On TV and Online, 8 Ways to Change Political Coverage

By Steve Safran 


2016 was the year election coverage was disrupted for good.

The politician’s dream of “going around the media” was finally a reality. Politicians used social media and took their messages directly to the people, unfiltered and on message. And it was boring.

All except for one person: Donald Trump.

Trump upended the election. A lifelong showman worked the major news media outlets, which needed the ratings he provided. The more outrageous he became, the more airtime he got. And when he couldn’t get airtime, Trump took to Twitter to make statements that, because they were coming from a Republican running for president, needed to be covered.

The embedded news organizations following each campaign treated it like any other. Trump knew this was asynchronous warfare. He did not fight “fair,” not at least in the way it had been defined before. He loved the media until they treated him like a serious candidate and subjected him to critiques. Then they were banned.

Hillary Clinton also worked the media. Seeing that Trump made negative headlines, her campaign laid low. She went nine months without holding a formal press conference. “You can get all the information you want on the candidate on her website,” the campaign said.

Old school campaign coverage is over. It’s broken and it’s time to end it. Away with embedded reporters. Away with giving attention to He Who Shouts the Loudest. Away with letting politicians off the hook if they won’t talk to the news media. I never want to hear the term “earned media” again.

Here are the fundamental changes TV and web news outlets need to make in covering campaigns:

1. Stop the horse race. Polls are a great way to gauge public interest. But every day? It’s noise. Stop trying to open your Christmas present the night before. TV news already won’t release exit polls before voting ends in states on election day. Stop the tracking polls.

2. No more “Who won the debate?” analysis: This rests on the false belief that someone must be the winner of a presidential debate. Why? Can’t we analyze what each candidate said without making this just another bet? Turning debates into a “Winner” contest demeans the process.

3. Put an end to hiring political operatives as “analysts.”: I know the Clinton supporter on CNN is always going to say Clinton won. I know the Trump supporter is always going to say he won. It’s useless drivel. They add nothing. Worse, they give an air of false equivalence. And, while we’re at it, no more “embedded campaign reporters.” Travel on the company dime and end the cozy relationships.

4. Online polls? No more. You learn nothing from them other than how many people voted. These are useless.

5. Recognize social media as the arena it is. The best (and the worst) conversations I have seen about the election have been on Facebook and Twitter. It’s too easy to dismiss these voices as “quacks” and “wackos.” These are voters. Journalists: Respect these voters. Follow up with them.

6. Call out hate. There have been hate groups that have made their voices loud and clear this election. This is evil. Attacks against reporters online are vicious. If you are Jewish, female, African-American, Hispanic, Muslim or part of any group, chances are you’ve been threatened or slurred. Call these people out. Not just in a “This jerk said this mean thing about me” kind of way. Follow the lead of Steve Crump, the WBTV reporter who was insulted by a young man. Crump didn’t walk away. He confronted the man, forcefully but not threateningly. It was bare and raw and riveting. After the confrontation, the man who made the racist remarks apologized. Confront hate by listening.

7. Fact Check Live: We have the ability to call up information in a fraction of a second. People fact check the debates in real time. When we’re interviewing clients, go in armed with the facts. If they say a fact is wrong, simply look it up for them. Pattern a newscast on The Daily Show model: Show what the candidate said, then show video of them saying something that contradicts their statement. If you’re quick enough, you can even pull up the clip on a mobile device and show it to the candidate while you’re interviewing them. When they are clearly lying, say they are lying.

8. Embolden your audience. David Farenthold of the Washington Post has broken some big stories this election season. He looked into the Trump’s claims of giving to charity and  found a number of questionable doings. When David needs help, he puts it out to the crowd:

Other reporters doing excellent social media work are Sopan Deb of CBS News and CNN’s Senior Media Correspondent, Brian Stelter.

It’s time for news consumers to take action as well. You hate “the media?” OK. Stop complaining. There are more places than ever to find information about candidates. You think the media has a liberal bias? There are conservative websites and newsletters. There is no shortage of information you want. I’d suggest seeking information you might find objectionable, because there’s a chance it could change your mind.

The old model is broken. We need change. Report on the next election as though you were starting a business from scratch. Ask: “If I were reporting on a presidential campaign for the first time, how would I do it?”

I bet the answer is “Better.”