Donald Trump

Generals, it’s famously said, are always ready to fight the last war. The same goes for journalists.

The US media’s misreading of the 2016 presidential election (echoed in Australia’s 2019 election) has driven an eagerness to get right what went wrong, as readers ask: can we trust the media this time around?

The angst about 2016 is not because journalists got the horse-race wrong. It was because they missed the bigger story of the fundamental social shifts. After drawing some lessons, journalism has accelerated the evolution from old-fashioned stenographic reporting to a more deeply analytical journalism of context.

What are those lessons? And what does that mean for Australia?

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The polls aren’t everything

Journalists like to think they bring a gut-checking reality to the polls. Turns out, the gut-check was just confirmation bias. In both 2016 and 2019, the polls created and reinforced perception. 

In the US, the media have since strengthened specialist data units like The Upshot at The New York Times and FiveThirtyEight headed by Nate Silver (now part of Disney’s ABC). These provide polling averages that take into account the accuracy of different pollsters. For the more nervous readers, The Upshot provides a table adjusting polls by both the 2016 and the 2012 error.

In Australia, this analysis remains anchored in its academic and blogging roots, such as occasional Crikey contributor William Bowe, while News Corp continues to report its Newspoll results much as it’s ever done.

Society is diverse — but the media isn’t

Immediately following the 2016 election, the big city US media was criticised for overlooking “the economic anxiety” of the so-called “white working class” — older, regional voters in the mid-west rust belt. Australia’s media copped the same criticism for missing the shift in Queensland regional seats last year.

The post-election joke was that The New York Times decided to profile every mid-west road-side diner to find out what they missed. But, the post-election ruminations crashed into two big social moments: Me Too and Black Lives Matter.

The lesson for the media? US elections turned out to be decided by a whole lot of social groups affected by different issues moving in different elections. Yes, older, less-educated men in regions were moving right. But college-educated women in the suburbs were moving left.

This forced the US media to rethink its own diversity, in the stories it covers and the journalists it employs. There’s now a deeper understanding that systemic racism and sexism have social, political and media consequences. However, in Australia that understanding lags.

All politics is local

In both the US and Australia, different regions and states are like tectonic plates crashing into each other triggering earthquakes. We know that so much of this can be missed without strong local reporting but, in both countries, the collapse of the business model has left local media weaker.

The result? Politics is still local — but too often hidden away in closed Facebook groups, narrowing debate, leaving fake news uncontested.

Don’t take the bait

Remember when Donald Trump could trigger a media tsunami with nothing more than a well-placed tweet? The hardest lesson for the US media has been: just because the president says it, doesn’t make it news. It’s still a work in progress.

Scott Morrison has always had to work harder for attention, although Australia’s media is struggling to learn that substance makes the announcement, not the other way around.

But her emails…

Every leak has a political motivation. That should make journalists more sceptical, not less. Yet through the 2016 election, the drama of leaks and the false scandal of Hillary Clinton’s emails created a theatre which few journalists could resist.

Blame Watergate: every scandal looks like it should destroy a presidency.

Now, not so much. Despite the efforts of Trump allies and News Corp to build up a Joe Biden email scandal, most of the media have wised up.

And a touch of humility

The most valuable lesson has been humility. While many are eager for reassurance right now, US journalists have been reporting with analysis, context and plenty of uncertainty. That’s a lesson that wouldn’t be lost in Australia.