Monthly Newsletter: November 2020

The most unusual American election in a lifetime—conducted during a pandemic, with record high early voting and no official conclusion after 48 hours of counting—is now one for the history books.

In the messy aftermath, there will now be plenty of media flagellation, and deservedly so, for all their miscalls. We were first told that fears of the coronavirus pandemic might suppress turnout or that mail-in votes would create chaos. We were assured that President Donald Trump was heading for an historic defeat. And many media outlets were predicting a Democratic “blue wave” that might retake control of the Senate and flip solidly conservative states such as Texas and South Carolina.

True, journalists covering U.S. politics will have some explaining to do. They need to self-examine for confirmation bias—meaning talking only to sources who reflect their own views and prejudices. They need to dial back the near-obsession with opinion polls, which are at best snapshots of the public mood, not predictors of future voting behaviour. They also need to get out of their comfort zone more and try to better understand the nearly 70 million Americans who voted to reelect Trump.

But I’ll leave the media flaying to others. Here, I want to instead celebrate all the things the media this year did right.

First, unlike 2016, campaign reporters showed remarkable discipline in not getting distracted by last minute so-called “scandals”. Trump’s operatives tried hard during October to peddle unverified allegations involving supposed emails found on a laptop purportedly belonging to Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

Only the tabloid New York Post and Fox News, both Republican mouthpieces owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran with the story. Mainstream media outlets, doing their job as information gatekeepers, found the story too fishy, and the sources too compromised, and righty gave it a pass.

This was in sharp contrast to 2016, when journalists jumped to repeat every conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton, helping to undermine her campaign.

Second, media fact checkers became more sophisticated about calling out lies and disinformation in real time. Trump’s repeated claims about widespread fraud involving mail-in ballots were usually instantly debunked as “untrue” or “without evidence”. Likewise, social media giants Twitter and Facebook became more aggressive about removing Trump’s misleading posts, or slapping them with warning labels. This was another hard-earned lesson from 2016, when disinformation was allowed to swirl unchecked in the social media swamp.

And finally, the media—especially the networks—did an exemplary job not rushing on election night to try to call a winner in the contest. Repeatedly, journalists like John King on CNN have cautioned viewers to be patient and for everyone to wait until all the votes were counted.

This self-restraint goes entirely against the normal tendency of the networks to want to be first to make the calls and predictions when the polls close. This time, the admirable restraint has helped calm the public mood as this unpredictable campaign slogs towards a finish.

The media didn’t do everything right this cycle, and there will be plenty of time to reflect. But let’s celebrate everything that went right, and hope lessons have been learned for the future. Journalism this year is better for it.

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