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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2018

Fixing how the Media Covers the US Midterm Election

The US Midterm Election is, as I am publishing this, exactly 3 months away, and it will not just serve as a test for the USA as a country and what future it wants, but also as a test for US media companies.

Will publishers make all the same mistakes they did during the presidential election? ...Or have we learned from our mistakes and started covering elections in a different way?

Well, we already know the answer to this, because we can clearly see that nothing has really changed. The coverage has all the same flaws, and we haven't made any real adjustments for the problems we experienced the last time.

As such, I have no illusion that things will get better this time around. The election is still covered like a circus, where politicians compete as if it was a sporting event, and the issues covered are overly simplified in such a way that they no longer represent the world around us.

Mind you, I'm not trying to criticize journalists and editors here. I personally know several of them, and I can see the work and effort they have put into this year's election. It's pretty clear that they want to do the best job possible.

The problem is that the way journalists work often causes the opposite outcome than the one they try to create. So when you try to make people more informed, you often actually end up making them less informed.

So, in this article, I'm going to highlight some of the most critical things we get wrong in the media, and how that leads to some of the problems that we see today.

This is not a political article

Before we start, I want to make a few things very clear. As a media analyst, it's my job to point out problems and opportunities in the media. This does not mean that I am 'against' the media, in fact, I'm 100% in favor of the media.

Secondly, while I personally might have a preference as to who I want to win the midterm elections, as an analyst, this article is not about my personal opinions.

However, I also very strongly believe that the media is a form of safe-guard for society. We sometimes call this the 'fourth estate' or 'the protectors of democracy'.

The problem is that many people don't understand what this means, and they think it means that the media is biased (which sometimes they are, but that is a separate problem).

What I mean by this is that it's the role of the media to make people factually informed. This means that when people have finished reading an article, they should not just know what someone did or said, but also know whether that is factually accurate *and* whether that is representative of what the real world is actually about.

So I believe that a vital role of journalists today is to not just report the news, but also weight it in relation to how factually informed it would make people.

This is a bit of a problem with politics, because you might have one politician telling people lies and the other not (or, at least to a lesser degree). If we, as journalists, start to weight this, it's very easy to be seen as politically biased (even though what is really happening is that we are factually biased).

BTW: The only way I know to combat this is to 'show your work'. Don't just report facts, show people the data, talk about it from the point of the data, illustrate the effort you put into analyzing the story.

In other words, show people that you aren't weighting the actual politics, you are just focusing on the data. It's not going to convince people upfront, but over time it gives you a reputation that is centered around trust (and I might write another article about this another time).

But let's get started with the problem we face:

Focusing only on one side doesn't actually fix anything

One of the fundamental mistakes that we make in the media is that we focus all our attention on the people who do bad things.

I have had many discussions with editors of newspapers, who very often tell me that this is 'what they do' and that I'm wrong to even suggest that there is another way. They say that the role of a newspaper is to keep those in power to account, meaning you focus on those who do wrong.

I can understand the sentiment here, and can even understand the reasoning behind it. But... look at the world around you.

When you focus all your news coverage on only the bad people, do they actually go away... or do they just get even more attention and even more power?

We all know the answer to that.

It's true that, over time, this journalistic focus does have an impact. For instance, in relation to the #metoo movement and all the problems with sexual harassment, the pressure from journalists and the public did bring down some pretty powerful people.

But that is a long-term effect, and for an issue where there is a clear right and wrong. In politics we often don't have that, because here we have so many conflicting points of interest and concerns that, if you just focus on the bad people, the bad people end up winning.

This is happening because of something very scary, which is that your journalism eliminates the alternative.

Think about it like this:

If you have an election where people can choose between 10 different people, and only one of them is... well... 'bad', when you start out everyone has the same level of attention:

But then, as we start to only focus on the 'bad person', the attention starts to shift. The bad person is constantly in front of people, while all the other choices start to fade away.

And by the time we reach the election date, the bad person now has all the attention, and all those other people have become kind of vague and undefined.

