How the Media Missed the Mark

That the Pre-Election Assessment Was Wrong is Obvious. Here are Some Early Assessments on Why.

By Chris Adams

It’s been a chaotic  week for democracy – and a particularly humbling one for members of the media, who have spent plenty of time mouthing variations on Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment.

As Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza wrote of the widespread misreading of the election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: “Look, there’s just no way to sugarcoat it: Everyone — and I mean everyone — in the political press and punditry expected Clinton to win. She did not win.”

What went wrong?

Reporters, editors, historians, pundits, professors, partisans, pollsters and politicians will be analyzing that for years to come. There no doubt will be new methods in place by 2018 and 2020 to help the media better understand the voters.

Here are some of the early self-assessments, straight from the mouths of the news organizations responsible for these various forms of “oops.”

We will update as time goes on.

In Detroit, The Free-Press explains to its readers the newspaper’s errant call on election night. The newspaper went out early to say Clinton had won the state, based on its own precinct-level methodology that had proven reliable in the past. While the television networks and bigger news organizations didn’t follow suit, the fact that a well-respected, home-state newspaper had called it for Clinton so early contributed to the confusion on Election Day.

In The Huffington Post, senior polling editor Natalie Jackson explains “Why HuffPost’s Presidential Forecast Didn’t See a Donald Trump Win Coming.” Up until Election Day, the organization was giving Clinton a 98 percent chance of winning, and also that Democrats would take the U.S. Senate.

In Politico, Steven Shepard goes broader, detailing widespread polling failures among many news organizations. Part of that, he wrote, was due to lack of timely, high-quality polling in battleground states.

A couple other assessments of polling errors come from reporters at The Washington Post. Paul Farhi explains some of the failures that collectively represent “what may have been the greatest polling failure since they missed Ronald Reagan’s easy election victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.” Farhi does note, however, that some polls were close: The final Marist-McClatchy poll, he writes, gave Clinton a one-percentage point popular-vote advantage on Tuesday, and “as of Wednesday afternoon, she had a 0.2-point edge in the overall vote.”

Paul Clement of The Washington Post has more on polling problems, including historical data on misses and near-misses in elections past.

In The New York Times, prominent conservative pundit and talk show host Erick Erickson writes about “Eating Crow on Donald Trump,” and how he both misread the coming election and now worries the results will be misread going forward.

In Politico, Hadas Gold looks ahead to the coming relations between the media and the Trump White House. Gold quotes reporters who expect life for the press to be substantially different than the norm in previous administrations.

At Politico, Jack Shafer gives the media some cover, saying that Trump’s election did not represent a failure of the media.  “The press succeeded in exposing Trump for what he was,” his headline read. “Voters just decided they didn’t care.”

At The Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes on media’s “epic fail.” She says: “Trump, quite apparently, captured the anger that Americans were feeling about issues such as trade and immigration. And although many journalists and many news organizations did stories about the frustration and disenfranchisement of these Americans, we did not take them seriously enough.”

In Columbia Journalism Review, editor Kyle Pope writes that journalism’s “inability to understand Donald Trump’s rise over the last year, ending in his victory Tuesday night, clearly stand among journalism’s great failures, certainly in a generation and probably in modern times.” He adds: “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt.”

Sullivan of the Post added more comments a few days after the election, looking ahead to the coming battle over press freedoms: “Our First Amendment test is here. We can’t afford to flunk it.” And Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times asked some of the same questions in his look at what to expect on press freedom: “It’s one thing to wage a press war as a candidate, when the most you can do is enforce reporting bans at your rallies, hurl insults and deny interviews and access (all of which are plenty bad),” he wrote. “It’s another thing to do it from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where you have control over what vital government information is made public, and where you have sway over the Justice Department, which under President Obama has shown an over-exuberance in investigating journalists and the whistle-blowers who leak to them.”

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