This election will and should lead to an autopsy of the Democratic establishment, the media, and especially the polling and analytics field that duped us into a false sense of confidence. As a journalist, it’s disheartening that trust in the media has hit rock bottom. As an American, Donald Trump’s election has left my faith in humanity lacking. Both can be restored, but it’s on all of us to fix it.
Some of the arguments I’ve seen for how election expectations were so wrong point the finger at an elite and urban-based media that’s woefully out of touch with the economic plight and political disillusionment of “real America”. A self aggrandizing media existing in a bubble with the inability to read that condescension is not a way to reach people on the outside of it. I am technically part of that bubble, and the critics are right.
We have failed to adequately highlight the stories and troubles of Americans who feel forgotten and sacrificed by their own institutions. They sense that they’re less valued than those in positions of power or celebrity, and it’s reaffirmed by their absence from the media narrative. Their earning power and economic security has dwindled, and yet on every newsstand they see those at the top battling it out to make the cover of Forbes. Glamour sells, desperation doesn’t.
Before we start labeling all journalists as elitist, however, let’s remember that news is unfortunately, a business. Journalists are centered in major cities because that’s where the newsrooms are, and increasingly, they’re being expected to function as conveyor belts of content and experts in online promotion. Investigative reporting, traveling for a story, building trust with people and sources – those things take time and money - luxuries most journalists are told they don’t have despite being owned by corporate behemoths.
Before we start labeling all journalists as elitist, however, let’s remember that news is unfortunately, a business.
Then there’s the issue of consumption. Most people read or watch news and videos online these days (and mostly on social media), and in this new media age, stories are appraised based on clicks or views and “shareability.” That means you can’t post anything too long, too dark or negative, dare I say anything too substantive, and expect it to go viral.
Let me just give you an example of The Huffington Post’s own Facebook livestreams on Election Day. We had reporters in the field all over the country at polling locations, marches, and watch parties (I was in North Carolina), and yet the most watched stream was of a Donald Trump-shaped candle burning. It lasted over three hours and as of now has over 5.7 million views.
It’s been the case all year as I’ve traveled around the country covering the election. In every state, I tried to focus on local issues, to get a real pulse for what people in those communities were living through, instead of one size fits all campaign rallies. Unfortunately, when I was in West Virginia at a clinic that treats opioid addiction or next to a mountaintop removal site to talk about the destructive effects of the coal industry, those streams just didn’t do well with viewers. Funny mash-ups of Trump or other candidates during the primaries would go through the roof.
Those same Americans who feel ignored or belittled have played a role in the saturation of amusement over deep and explorative content.
There are plenty of organizations and individual journalists who did an incredible job providing socially conscious and politically challenging work throughout the election – my colleagues included. Sadly, however, it didn’t get the attention deserved. It’s become increasingly more complicated for news consumers due to confirmation bias and the spread of fake news, but being informed takes work and we should acknowledge that those same Americans who feel ignored or belittled have played a role in the saturation of amusement over deep and explorative content. It may not be an easy pill to swallow, and it doesn’t excuse the many failures of the media industry, but it’s the truth. Supply and demand.
Donald Trump’s election is in part a combination of years of Republican race baiting and resentment politics that distracted from global policies feeding rising inequality, as well as an entertainment soaked electorate drawn to celebrity over slick and over practiced political rhetoric (I won’t even begin to touch on all the failures of Democrats here). But we can’t always drown out our feelings with cat videos and burning candles and reality tv. I want to avoid that same condescension I mentioned earlier or to make demands, so let’s call this a plea. If journalism has to be a business, then use your power to make substance profitable.