.
It’s Getting Worse
So where does that put us today? The people who tell stories are not trusted by their audience. Trust of the media is yet at another all time low, Gallup tells us. And it is fashionable to trash talk the media, herd them into a pen and yell at them.
I find that amazing, considering the fact the framers of the Constitution thought a free press so important to a democracy, it is tucked into the First Amendment, right next to free speech: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Still, trust is something that we, the storytellers, have to earn. People have to know journalists are working hard to get it right and write it well. People need to know there are standards and practices to ensure quality. People have to know that our facts are straight, and they also have to know who are our sources. These are basics when it comes to building trust.
How well do we do any this? Do we teach our audiences about our work? Do we tell our story well?
Consider this: “Each administration is more restrictive than the last, and what lies ahead doesn’t bode well. And what presidents get away with, governors, mayors, council members copy and follow.” Those chilling words were written earlier this month by Kathleen Carroll. She’s stepping down as executive editor of The Associated Press, the global news gathering organization, which also reports every year on the state of the media when it comes to access, safety and information.
In 2014, when Sally Buzbee, now AP’s incoming executive editor, gave the state of the industry report at a Chicago conference, Carroll leaned over to the microphone and said:
“Bottom line: Bush was bad, Obama was worse.”
Worse in terms of fulfilling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, media access and even when it comes to the bullying of reporters. And subsequent reports have shown further declines since then in press freedom and safety.
The industry talks amongst itself about these issues. Besides AP, there are several other organizations that champion our First Amendment rights: including, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Telling journalism’s story
But what about our audiences? Did they hear these stories? Occasionally, perhaps, but not enough. The journalism industry does not tell its own story well. Yes, we talk about it in industry publications and journalism conferences. But is there ever a tote board for the public to keep track of government responsiveness?
We cannot afford to assume people understand our work. This is especially true with fewer reporters out there, an industry forecast that predicts the shrinking will continue, and a president-elect who tweets rather than takes questions and who threatens individual journalists and news outlets for doing a job guaranteed in the language set forth by our nation’s founders.
Access and information are crucial to democracy. If the public knew more about how we cover stories—and what makes stories credible—maybe we wouldn’t have to worry as much about people falling for “fake” news.
Some news outlets do understand that audiences need to understand. They tell people about their work via an “Ask the Editor” column. Others have done it in stories, but it’s not consistent. And it’s not enough to remind readers what it takes to be a credible journalist. It’s not a hard story to tell and to tell it is not promotional, it’s survival. Since it is clearly not our forte to tell our story, I’m offering this simple list to help rebuild trust.
Here is a start — six concrete things we can do to help the public understand how news is vetted, reported and why that process is critical to the future of our democracy.
1. Cite the pool report.
The pool report is a basic tool of the Washington DC reporting process. The White House reporting pool is large. It wouldn’t be logistically possible for the reporters to follow the president’s every move. Instead, a small number of reporters rotate in and out each day to do that work. They write up coverage of the president for colleagues in the “pool report,” which is then distributed to those covering the White House to use without attribution.
It’s really those last two words—”without attribution”—that are a problem. All journalists are taught that sourcing information is crucial to credibility. So why would the pool report be used without attribution?
My covenant with the public as a reporter is simple: I can only tell my audience what I know — and exactly how I learned it. So, why wouldn’t a reporter write in his or her story, “according to the pool report”? Or add to the tagline at the bottom of the story: “Parts of this story were taken from the White House pool report.”
Not only would that story then conform to generally accepted reporting principles, it would also help educate the public about how we cover the president. Maybe then people would understand that an independent reporting pool is worth fighting for.
And it would be great, if more people knew more about the fight the White House reporters have waged to maintain the credibility of the pool report.
Traditionally, the White House has distributed the pool reports, unedited and unquestioned. But in 2014, the Washington Post reported a disturbing trend: White House officials started asking reporters to “correct” or delete information before distributing the pool report.
The reports, in some cases, were held hostage until the changes were made.
There was outrage.
“The independence of the print pool reports is of utmost importance to us,” said Christi Parsons, a Los Angeles Times reporter who is president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (or the WHCA). “Our expectation is that the White House puts out the pool report and asks questions later.”
In 2015, the WHCA found a way to protect the system’s integrity. The pool reporters, about 90 of them, now bypass the White House. Instead they file their reports via Google to make sure it goes out to the 8,000 or so who read the report, including the White House.