As a result, you end up asking people to vote for this:

On one side you have someone who has received almost all the attention in the press. You have seen everything he had to say, you have seen the bad things he did, but you have also heard every argument that he made for why you should vote for him.

And then, on the other side you have... uh... someone?

Remember, elections are not decided by people who already know who they want to vote for. Instead, elections are decided by the doubters, aka, the people who could swing either way.

And just think about what happens when a swing voter is presented by the type of media coverage where almost all the attention has gone to just one side. Does that create what we would call an 'informed voter'?

This was a big problem during the presidential election two years ago, so what does it look like today? Well, Media Matters decided to study it, and they found this:

You see the problem here? You are doing it again. As a publisher, you have learned nothing. This is not the baseline that you want to give voters if you want them to have an informed choice.

But, wait a minute, you say. If we point out all the bad things the Republicans are doing, wouldn't that discourage people to vote for them?

Well, in the long-term, yes, maybe, but in the short-term, and especially around elections, the answer is no. We can see this with every single election. The key to a fair election is to make sure people have an informed choice. This means that people have to learn not just about those who do something bad, but also what the alternative is.

And, if the alternative is just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because you don't know what it is, you don't have an informed choice.

Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Democrats vs Republicans here. The same thing happens if you just look at this within a single party. I'm talking about understanding the nuances. I'm talking about actually understanding each choice.

So the way we cover elections is fundamentally wrong, because, while you think you are doing a good job keeping those in power to account, you actually end up also giving them all the attention, which skews how people look at the choices they have.

Note: There was also a good article in Wired about exactly why giving attention to bad people doesn't cause them to go away: Online hate is rampant, here's how to keep it from spreading.

This leads us to the second mistake that publishers often make.

Neither choice is right

One of the fundamental problems that we see with almost all political coverage is that we often end up talking about the wrong things.

What I mean is that we tend to focus on issues that aren't actually an issue, and then we largely ignore the things that actually do have a very real impact on people's lives.

Take something like immigration and jobs, for instance. This is pretty much a non-issue even to the point where the situation is actually the opposite of what is being discussed in the media. But think about how much coverage has been focused on just that one thing.

In the US, for instance, the challenges around infrastructure have a far greater impact on people's lives than any of the immigration topics.

And on top of that, most of the immigration problems that we do have are self-inflicted because of the focus that led to it. For instance, the massive violation of human rights around immigrant children (and parents) in the US is something that has been invented out of nothing because we allowed immigration to become a topic of discussion.

I'm not really blaming the media for this, but we are a part of it, because just like we often place our attention on the bad people as described above, we often place our attention on these topics.

A similar issue with this is about the overall political discussion. In the graph above, you saw how newspapers focused on either the Republicans or the Democrats, but is that the right focus?

To answer this we need to look at how people identify themselves, and what we see is this:

What we see here is an incredible increase in 'independents', as in people who identify themselves neither as Democrats or Republicans. In other words, they are telling us that neither are really talking about things that matter to them, or in a way that makes sense to them.

Think about what this means for you as a publisher. What you are essentially doing is this:

This is a really big problem because it causes a number of issues.

First of all, it discourages people from engaging in politics, because the topics that people really care about aren't at the center of the discussion.

And secondly, it causes decisions to be made on the basis of things that shouldn't define the overall issue.

We saw this all too clearly with Brexit. Here the politicians and the media put a very heavy focus on things like immigration, and it became an issue around whether you wanted to allow people from other countries to come and live in the UK or not.

The problem is that for the UK to leave the EU, the question about free-movement is such a tiny part of what the EU is really about. In fact, only 2% of the population ever use that option.

So turning the election into a question about immigrants is incredibly bad. There are far bigger issues that are more important.

And this is what we now also see in the US. When we see this huge uptick in independents, it's not just that people are tired of the political system, it's also that the topics politicians talk about aren't relevant to them.

