What the press got wrong and right on 2020
Time for a bit of the Hinkley wisdom on how the press handled its 2020 coverage:
WRONG: The polls
I’ve never been a big fan of horserace political reporting because it diverts attention from the issues at stake.
Now, three consecutive presidential contests have proven polls are no longer reliable, anyway.
In 2012, the supposedly gold-standard Gallup predicted a Mitt Romney win, but Barack Obama won relatively handily. In 2016, most polls predicted an embarrassing trouncing for Trump, but he turned multiple blue states red. This year, polls predicted a blue wave turning the Senate and expanding Democrats’ majority in the House, but Democrats actually lost House seats and will at best tie the Senate.
Most of the poll stories I read this year had some commentary on polls’ past failures, but the polls still made headlines.
The errors of the past 12 years show pollsters are either asking the wrong questions, asking the wrong people, or, worst, asking the wrong questions of the wrong people.
Polls can be a good indicator of how people feel, but not a good predicter of how people will act. I know plenty of people who’ve had nothing good to say about Trump over the last four years but ultimately voted for him because they want him naming Supreme Court justices, they like his tax ideas, out of party loyalty, or other reasons.
Until the pollsters can prove their abilities, the press needs to stop paying for and reporting on their products.
WRONG: Assumptions about race
and the race
There was — as there should have been — a lot of coverage of the expanding Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights issues this year.
But most of the media commentators said that spelled doom for Trump, who’d given only lukewarm condemnation of white supremacists, had hit hard on the “law and order” dog whistle, and had infamously started his 2016 campaign by calling immigrants rapists.
But exit polls showed growing support for Trump and the GOP among Latinos — both Florida Cuban Americans and those of Mexican/Central American/South American descent in border states. And Trump improved his standing among Black Americans — particularly Black men — over four years ago.
MIDDLING: Dispatches from America
Part of the reason the national press missed Trump’s stronger-than-expected support among people of color is that they still spent too much time reporting from the coastal bubbles and the D.C. beltway, and not enough time reporting from the middle of America.
To be fair, the media was stretched thin, its resources damaged by the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic and then pulled in so many directions, from wildfires in California to protests and riots in places like Seattle and Portland to the coronavirus all over the map.
But, when your only meaningful heart-of-America reporting is happening at the scenes of burning downtowns, you miss what regular folks are thinking and feeling. Politico Magazine (one of my favorite outlets) did a good job with its “Letter from …” series of deep-dive, on-the-ground reporting from places like Norristown, Pennsylvania, Austin, Texas, and South Bend, Indiana. Those stories made it clear to me as early as this summer that Joe Biden wasn’t going to get his blue wave.
Other outlets — especially cable news — need to invest in that kind of reporting if they want to get things right.
Though largely ignored by those on the farthest edges of both sides of the political spectrum, the media fact-checkers were working overtime this political season, on election night, and into the days (and days … and days …) after Nov. 3 fact-checking baseless claims.
My favorite: When Trump supporters in Detroit said they saw ballots being wheeled into the vote-counting center after Election Day, and the press was able to quickly debunk that myth and prove it was a TV news cameraman hauling his equipment. The network’s logo was right on top of the case supposedly containing ballots.
RIGHT: Explaining the results
Calling a race before all the ballots have been counted has always been a dangerous thing (can anybody say Bush v. Gore?), but it was doubly so in this election, with hyper-partisanship rampant and conspiracy theories spreading on social media (including the twitter feeds of the incumbent president and several sitting members of Congress).
But there is a science behind race-calling, an analysis of votes in and votes outstanding compared to historical voting trends, and the media is usually right.
And they did a good job of moving “why we did it” explainers online almost immediately and TV anchors running their viewers through comprehensive interactive maps showing their math.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.