More than ever, we need to rethink our election coverage

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Celeste Headlee believes that it’s time for U.S. journalists to renew their claim as the Fourth Estate. That includes avoiding the mistakes of the past. In a guide for Headway DEI Training, which she founded, Headlee examines what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right while covering politics in an election year. The full guide can be purchased on Headway’s website. This introduction is republished here with permission.

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. … And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.

Justice Hugo L. Black, New York Times Company v. United States (1971)

Most journalists will admit that our industry has made mistakes in recent years, even if we’re not brave enough to own up to the mistakes we’ve made as individuals. It’s become a cliché to talk about a “reckoning” in the media, mostly because the missteps have happened regularly. 

The desire to interrogate those mistakes and learn from them stems, I believe, from a love of journalism and a powerful urge to make the industry better. I’ve spent countless hours over the past few weeks researching both what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right to create an evidence-based guide to political coverage that doesn’t repeat the missteps of the past. 

Before you read the guide, though, I ask that you prepare your mind. Understand that our brains are primed to believe that the choices we made in the past were good and logical, to discount suggestions for change, and to reject any advice that reflects badly on our decisions. Translation: we don’t like change and we hate performance reviews. 

We are taking this task on together and we share a common goal: to be a positive force in this democracy. To serve our audience with integrity and help them to be empowered, informed humans.

Jon Allsop at Columbia Journalism Review responded to my request for suggestions with the following message: 

It’s an easy cliché to say that we’re covering a historic year, but altogether more difficult to say what history (in the sense of the written discipline) might demand of our coverage, as its eventual first draft. As I wrote in a column for CJR at the beginning of the year, history is messy and subjective—not always told by the winners, per se, but always told from the selective vantage point of the individual historian. And history and the news have different functions—history can cast perspective on things we missed in the present, but it can also forget things that we covered. Often, day-to-day occurrences that we cover in the present matter hugely, without being the sort of thing the history books will prioritize.

And yet I’d encourage journalists—bombarded by events, unprecedented moments, and no little bs—to try occasionally to step out of their present headspace as this year unfolds and ask, if not what history as an abstract concept might make of our coverage, then how the future historians in ourselves might look back on it. Did we get the big stories right? Did we overhype things that, in hindsight, were trivial, or distracting noise? Were we more bothered by the horserace and daily interpersonal drama than bigger-picture themes? Are we proud of it? This is not to say, of course, that we can know the answers to these questions just yet. But merely entertaining a perspective beyond the day-to-day can be surprisingly clarifying. We won’t get a do-over of 2024. But we have time now to avoid coverage steps we might foreseeably come to regret.

Viewing our daily coverage through a historical lens can help us maintain a broader perspective, without getting caught up in the frenetic energy that accompanies all presidential campaigns. It can feel, when we go through the news feeds in the morning, that everyone is talking about something, and we must cover it. But if we take a break and ask whether historians will care in years to come, it can help us resist the horserace undertow. 

It’s tough to change the way we do things, especially when we’re already performing at a high level and are comparatively better than our competitors on cable TV, but we should always strive to improve and decades of research demonstrates that there is a great deal of room for improvement. 

Over the course of my research, I read a line from a Shorenstein Center report that hit me like a gut punch. It said, “Despite research documenting the various ways so-called ‘horserace’ reporting can hurt voters, candidates, and even news outlets themselves, it’s unlikely journalists will stop.”

I found similar statements in many of the scientific reports on election coverage; a meta-analysis conducted in 2021 stated that “because journalists are not expected to stop focusing on strategy and horserace elements, individuals will continue being exposed to less substance and fewer alternative viewpoints and therefore will form less reasoned opinions, which may eventually lead to less effective democracy.”  

Is that true? Are we so set in our ways that we will continue to use a practice that has been decisively proven to harm democracy? The answer appears to be a resounding yes. We’ve known this framing is damaging to democracy for at least a quarter century. Tom Patterson warned of the dangers in his 1992 book, Out of Order. 

And yet, when Jill Biden traveled to Africa in 2023 to bring attention to food insecurity, the resulting stories were not about the 282 million people on that continent who are undernourished. Instead, coverage focused on her confirmation that Joe Biden will seek reelection. Last year, an embarrassing number of stories reported that Trump was trying to decide on the perfect putdown for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Would it be “Ron DisHonest” or “Tiny D”? NPR reported on that issue, perhaps because other news outlets were also reporting on it, and we are all in the habit of giving more weight to stories that appear in a large number of newsfeeds.