I have said this many times before, but the media industry is stuck inside a political bubble, a kind of echo chamber, where it's like there are no issues worth reporting other than those the existing political parties already engage in.

But look at what the public is telling you. What we need is a different discussion. We need newspapers to stop just reporting what the Republicans or Democrats are doing. We need journalists to go out into public space and start looking for the issues that aren't usually covered.

Obviously, because of the way the US election system is put together, we will never see an 'independent' congress. The US system is so heavily designed around the two party system that exists today, so it will be the Republicans and the Democrats who will get the most votes. But that doesn't mean that we also have to focus on their topics.

If the majority of the public wants something else, it's our job as 'the fourth estate' to make sure that the focus is on those other things. Otherwise we just add to the attention of issues that the public can't identify with and don't think is the right way to talk about things.

Again, I will show you this graph from Gallup:

Based on this, what issues and topics will your 2018 election coverage focus on the most? Are you going to focus 70% of your coverage on just what Republicans do and/or talk about?

This leads us to the problem with the narrative.

Spin doctors win by twisting the narrative

One of the most common ways spin doctors and lobbyists manage to change a topic in their favor is to change how we talk about it. If they can somehow eliminate the real reason behind something, and then inject their own concerns, and create a second narrative that sounds like it's something people want, you can make people completely forget why something was a problem in the first place.

We see this all the time, and, what's worse, the media is often the facilitator.

I want to give you an example of this:

A week ago, the Associated Press posted an article about how Trump plans to eliminate the fuel efficiency regulations introduced by Obama, in "US says driving would be riskier if fuel standards tougher".

What I want you to do is to just read that article right now.

No really, please read that article, and then come back here once you are done. It's a fairly short article, so it will only take a minute of your time.



Now that you are back, did you notice what the problem was?

Well, at first glance, the article seems somewhat well written. They are reporting the story, they have uncovered a draft proposal before publication, they have interviewed experts, and other things you would do as a good journalist.

But that article is actually an example of some of the worst journalism that we have today, specifically because of three things.

False narrative

The first problem is that they are just 'reporting' the story, meaning that AP didn't add anything to the story. They found this document, and they just told what was in it, and asked other people to comment on it.

This wouldn't be a problem if the document itself was good, but the Trump administration is very clearly twisting the narrative.

Let me ask you this: Why do governments around the world introduce regulation around fuel efficiency?

The answer is that it's because of pollution. That's why countries around the world do this, and it was also why Obama introduced it back in 2012 (and also to reduce the USA dependence on foreign oil).

But did you notice how those topics were completely absent in AP's article? Even when the AP interviewed environmental groups, they completely failed to ask them about the pollution. Instead they wrote this:

Environmental groups questioned the justification for freezing the standards. Luke Tonachel, director of the clean-vehicle program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the risk from people driving more due to higher mileage is "tiny and maybe even negligible.

So, what is happening here is that the Trump administration is engaging in the age old tactic of twisting the narrative. Even though pollution is the very reason this regulation exists, they create an alternative narrative that mostly side steps the mention of pollution. By doing this, they can get people to talk about this 'other thing' that they want people to talk about, and simultaneously make people forget why it exists in the first place.

The problem with the Associated Press is that, because they are merely reporting, they end up parroting this false narrative. They post an entire article where they give voice to this alternative focus, while at no point addressing or questioning the real reason for this legislation.

And this is not just the AP that is doing this, every newspaper does this. You are all 'just reporting' this false narrative, and all failing to keep in mind that the reason this legislation exists is to reduce pollution.

I mean, just look at this:

All of these newspapers do exactly the same thing. You take the exact 'talking points' that the Trump administration wanted you to talk about, and you focused the story around that.

All of these newspapers completely failed to consider why this legislation existed, why Obama introduced it ... instead, they just allowed Trump to twist the narrative to what he wanted it to be about.

You got played!

And this is just one example, but I could give you 1,000 more of them, because it's something that happens every single day. And the reason it happens is because journalists often just 'report the news'.