2. FOIA requests: What didn’t you get?
As a result, basic requests are often denied and the documents that are produced often look like a bar code because so much of the language has been redacted.
Why don’t we report on that? If the public has a right to know—and that right is being denied because document requests are being turned down—doesn’t the public have a right to know that too? I realize competition is a factor. Talking about FOIA requests before a story is done can give colleagues an edge on what a reporter hoped would be an exclusive. But can’t we find a way to talk about FOIA requests without giving away specific stories?
Publish a monthly/weekly list — FOIA Watch — of requests that have been denied and by which government officials. Quote some of the reasons that are given for the denials. Publish some of the more egregious redactions from documents.
What is being held back can speak volumes about the transparency of a government administration.
3. Channel Robert Pear.
I spent a few years in government public health after being recruited from the Chicago Sun-Times. And when I was at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration, there was an unwritten, whispered rule for everyone: Do not speak to Robert Pear of the New York Times.
That is how much trouble his stories caused as they aired the flaws and follies of public policy in process.
Yet, damn if that man still didn’t manage to break important stories about the department, health care reform and all the complex issues being discussed and debated. He still does. He quietly gets it done by working around the system and official sources. Instead, he builds trust via his reliable reporting and has lined up clearly reliable sources inside the government. There are thousands of people who work in public service and are true public servants.
There are many ways to cover a beat. A favorite tip came from a phenomenal investigative reporter, Michael Berens, now at the Chicago Tribune. During a training session, he suggested one way to assemble network of sources for a government department is to FOIA a list of its recent retirees. Then, you work the phone and knock on doors to find the people who know how government works. Brilliant advice — and in the vein of a Robert Pear.
Be Robert Pear or be Michael Behrens. Find a way around the walls.
4. Attribute sources more.
Off-the-record sources were once a sign that a reporter had cultivated insiders who knew what was really happening. Now they are seen as a sign of naiveté: The news outlet is being manipulated or played.
News is history on the run and history needs sources or we have no idea how to judge bias.
If you want to keep up with a competitor that insists on writing about leaked anonymous tips, put them all in a column: “Heard it on the Street: The Home for All the Unsubstantiated Leaks in Town.” Trust me, it can be lawyered.
The column will be well read but the tips will be seen for what they are.
5. Keep your opinions to yourself.
It’s been disturbing to see opinion creeping into news stories about Donald Trump. True, the president-elect excels at making false statements, but there are rules about how to call him or anyone else out on this. It should be done in accordance with standard practices of journalistic integrity and fairness.
Otherwise, the president-elect is shaping not just the story, but the media as well.
Here’s how the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics puts it:
“The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
Print out this document. Pin it on your wall. Use quotes from it as a filler graphic element — online or in the newspaper. Add the cut line, linking to the full document, saying: “This is the code of ethics this news organization follows. If you have any questions, call us.” Debate it. Discuss it. Make it a living document. Let your audience understand that these are your principles. This is the code you follow.
Remember these particular bullet points from it, in the section that starts with ‘journalists should”:
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.
- Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
- Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
That means no matter what you think of an elected official, adjectives that degrade the subject should not be in a news story unless they come in an on-the-record quote.
The creeping of editorial opinions into news pieces dilutes credibility. Let the facts speak for themselves. You can report it all and adhere to ethical standards.
6. Listen to the voices too often not heard.
This line from the SPJ Code of Ethics is the one that we use in considering the journalists who receive the Studs Terkel Award: “Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.”
I’m not fond of the reference to “the voiceless.” It makes it sound as if these are people that literally don’t have a voice — they do. It’s just not being heard. Instead, I prefer to think of it as making sure you, as a reporter, listen to a wider range of people — people of color, people of different sexual orientations and gender identities, people from all religions, people who live in rural America…
Finding a balance of opinions between those inside the beltway and those outside has always been hard. But I think it’s safe to say: The need to get this right has never been more critical. For the future of our industry and the future of our country.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re invested. What are your suggestions? What can we do to rebuild trust? Send me a note, sschultz@PublicNarrative.org or call me, 312-369-6400. I’d like to hear from you.
Susy Schultz (@susys) is president of Public Narrative. In addition to teaching journalism, she has worked as a reporter, editor, investigative editor and academic. She is the founding president of the Association for Women Journalists, Chicago chapter, past president of Journalism and Women’s Symposium, a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.