It’s all too often the case that “how it’s been done” stands in for discerning news judgment, and I’m as guilty as anyone. As Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel writes, “Newsroom muscle memory for how things have always been done is so strong that any other way is unimaginable.” 

Surely, we are capable of changing when the stakes are so high and the consequences of failure so dire. And make no mistake: the stakes are high. In her last column for the Washington Post in 2022, Margaret Sullivan issued an urgent warning: “I hope that newsroom leaders are thinking hard about moving outside their long-standing practices as the presidential campaign approaches. This will not be a traditional contest, and the stakes are high. We simply have to get it right.” 

It’s common to believe we’re okay because we’re doing a better job than the other outlets. And that’s mostly true. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t making mistakes, nor does it mean that we’re fulfilling our duty to inform the public. Americans believe a lot of untrue things. More than half of us believe there were WMDs in Iraq. A healthy number thought that in 2013, the NYPD replaced its “Stop and Frisk” policy with a “Stop and Kiss Program.”

Still, the extent to which bad actors are manipulating journalistic norms and principles has reached a historic high. As has been said many times, Donald Trump is not the first, but he may be the most successful. In 2020, James Fallows cautioned that “this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.” 

Although we’ve all heard that warning multiple times, most of us have not made significant changes in our practices and have thereby allowed countless other politicians and pundits to follow Trump’s lead, using us to spread misinformation. The changes can’t be incremental. Instead, as Jon Allsop noted in the Columbia Journalism Review, “saving democracy [will] require media scrutiny of the functioning of America’s political and media systems as a whole.” 

We all know that, speaking broadly, Americans don’t trust us. Trust in media of all kinds is at an all-time low. The situation is so dire that half of our audience believes national news organizations deliberately try to mislead the public. Fewer than one in four respondents in that Gallup/Knight Foundation survey said they think journalists act in the best interests of the public. Oof.

Again, it’s easy to say that’s not our fault, that surveys also show NPR is the most trusted news source in the U.S. But just over half of adults who have heard of NPR trust us (and I think we can acknowledge that most people say “NPR” when what they mean is “public radio.”). That means nearly half of our potential audience doesn’t trust us, with The Economist, the BBC, PBS, and The Wall Street Journal showing similar results. Gallup started asking about trust in media in 1972 when nearly 70% of Americans had faith in our industry. It’s worth asking what we did or failed to do that contributed to the steep decline in confidence. 

Some of that is out of our control, but we’ve made big mistakes that did not lead to significant changes in practices. I’m sure many of us regret an overabundance of confidence about government intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the widespread use of anonymous sources who were later shown to have manipulated news coverage. 

As an industry, we have screwed up a lot of big stories: the bra burnings that never happened in Atlantic City, the crack babies who didn’t exist, the soldier (Jessica Lynch) whose rescue was not quite as heroic as portrayed. We have sometimes created or reinforced storylines that misled the public. As Rene Denfeld wrote in 2002, “Media myths aren’t harmless. They can scare people, reinforce their biases and become tools of manipulation.” 

We helped spread the false rumor that vaccines aren’t safe, partly by interviewing countless “concerned parents” and balancing their voices with those of medical experts, as though their opinions were equally valid. That blunder contributed to the concern over the COVID vaccine. I’m not laying all of the blame at our door, but I do think we should take responsibility for the part we played. Richard Horton of The Lancet was expressing regret about coverage during the pandemic when he said, “Some have told me that, looking back, they realize they should have asked more questions about the much-repeated statement that politicians were following ‘the science.’ I would have asked which scientists.” 

Our job isn’t easy. We have few resources, newsrooms are losing staff constantly, and there’s no arguing with the daily deadlines that push us to get these stories done and on the air. We all do the best we can and most of the time, we do a damn good job with the little we have. 

But the current political situation doesn’t allow us to put our heads down and keep going as we always have. Jonathan Karl, former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), rightly asked, “How do you cover a candidate who is effectively anti-democratic? How do you cover a candidate who is running both against whoever the Democratic candidate is but also running against the very democratic system that makes all of this possible?” 

