Day 6

What the media missed about the rise of Donald Trump

This week, Donald Trump surged to a historic victory in the U.S. presidential election and nobody was more shocked than the American media. Our Day 6 panel sorts through what the media missed and what it's going to take to cover President Trump.
Few were more shocked by Donald Trump's victory this week than the American media.

It's official: Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States.

Dismissed from the start as an outsider candidate with a slim chance of reaching the White House, Trump ended the election with 290 electoral college votes. He delivered unexpected wins in multiple swing states, including Iowa, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

It's an election result that few were prepared for — least of all the media.

Around the world, news outlets were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton. Election forecasts overwhelmingly put her chances of winning the presidency above 70 per cent.

But while Clinton won the popular vote, she could not galvanize the support she needed to surpass Trump's voter base, strongly anchored in America's industrial midwest.

As the dust settles on this week's historic U.S. election, journalists around the world are asking how they could have gotten this presidential race so wrong.

President Barack Obama listens to President-elect Donald Trump during their meeting in the White House on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)


A long hard look in the mirror

In hindsight, reporters have identified plenty of mistakes in how media covered the election, starting with underestimating Donald Trump's electability.

"I think the mistake was getting seduced by how fun it was," says Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri. "This whole culture has sprung up where it's all about the horse race as opposed to the actual content of the statements."

According to Emily Bazelon, a staff writer with the New York Times Magazine, the media was unprepared to cover a candidate like Trump.

"He broke all the rules, and the first time someone breaks rules, we struggle to figure out how to come up with new rules," she says.

Bazelon spent several days this week interviewing Trump supporters and says the media may have miscalculated their priorities.

"What mattered to them was not necessarily what the media was really digging in on," says Bazelon. "We thought — I thought — that fact-checking was going to matter much more in this election than it actually did."

"I think we should have also been looking carefully at the parts of Trump's message that were resonating, and trying to figure out why, and then explain to voters how reality-based they were."

Donald Trump, with his wife Melania, talks to reporters in the spin room after his first debate at Hofstra University in New York. (Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS)
This week, Donald Trump surged to a historic victory in the U.S. presidential election. Our media panel sorts through what the media missed and what it's going to take to cover President Trump.


Lessons learned

For Daniel Dale, a Washington correspondent with the Toronto Star, journalists and political strategists alike will have some hard lessons to learn from this year's race.

"This election called into question basically everything the political campaign industry thought it knew about 'get out the vote' operations, about polling to some extent, about having sophisticated veteran consultants," says Dale.

"There's going to be fallout. To what extent this was particular to this amazing, unconventional candidate and to what extent it can be extrapolated into the future… is to be determined."

The media will also have to reckon with widespread criticism from Trump voters and other American citizens who have accused the mainstream press of being 'rigged' against their candidate.

But while editorial boards across the mainstream press came out heavily in favour of Clinton, Bazelon argues the unequal treatment of the two candidates often worked in Trump's favour - as evidenced in Matt Lauer's back-to-back interviews with Clinton and Trump in September.

"He treated Hillary Clinton like a serious candidate for president; he asked her tough questions," says Bazelon.

Trump, on the other hand, was not challenged even when he made blatantly false claims.

"That, to me, typified the way in which the media assumed that Clinton would be elected and that it was the media's job to really thoroughly vet her; and Trump was ... not subjected to the same rigorous interrogation."

Journalists are also scratching their heads over the media's failure to identify the so-called "missing white voters" who turned out for Trump in huge numbers on Nov. 8.

"I think there's been an information gap and we're going to have to reckon with that," says Petri.

To Dale, it all comes down to the polling data.

"I think the issue isn't that we didn't get out there and not that we should abandon data in favour of more anecdotes— it's in getting better data, and interpreting it better."

Journalists gathered at the media room during the first presidential debate. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)


The power of fake news

Campaign coverage was further complicated by a proliferation of fake news articles on social media sites.

One such post, which claimed that Hillary Clinton has ties to satanic rituals and the occult, got nearly 3,000 shares.

"I think increasingly with the way everyone consumes media, where it's in your Facebook feed… you cease to have an objective set of facts that you have to accept whether you like them or not," says Petri.

"If you think, 'You know, I actually would prefer if aliens were being kept a secret from us by the government,' you can go exist in a world where that's true. And I think that fragmented nature of coverage made it difficult for fact-checkers."

Alternative-news sites, like Breitbart and Info Wars, also played a role in spreading lies and misleading information about American politicians this election, according to Dale.

"I don't know if that's as much 'fake news' as sites that have been given the veneer of respectability by our President-elect," he says.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declares victory in Nevada on February 23, 2016. (John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images)


A Trump presidency

Now, the media will have to deal with a new challenge: How to cover President Trump. But compared to covering Trump as a candidate, it may be easy, according to Petri.

"When the president is talking, it is news, and it's not like, 'Oh no - am I covering something that's bad?" she says.

"In some ways it's like a kick in the pants to really get out there and keep holding the systems of government accountable. There's going to be lots of news, and it's all going to be newsworthy."

Trump's position on libel laws could complicate things, says Dale.

Still, it's hard to say for certain just how much of an impact this year's historic presidential race will have on future coverage.

"One of the big lessons of this election is that our ability to predict is terrible," says Bazelon. "I'm not even going to try."