Why the Media Blew It

Too much trust in polls and not enough shoe-leather reporting produced the flub of the century.

Why the Media Blew It

Journalists and media crew members wait for a Hillary Clinton victory speech that never came. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

If you are angry with the media, you are entitled.

No one would disagree that the media, especially the mainstream media, blew this election. The question is why, and the answers are many.

But chief among them may be that the news organizations often spend more money on polling than they do on reporting. Polls on election day from the New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, Nate Silver and you-name-the-news-organization all predicted a solid win for Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times’ Upshot put her chances at 84 percent. Silver of FiveThirtyEight was a bit more cautious at 71 percent. Clinton reporters believed in the results so strongly that they were making plans to move to Washington, DC, according to Politico.

CBS’s Trump team of three — embed Sopan Deb, producer Aiden Farhi and CBS chief correspondent Major Garrett — asked a key question last Thursday in a podcast that may explain what happened.

Would it be a better investment for news organizations to deploy more reporters covering more issues in more places, than spending so much money on polls?

— Major Garrett, CBS

Deb wondered how the election might be covered differently without a single poll determining where reporters went and how the candidates were covered.

“Would it be a better investment for news organizations to deploy more reporters covering more issues in more places, than spending so much money on polls?” Garrett, a veteran correspondent asked. “I think the answer to that is yes. We do overpoll. We saturate the American consciousness with polling data in ways that simply are not useful.”

Good polling, they noted, is expensive. But polls are easy to cover and don’t involve the additional muss and fuss of sending reporters to talk to citizens or take the time to examine actual issues. And polling doesn’t involve editors exercising much more judgment than what they find in their calculators.

And look where all the “good” polling got us. The polls were wrong. The forecast models were wrong. Every narrative was wrong, save for those of Trump and a few conservative outlets.

The polling was so in favor of Clinton that CNN senior media reporter Brian Stelter began his nightly newsletter asking, “What if the networks call the race for Clinton but Trump doesn’t concede?” How will news organizations handle that? Well, that turned out to be of no concern since it was Clinton who had to concede.

The overall “Trump will lose” media narrative was so in lockstep that even some Trump supporters privately expressed their concern their candidate couldn’t possibly win.

Yet Trump won in an electoral college landslide despite the repeated chorus of polls across the networks, newspapers and cable stations that the Republican nominee had “no chance.”

Many are saying online that they woke up to an America they didn’t know. Tom Brokaw and Chuck Todd admitted the media “overlooked” and “underestimated” rural America. That wasn’t the only big story they — the news organizations we are inclined to trust — missed this cycle.

The ‘surprise’ is an indictment of the coastal elites who live in a bubble.

This is the same college-educated elite media living in DC, New York or California that missed the story behind Trump’s unexpected primary wins. Trump’s stunning Tuesday upset came at the hands of white Americans who live in places where the mainstream media don’t. The “surprise” is an indictment of the coastal elites who live in a bubble, talking to one another but clearly not enough to Trump’s enthusiastic supporters.

What baffles me, and no doubt others, is that every major news organization had cadres of reporters who traveled with Trump and others who visited pockets of America. Didn’t any of them pick up the disconnect with the polls? Were editors not listening because they were fearful of doubting “reputable” (though now disgraced) polling?

The media repeatedly portrayed Trump as out of touch with reality. Not enough people, they reasoned, could support someone who talked vulgarly about women, who trashed a Gold Star family, who made fun of a disabled reporter, who called Mexicans rapists. and on and on.

They were wrong.

The majority (52 percent) of US registered voters believed that the media favored Clinton, according to a Gallup poll. Another reputable poll put the share of those believing the media was biased toward Clinton even higher — 75 percent.

And now it looks like the polls — in this case — were right. But the big losers are the public who feel grossly misled. Maybe, but not necessarily, because Trump won. He did that on his own, knowing the country better than the pollsters, reporters and pundits.

But many Americans, myself included, are all angry at being fed a narrative that was so, so wrong.

“Let’s face it,” said NBC anchor Lester Holt. “We, the media, were also on the ballot.” Yes, and the media lost just as Clinton did.

Next cycle, let’s hope after some serious soul-searching that journalists will spend much more time on the road with voters, less time traveling in the campaign bubble and let’s hope news organizations follow CBS’s Major Garrett’s suggestion that they focus more on reporting and less on polls.

Trump’s win is impressive. The media’s performance in campaign 2016 was not.

Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard is an award-winning journalist and expert on the media and media ethics. The former ombudsman for NPR, she recently returned from two years in Afghanistan where she worked with Afghan journalists and the US Embassy. Follow her on Twitter: @Ombudsman.