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Oles on the Election

A Post-Election Autopsy: Examining Why Mainstream Media Failed

By Emma Whitford November 11, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

I sank lower in my chair as I watched state after state turn red; there went Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Around 11:30 p.m. it was clear: Donald Trump is the next president of the United States of America.

I was feeling a lot of things that night, but perhaps more prominently I felt betrayal. The media, my industry, my favorite subject of study and my future career had been so incredibly wrong.

Was Trump right? Was the media really so blinded by personal biases that they didn’t even realize Trump had a shot at victory? How could they – The New York Times, the pundits, cable news, the Huffington Post, my Twittersphere and Facebook feed, FiveThirtyEight, NPR – so completely botch election predictions? I was promised a landslide Clinton victory; Trump was barely an option.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one grappling with this question.

On one hand, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg argued in his recent column that the media hasn’t had to cover an election as asymmetrical as 2016 for some time. So, even while reporters were calling falsehoods false for both candidates, overall coverage was perceived as biased; Donald Trump lied much more often than his opponent and therefore elicited far more fact-checking and scrutinizing articles than Hillary Clinton did. To neglect to call out Trump’s lies because it would create unbalanced coverage is as unhelpful and it is unethical. As Rutenberg says, “reporters have eyes.”

New York Post writer Michael Goodwin responded to Rutenberg’s column in his recent Op-Ed for the Post. He points out that there is substantial evidence that media was – and still is – infected with personal biases. New media such as Twitter, Facebook and independent online news sites create echo chambers that don’t allow space for objective news reporting. Even mainstream journalists allowed their opinions to influence their writing, describing Trump as an spectacle while Hillary Clinton was covered like a viable presidential candidate. According to Goodwin, “Any reporter who agrees with Clinton about Trump has no business covering either candidate.”

But if the only way to cover a presidential election is to feel completely personally disconnected from the debate, we wouldn’t have any coverage at all. It is more important that journalists take care to keep personal opinions out of their news writing, and America used to have strict journalistic standards, processes and codes of ethics in place to ensure complete objectivity. But, as Rutenberg argues, journalists realized that those procedures didn’t work to cover Trump. He threw a wrench in the entire new writing process.

Post-election, as I realize that almost every major news outlet failed to accurately predict or even consider a Trump presidency, I wonder how the industry will redeem itself. The press used to be revered as the fourth branch of government, an instrument of the people even when the other three branches have lost their checks and balances.

I believe that there is good to come out of this catastrophic failure. Perhaps smaller, independent news organizations will rise up to replace the media giants, perhaps journalists will reevaluate what is important for citizens to know and perhaps, most importantly, the news media will find a new way to get in touch with the Trump voter, a faction of the electorate that it wasn’t covering or informing.

There has never been a more important or more exciting time to be a young American journalist.

About the Author

Emma Whitford is a junior political science major at St. Olaf college from Middleton, Wisconsin.