Margaret Sullivan: “Media coverage in 2016 was disastrous. Now’s the last chance to get 2020 right.”

From a Washington Post column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “Media coverage of the 2016 campaign was disastrous. Now’s the last chance to get 2020 right”:

How did the news media mess up in the 100 days leading up to the 2016 presidential election? Let me count the ways.

Journalists relied too much on what opinion polls were saying and often presented a skewed interpretation of their meaning. That fed the sense that Hillary Clinton would be the inevitable winner.

They vastly overplayed the Clinton email story, particularly the “reopened investigation” aspect in October. Given Donald Trump’s background and behavior, the emphasis was astonishingly out of whack with reality.

News organizations failed to understand the tear-it-all-down mood of large segments of the voting public, or the racism and sexism that often fueled it.

They let Trump, the great distractor, hijack news coverage and play assignment editor. He became the shiny new toy that they couldn’t take their eyes off.

They glossed over, or didn’t understand, Facebook’s monumental influence on the vote, and how what appeared on social media was so deeply affected by forces outside the United States.

They did things the same old way. . . .As a result, much of the mainstream press — and a good chunk of the public — was caught by surprise on election night 2016. . . .

Here are some ideas about how the media can use this crucial time to best serve the public good so that election night 2020 doesn’t amount to another epic journalistic failure.

1. Focus on voting rights and election integrity. There’s no more important subject than the strong possibility of intentional voter suppression or other Election Day chaos that’s coming our way. Without a valid, publicly accepted vote, anything can happen. This should be front and center for journalists. There is no bigger story. . . .

2. Present the results of opinion polls with more context and explanation. One of the worst failures of the last cycle was the way Clinton was presented as the inevitable winner. Aggregations of polls that measured the probability of her winning at 80 percent, for example, didn’t adequately explain what that meant, or emphasize that — even at 20 percent — Trump still had a decent chance of becoming president. It was unintentionally misleading and probably had the effect of depressing voter turnout. . . .

3. Stop falling for Trump’s distractions. Despite there being little reason to hope that the White House press corps’ years-long tendency to let Trump function as their assignment editor will change now, it should. . . .

4. Don’t participate in another “but her emails” situation. The latest iteration are charges that former vice president Joe Biden is approaching senility. Writing in The Post’s opinion section, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel compared this to what happened with Hillary Clinton. The media elevated the emails story because of a preexisting narrative that she was conniving and untrustworthy; it fit perfectly. Now that Trump’s campaign is pushing the idea that Biden has lost his marbles, Emanuel begs for sanity: “Can we just please be reasonable about who’s actually showing signs of strain?”. . .

5. Understand the influence of social media — especially Facebook. Last time around, Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation — and flat-out lies, like “the pope has endorsed Donald Trump” — may have been the biggest factor of all.

If anything, Facebook’s mostly unrestrained power will be greater now. Who is helped most? Consider, these five top-performing U.S. Facebook pages . . . . Franklin Graham (Trump’s most prominent evangelical ally), Fox News, Blue Lives Matter, Sean Hannity, Judicial Watch (the Democrat-targeting activist group).

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