By Esther Enkin
ONO President & CBC Ombudsman
There’s lots of soul searching going on in the world of journalism. Did the news media fail its citizens in its coverage of the United States elections? People with strong ideological views are certain that a) there was a giant conspiracy against Donald Trump, or b) the media blew it, missed the story and enabled Donald Trump to be elected. Those of us who get the complaints and comments know the reality is much more complex. But as Kathy English, Public Editor of the Toronto Star put it to me – “What a time to be a public editor/ readers’ editor/ ombudsman/ standards editor.” That’s us. And we thought it would be useful to compare notes on what our readers, listeners and viewers have been telling us, and some of our own thoughts on what we are hearing from the public.
From India and Australia through Europe and most of North America, we ombudsmen and public editors have had very full inboxes since the U.S. election. It will also come as no surprise that the closer to Washington, the heavier the volume of mail. With some exceptions, there are some pretty common themes we discovered as we exchanged emails about our experiences.
In some European countries the criticism was mostly that news organizations have spent too much time and resources covering the American election story, but even there there was a sprinkling of comments from representatives of right-wing and populist groups asserting an anti-Trump bias.
For the rest of us, most of the mail was pretty much along those lines – that the media has focused only on the negative about Trump, and had been totally pro-Clinton. The tone was often angry and as one of us put in her column, downright vitriolic.
The fact that so many media organizations missed the level of support, and their pundits seemed so surprised on election night was proof to viewers and listeners that the media was biased. The soul searching has well and truly started within the industry. How did we miss it? How did we get it so wrong? And there are a range of answers – about the level of local reporting, the people reporters choose to talk to, and the impact of social media.
Our colleague at NOS Netherlands shared that after the rise and some electoral success of a populist party in 2002, thought was given to criticism of not giving enough coverage to “ordinary white-collar people.” She said that the Dutch press has since committed itself to being much more attentive to issues raised by populist parties and movements.
It will come as no surprise that our Mexican colleague reported that there was no criticism of the Trump coverage there. His viewers thought there might have been a bit too much coverage, but there were no accusations of bias.
There are so many issues to consider out of this recent experience: are news organizations looking at the right issues, the right people and casting a bright and wide enough light on the preoccupations of its citizens? Is social media fragmenting our society and making true dialogue impossible? What about the amount of false stories and disinformation that is widely circulated? Some of our colleagues have written on these issues in the wake of the election. Mostly, they tried to answer the question “What happened?”
Here is a sampling. If you have something to contribute, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathy English, Toronto Star, Canada
“I should have listened to my dad about Donald Trump”
Elizabeth Jensen, NPR, United States
NPR’s Election Coverage: A Review And Wrap Up
Lars Bennike, Denmark
Tid til eftertanke
An English translation follows:
Time for reflection
The outcome of the U.S. presidential election ended in a tremendous snub to a number of media and opinion polling organizations – not only in the USA but also in Denmark. Even bookmakers will face losses after Donald J. Trump’s unexpected election victory on November 8th.
As late as the night before the election media bubbled over with predictions about the expected sure victory for the Democrats – expressed for instance by Nate Silver, who in his last “FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast” just hours before the election estimated Hillary Clinton’s chance to take over the presidency as high as 71.4 percent, compared to a only 28.6 percent chance to Trump. And a few days before the election The New York Times put Clinton’s chances of an election victory at 84 percent.
Clinton on safe ground
On Election Day Danish TV 2 News and TV 2’s 24 hours NEWS-channel announced Hillary Clinton as still being “favorite in the polls” during the morning and early afternoon newscasts.
“She leads by 3 percentage points, according to a statement from the website RealClearPolitics, which collects an average of national polls,” was the message on TV 2, while adding that “we look at the number of expected electoral votes, which determines that Clinton is on slightly safer ground: according to statements she is sure to win 203 electoral votes, while Trump according to Real Clear Politics is reasonably sure to win 164.”
However, it is fair to add, that TV 2 emphasized that the winning candidate “would need 270 electoral votes to win the election, and according to the forecast, there are still 171 electoral votes to be distributed.”
‘Parnassus’ of journalists and experts
The election did not turn out as expected in the opinion polls and not late after the result was announced on Wednesday morning criticism started hailing down on the media. Only a few hours after Trump’s victory speech in New York the first broadside against TV 2 landed in the news ombudsman’s mailbox.
Preben Josephsen, one of TV 2’s faithful viewers, swung the verbal whip over “the Parnassus of the many red journalists and news anchors as well as the many bad experts” who in his opinion had once again made themselves “complete fools with an enormous backfire.”
“For months you have been reeking with enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, who was so wonderful and always did the right thing, while Donald Trump consistently has been portrayed as incompetent and a bastard. Especially the female employees have been completely obsessed with the view that it was 100 percent certain that Hillary Clinton would win,” wrote Preben Josephsen.
He added that “good journalism does not derive from wishful thinking on the Left, but from the fact that one has the ability to analyze the situation, but there are not many of TV 2’s employees who have that ability.”
“How long do you intend to continue a one-sided use of expensive and useless polls, far more often falling far short of the result, than to get it right. The people who make polls are simply not skilled enough to capture what is going on among the ordinary people”, wrote Preben Josephsen, who, however, ended his salty salute “with compliments.”
Another viewer, Karen R. Skov, complained later Wednesday to have been “run over” by journalists’ predictions regarding the U.S. presidential election.
“You have been brewing up expectations which have been embarrassing to witness. Words like “deep, deep concern” are now replacing all of your enthusiastic predictions about Clinton’s victory. Raise the bar a little and strengthen confidence in your news coverage by keeping your emotions to yourself and increasing the impartiality of your reporting,” she wrote in her mail to the news ombudsman.