As we approach an election in which Donald Trump will once again be on the ballot, at a time when hundreds of other candidates are following his playbook, we can’t simply present information and shrug, as though there’s no way to know the effect on voters and on the strength of our democracy. 

Again, it might sound like I’m blaming journalists for the hot mess that is our democracy — I’m not. There’s no question the current crisis is the product of many forces and bad actors. But journalists are part of the problem and, more importantly, we can make changes that will ultimately lead to a more informed public and a stronger democracy. The fact that we don’t make those changes but continue to cover politics much as we did 20 years ago is frustrating.  

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that this is not a guide to covering Donald Trump. There is evidence that political coverage was problematic as early as the 1920s, if not earlier. Trump is simply adept at exploiting the existing weakness in our journalistic practices. The reason so much of the research dates to 2016 is that Trump’s election was a clear indicator that bad actors could readily manipulate those weaknesses to their advantage. 

A 2018 report from Rand called “Truth Decay” identified four trends in news that have “degraded factual discourse and called into question the meaning and purpose of news.” 

  1. Disagreement over objective reality — facts and analysis 
  2. Disintegration of the boundary between fact and opinion 
  3. Increased reliance on opinions over reported facts 
  4. Declining public trust in government, media and other institutions 

In this guide, we will address those trends and several others, digging deeply into the research on how our audience takes in information, how they remember it, and how they decide what to believe and whom to trust. The past two decades have seen a flurry of scientific investigations into American journalism and we can sift through that data to create a set of best practices that will improve our coverage and, hopefully, increase trust in our audience. 

It’s true that many Americans now get their news from Facebook and celebrity podcasts and many not-so-credible sources. But there is good evidence that a general belief that mainstream media is biased has driven many to seek out those sources. How can we get those listeners back? 

Dan Froomkin, writing for Press Watchers in July 2020, asked: “What if the mainstream, reality-based media armed its audience with facts as emphatically and effectively as Fox News arms its audience with misinformation? What if the New York Times aggressively advocated for the truth, rather than just putting it out there for the record? … What if the mainstream media provided its audience with a true, overarching narrative in which to situate the day-to-day stories—true, evidence-based narratives as compelling as the false ones that Fox and OAN and others are selling—rather than throwing their hands up in the air and saying ‘you decide’?” 

We can no longer pretend that the rules haven’t changed, that the unspoken agreement between reporter and source that used to govern our industry hasn’t been broken. We’ve been lied to and manipulated so many times now that it would be disingenuous to act surprised when it happens again. 

The disastrous 2020 debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is a perfect example of this. Chris Wallace, a respected and traditional journalist, was steamrolled to such a degree that David Graham of The Atlantic said Wallace had been “left as roadkill … completely unable to control the candidates.” Wallace agreed that the debate hadn’t gone well and said, “I guess I didn’t realize—and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20—that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.”

Except he could have known and should have known. It’s time to admit that politicians aren’t abiding by the unspoken rules of press coverage. Ostriches may not actually put their heads in the sand, but our industry has been doing exactly that, metaphorically. Let’s emulate real ostrich behavior and kick back with the force (up to 2,000 pounds per square inch) sufficient to slay a lion with one blow.  

As James Fallows wrote in a 2020 piece titled “The Media Learned Nothing From 2016,” “For as long as the press has existed, it has been shambling and imperfect and improvisational. At our best we get things right on average, and incrementally, with a lot of getting things wrong along the way. Most of us in this business do our imperfect best. But any hope of doing better depends on the ability to learn.” 

In the spirit of learning from our mistakes, I offer this guide to political coverage that doesn’t lead to a less informed electorate, doesn’t empower bad actors in the system, and doesn’t fuel distrust of professional journalism within our audience. Research shows that reform can’t be incremental, as the current customs in political coverage are causing harm. We need to interrogate our choices and make radical change, when necessary, to not just stop causing injury but to become a useful and positive force in American democracy.

Here’s the good news: research shows that making these changes is both possible and likely to have a positive effect on our nation. We can move the needle. Scientists at the University of Florida analyzed coverage of the 2016 and 2020 elections and concluded that “journalists have the power to change the tone of the 2024 presidential campaign, as our findings revealed that media coverage shaped campaign communication as much as campaigns influenced media coverage.” 

We can do this. And we must. 

Celeste Headlee is an author, consultant and longtime host of public media, anchoring shows like Here and Now, 1A, and The Takeaway.

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