In other words, you let the topics define the focus of your journalism, rather than have your journalism define the focus of the topic.

It's not our job to 'just report the news'. It's our job to keep people informed. And posting an article like this, where the key issue is missing, is what I would consider journalistic malpractice.

Never, ever, do this. This is a massive failure of journalism.

Never just 'report the news'.

Things are not equal

The second problem with AP's article is something that makes me really angry about journalism, and it's about giving people an equal voice when things are not equal.

In the article, they went out and interviewed a bunch of experts, but look at how their statements were reported.

Transportation experts dispute the arguments, contained in a draft of the administration's proposals prepared this summer.

The experts 'dispute it' ... as in, they have a different opinion about it. But an expert doesn't express opinions. They express knowledge or analysis.

This is the problem that I often come across myself. Whenever a journalist contacts me to do an interview, they often start by asking: "So what do you think about [this thing]?", and every time I just want to scream:

I don't think. I analyze!

In other words, when you ask me a question, as a media analyst, I don't tell you what my personal opinions are, I tell you the result of my analysis.

This is such an important thing to understand. Experts are not pundits! (Or if they are, you are interviewing the wrong person).

A pundit is someone who is just telling you what he thinks, whereas an expert/analyst has been testing their assumptions before telling you about it. In other words, an analyst works like a scientist, and they conclude their findings based on the scientific process.

But look at the AP article. All the experts interviewed are just reported as a 'counter argument', as if they are just expressing an opinion.

Here is an example:

Allow me to be skeptical," said Giorgio Rizzoni, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University. "To say that safety is a direct result of somehow freezing the fuel economy mandate for a few years, I think that's a stretch.

This is an opinion, not an expert analysis. This is the wrong way to use experts. And you can't do this, because it creates a false equivalence. You are reporting these two sides as 'he said, she said".

The result is the worst outcome possible, because it means that your readers end up not knowing who to really trust. And when that happens, people start to make up their own minds, depending on what 'side' they prefer themselves.

As a journalist, you can't allow this to happen. It's the worst outcome possible, and it's all happening because you presented 'both sides' in such a way that people didn't know which one was right.

You presented everything as 'an opinion' rather than as actual trustworthy information.

Please stop doing this!

What journalists should do instead is to make a very clear distinction between opinion and analysis.

To start off, don't ask experts: "what do you think about [this]?" ... because it forces them into stating opinions rather than do real analysis.

Secondly, ask analysts to analyze, and then ask them to detail how they came to that conclusion.

This is what you report in the article. So instead of just presenting what the analyst said, which would be construed as just another opinion, you write:

We asked David Zuby, chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, to analyze [this topic], and his conclusion was that this would be unlikely. He came to this conclusion by [looking at these things], by comparing it with [these other things], and looking at [these datasets], and here is the result of that.

Obviously you would write this better than what I did here, but the point is that you need to present expert knowledge as actual knowledge and not just another opinion.

Don't make things equal when they are not.

This leads us to the final problem, which is about the lack of fact-checking.

You can't fact-check after the fact

One thing we know is that you can't first publish an article about something and then later fact-check whether it was actually true.

We know this because we can just look at the traffic figures, and we always find that the initial non-fact-checked article will get 10x as many views as the fact-checked article you posted the next day.

We all know this is how it works. You know it, I know it, and we can directly measure it. So, the concept of just reporting first and then fact-checking later has to stop. You have to make fact-checking an integrated part of your initial work. It has to be built into the very fabric of your core workflow.

But the problem around fact-checking actually goes much deeper than this, because fact-checking needs to be part of everything you do, and it has to be done for more than just the direct statements that you report.

Let me start with a very simple example:

This is the headline and social media text that the Associated Press posted: "US says driving would be riskier if fuel standards tougher."

Is this true?

We don't know, but the headline publishes it as a fact. But not only that, AP is reporting that it's the US (the country) who are saying this, when it's actually just a part of a party-political draft by Trump's team.

