Journalists failed the public this year by ignoring clear signals that Trump had a chance at winning the election. In 2017, we can serve our readers and regain our relevance by making the public a part of the news gathering process
The honeymoon is over for Americans who fell for Donald Trump's sweet talk about strengthening the social safety net and ending big money's reign in Washington. The real estate mogul is staffing his cabinet with the kind of connected billionaires he railed against during the election.
In short, It turns out he was lying. He did so in hundreds of tweets and unscripted, unedited monologues, both of which the American media sometimes aired or re-posted, driving clicks and eyeballs to web sites and TV sets. Whether it was true didn't seem to matter either way. After all, few in media expected Trump to win. They were wrong.
Now, the American people are paying the price for the media's shortsighted laziness and arrogance. Trump's pick for treasury secretary is a former Goldman Sachs banker, Steven Mnuchin. His education secretary choice, Betsy DeVos comes from a family that donated millions to his campaign. She has openly hailed money as a means to buy political power. His choice for Health and Human Services secretary, US Congressman Tom Price, appears determined to pursue policies that would cut coverage for at least 15 million people.
Cutting the media out of the equation
A failure to understand American voters was only half the problem. Trump was an accomplice in the media's failure, avoiding the scrutiny of journalists by broadcasting his lies without a filter. He pointed out as much on Monday.
If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to "tweet." Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 5, 2016
Ironically, Trump's lies are there for all to see. Here's what he was saying in October, 2015:
I am going to save Medicare and Medicaid, Carson wants to abolish, and failing candidate Gov. John Kasich doesn't have a clue - weak!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2015
Trump was able to win over voters sick of conservatives telling them that austerity was the only way to run a conservative government. He made the promise to journalists directly.
"I'm not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Every other Republican is going to cut, and even if they wouldn't, they don't know what to do because they don't know where the money is. I do," Trump told The Daily Signal.
Some Trump voters are having regrets
In the heavily fortified country club that is Washington D.C., the dinner bell for lobbyists and special interest groups, from private prisons to private health insurance, is only ringing louder after Trump's win.
"I am a senior vet who would be dead without medicare, and little social security I live on $789 month. Please don't take!" reads a tweet from BOB 4 Trump, featured on the trumpgrets.tumblr.com, which shows Trump voters expressing bewildered remorse.
"I regret voting voting 4 you because u chose a woman who will defund public education," said another account, referring to Betsy DeVos.
This is not a laughing matter. This is not a time for glib gloating. Many people of all political stripes feel Trump's victory represents an emergency to their lives and livelihoods. Mocking them might scratch an itch, but it doesn't help anybody.
Part of the blame for Trump voters' disappointment goes to social media echo chambers, multiple parallel universes online where the laws of of political physics vary wildly. The blame for journalists underestimating the likelihood of a Trump win goes to their own echo chamber, where preaching to the choir online, drowned out voices that saw Clinton's victory as far from certain.
"Washington insiders missed the outcome of this election, and we need political reporters to stop relying on Twitter, think tanks and talking heads and combing through documents, talking to people creating policy or voters affected by the issues," Heidi Moore, a media consultant, told TRT World.
What makes these echo chambers so hard to escape is that traditional media, once curators for information the public trusted to pick fact from fiction, have become a redundant component in the way we consume news about the world around us.
Ensuring the media doesn't repeat its mistakes
News comes in three forms; news you must know (e.g. climate change will flood your city); news you should know (e.g. who's running for president); and news you want to know (e.g. who is a cute dog and why), but the algorithms on Facebook and Twitter can't tell the difference, because they're robots. And neither can your friends, most of the time, because that's not their job. Combing for important news out of the noise of current events is our job, and we've been failing at it.
It wasn't always this way. Before the rise of social media, politicians would send out press releases or hold press conferences, relying on journalists to decide whether they warranted coverage at all. If they did, our job would be to pick the fact from fiction. Now, with a single tweet, politicians can bypass journalists and lie more easily than ever. If democracy was a car, then social media cut the brake lines.
"If reporters don't question what politicians say, no one will," Moore added. "The job of journalists is to serve the reader, and stenography doesn't do that."
Moore said that shrinking budgets in newsrooms have made the problem worse. It's harder and more expensive to send someone out into the field to talk to voters or candidates, when there are already tweets or other posts online that seem to serve the same purpose. But it doesn't work as well, and traditional media become less and less relevant the less they engage with the public in real life.
What's the solution? Journalists need to engage with people more, and make readers part of the news gathering process. Instead of just copy-pasting reaction tweets, reach out to the tweeters and see what more they have to say. We need to start making readers deputies in keeping leaders honest, asking them to help us separate fact from fiction and telling people what they need and should know.
Our readers will never trust us as much as they trust their friends. If traditional media wants to remain relevant, we have to recognise that. The reason we should be doing what we do is to keep our readers safe and informed; to give them the knowledge necessary to navigate a complex and confusing world. Repackaging a series of racist lies without reaching out to the people they harm, represents a failure to do our jobs.
Journalists aren't perfect, we're as human as our readers. And we need to stop pretending that we have all the answers, because nobody ever does. But by bringing readers into the editorial process, we can help break our own echo chamber, and theirs too.