“And maybe it could be an idea to minimize airtime of “your sensations,” so that guesswork and journalistic prattle can be stopped and cut down to what YOU KNOW,” suggested Karen R. Skov.
Commentators with red ears
I do not agree with everything the two viewers wrote – but I think they put their fingers on some sore points.
Preben Josephsen and Karen R. Skov are perfectly right that there were a large number of loose predictions that proved not to hold water when it came to Donald Trump’s chances of winning the presidency.
This applies not only to the international media, but also the Danish media – including TV 2.
A string of correspondents and commentators – like TV 2’s own Jesper Steinmetz – predicted during the months up to November 8 that Donald J. Trump would need “a miracle” to win the election, his campaign was “in free fall” and the like.
Also on election night, there were clear expectations of a victory for Hillary Clinton. TV 2 commentator Mads Fuglede was overwhelmed by awareness late at night as the balance finally tipped towards Donald Trump.
“I have to live with the fact that I, without even questioning the analysis, said that Donald Trump would never become president of the United States,” said Mads Fuglede, while his colleague in TV 2’s studio, Mirco Reimer-Elster, was more succinct in his commentary.
“I would say it even shorter than Mads. I am an idiot, I’ve been mistaken for a whole year,” said Mirco Reimer-Elster in an interview with news anchor Cecilie Beck.
The two commentators’ penance led to an invitation from a TV 2 viewer who wishes to remain anonymous, but in an email to the news ombudsman he suggested writing “so-called” in front of the title the next time TV 2 invites “supposedly competent people into the studio to comment on American politics.”
The viewer admitted that TV 2 correspondent Jesper Steinmetz also had aired his “fear” of Trump becoming president, “which actually came true (respect!),” as he wrote in his email.
“All my respect also for the flagellant, Mads Fuglede, who referred to himself as “Comical Ali” after he was mistaken as to Trump,” the viewer added.
Difference between journalism and commentary
The crucial point – seen from my side – is that there are significant differences between comment and analysis – and the journalistic coverage, TV 2 has implemented in the months leading up to the election.
In its journalistic reporting TV 2 approached both sides and covered both candidates’ arguments and political visions. An important part of the coverage were the embarrassing cases on both sides during the campaign from the primaries up to the final election on November 8.
It is part of the picture that the coverage has had much focus on Trump’s many startling statements, but they are in line with other matters an essential element to understand his success.
In the reporting, TV 2 and its 24 hour NEWS channel has also been with Hillary supporters in California, with Trump supporters in North Carolina and Arizona, among Latinos in Florida and the unemployed in Pennsylvania.
TV 2’s expatriate staff has, among other things, visited the so-called “rust-belt,” where Trump picks his most faithful supporters, and where even the local leader of the Democrats criticized Clinton. They have also been on the border with Mexico, where the two main characters supported Trump.
On the Democratic side, TV 2 – among other stories – visited an artist who supported Clinton and criticized Trump, reporters have interviewed indebted students who would vote for Clinton, and there has been reports about health and the maligned “Obamacare,” which was one of the election campaign’s major themes.
In my assessment it was not correct when a viewer in a submission to the undersigned described the coverage on TV 2’s 24 hour NEWS channel as a “pure hate campaign against a single person,” or that TV 2 had devoted itself to “smear Trump,” as he wrote in his mail. Subsequently however, he declined to submit concrete examples to substantiate his criticism.
Brexit, Danish People’s Party and now Trump
The course up to the U.S. election is reminiscent of the British “Brexit” – referendum and The Danish People’s Party’s unexpected success at the general election in Denmark in June last year.
The Danish People’s Party was immediately before the election in 2015 tipped to win about 18 percent of the vote – they received more than 21 percent of the votes on election day. Similarly the big polling institutes predicted a comfortable majority for the supporters of continued British membership of the European Union – even bookmakers expected a yes – just like they expected a secure victory for Hillary Clinton.
For Kristian Thulesen Dahl, chairman of The Danish People’s Party, the general surprise over Trump’s election victory shows that “the elite” has no eye for the concerns of ordinary people.
“The election follows Brexit in Britain. The election also came as a surprise to the leading pundits. Basically people react against the negative aspects of globalization. That the nation-state is less and less important. The problem that you do not control immigration. That inequality is growing dramatically – the richest own more and more – those with the lowest wages are falling behind,” Thulesen Dahl said after the election to Danish news agency Ritzau.
Turn down ‘horse race’ journalism
It’s always healthy for the media to look at ourselves in the mirror and consider whether we have done it right.
In my assessment, TV 2 and its 24 hour NEWS channel – in its actual reporting – had a good eye for what took many Americans in the election campaign. The reporters have actually met with people and gathered information, as it is the core of good journalism.
The problem is that it did not put enough imprint on the many analyses that were also sent on air in a steady flow during the whole of the election campaign. Instead of relying on the impressions correspondents reported from their tours around the USA, commentators and analysts put too much emphasis on the polls that have proved to be off the disc not only in the United States, but also in Great Britain and Denmark.
The media – including TV 2 – has had a strong focus on what Americans call “horse race” journalism, where you constantly analyze and guess about who appears to have the greatest chance of winning the election. In my view it is a form of “fortune teller activity” not in line with classic journalism which is fundamentally about collecting and communicating factual information.
In my assessment, opinion polls have some qualities – they can in many cases provide an indicator of the possible result, so we are not going to get rid of polls.
But uncertainty is greater than we have been accustomed to – as the results of Brexit, the general election in Denmark and now the U.S. elections have shown. TV 2 must take that into account. In my view, therefore, especially at this point it is time for reflection after the election of Trump.