And we know that many people merely read the headlines as they are skimming the news each day. So, for a very large group of people, this is the only information they have about this.

The result of this is that, right now, there are people in the US that believe this to be true, simply because their only source of information was this headline. And the next time someone starts to talk about fuel efficiency, I can guarantee you that there will be someone commenting: "But I have heard that the US found that tougher regulations actually leads to riskier driving".

And we, the media, are the ones causing this damage. We are the ones who are publishing these headlines as if something is a fact when it hasn't been fact-checked yet.

And... you have to stop doing this!

Just stop it!

A similar problem occurs when you move into the article. Here you find statements like this:

New vehicles would be cheaper - and heavier - if they don't have to meet more stringent fuel requirements and more people would buy them [...]

The problem here is two-fold.

First of all, this needs to be fact-checked. You can't just report it and then ask some experts for their opinions. As a journalist you actually need to look at the data and then present that data.

However, once you do this, you realize something much more important, which is that you can't just fact-check the specific statements in this draft proposal, because so many other things play into it.

For a car, for instance, the cost is not just about buying a car. As we all know, the cost of a car is made up of three elements. There is the cost of buying the car, there is the cost of owning a car (insurance, taxes, fees, etc), and finally there is the cost of driving a car (fuel, etc).

On top of this, we see that the choice people make is determined by a lot of outside factors. For instance, if the fuel prices go up, people will start to shift what type of cars they buy. They might decide to buy more used cars than new cars. Or they might choose to buy smaller cars than SUVs and trucks. And when more people decide to buy one thing instead of another, there is a change in the demand vs price that again has an impact on the actual cost of owning a car.

In other words, we have effects upon effects upon effects.

The problem is that if you, as a journalist, only look at a specific statement by a politician, in this case "New vehicles would be cheaper", and you only fact-check that, you end up with an answer that has no relevance. It might technically be true that new vehicles would be cheaper if car manufacturers didn't have to make cars better, but what about all those other factors? What if that causes people to buy more used cars because the fuel cost keeps rising?

In AP's case, they didn't fact-check it at all, they just asked some experts to give their opinions (there was no actual data being reported) ... but if they had fact-checked it, the mistake that most publishers make is that you don't take that critical step back to put things into perspective.

So, in that one article, the Associated Press made pretty much every single mistake that one can make. They allowed a false narrative to be formed because they 'merely reported the news', they reduced the voice of experts to the role of pundits, and they completely failed to fact-check the story before publishing it, causing people to either just make up their own minds (which is bad) or mislead them with headlines that appear to be a statement of fact.

This is not good journalism, and it's a key driver of the situation that we have in the US today where people just don't know what to believe anymore.

Don't just report the news

I could go on and give you many more examples, but I don't think I need to.

Covering an election is obviously a very complex task and every newspaper tries to do this the best they can. But as you can see from this article, we often make things worse because of the way we work.

We focus too much on the existing world of politics, causing us to discuss issues from a political-first focus and thus ignoring what the public really needs us to focus on.

We skew the way we give attention to topics, causing people who deserve that attention the least to get it the most.

We also use this attention in such a way that people don't know what they are asked to choose from, because they end up knowing a lot more about one choice than the other.

By focusing on just 'reporting the news', we often end up helping politicians twist the narrative to their favor, because we are just reporting what they said, and thus ignoring other topics that should have been talked about instead.

And, even though publishers are now more focused on fact-checking than ever before, we generally fail at it, either because we still aren't doing it enough, because we 'forget' to do it in our headlines, or because we merely fact-check the specific statements, rather than the situation as a whole.

The result of all of this is a public who don't know how to vote, who aren't sure what is a fact and what isn't, and who are screaming at us to focus on other things because what they really want is for us to focus on issues that actually matter to them.

This happened during Brexit, it happened during the last presidential election, and now it's very clearly happening again.

As publishers, we have a responsibility to change this, and after the last election we made a promise to the public that we would ...but nothing has actually changed... yet.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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