Many say we “missed it.” I think they’re right.
Critics say the media didn’t get it because they are “media elites” who are out of touch with the people. And I think they’re right.
Honestly, I didn’t quite understand the meaning of “media elites” at first. But I think I do now.
Many of us in local newsrooms may be considered “elites” by Donald Trump voters. We’re highly educated, earn good salaries with the ability to put money in 401k accounts, and we’re controlling what they see and hear on TV. Sure, many of us have liberal leanings because we got into journalism to help people fight for causes and make lives better. But many Trump voters may feel we don’t always fight for the hard-working folks who don’t rely on subsidies, and they don’t like it.
Sometimes we look down on those who challenge us. When we get that call from the viewer who doesn’t sound highly educated or might not have a strong vocabulary, do we listen or brush them off? Those people you brush off may be an important part of Trump voters. Not highly educated, but blue collar workers who put in long shifts, possibly working two jobs to care for their families – patriotic Americans who feel no one cares about them. As Trump called them: “The forgotten.”
So when we think we know what’s best, when we feel smarter, when we think we’re right and they’re delusional. We don’t, and we’re not.
We Didn’t Get It
We didn’t understand or try to understand the Trump movement. We didn’t respect that almost every one of his rallies was filled to the max, sometime up to 20,000 people. We missed the passion of those who waited hours and hours in line – sometimes more than
12 hours to just get into the arena to see and hear him.
We dismissed him as a reality TV character. We were turned off by the various offensive
comments and instead of reporting it straight we turned it into a side show. The way he treated the media made us hope he wouldn’t win.
But we missed it. That light at the end of the tunnel was the Trump Train coming right at us and we never understood the passengers.
We’re Not Them
Average U.S. household income for a family of four with both parents working is around $54,000. Many in news departments make more than that, especially managers, reporters and anchors – the people who assign, report and tell the stories. If they make less than that, they likely still have a college
Look at your station’s parking lot. If you’re in a bigger market, many cars are less than 3 years old. A few are expensive models. Yet that family of four living on $54,000 chances are have at least one car that’s 10 years or older. When a repair is needed, it strains the budget and their credit cards.
For some in your newsroom, it may have been a while since you’ve shopped at a Walmart or Kmart. A lot of Trump voters go there to stretch their paychecks, and get discounts on clothing or deals on food. If you haven’t been to one, do it. Wander around and really watch the people. They’re your viewers. (They’re in the demo of 25-54 who are high frequency TV watchers. They watch far more local news than a higher income or higher educated viewer).
This is NOT to say that all Trump voters are blue collar. The Trump voters wanted change, much like those who voted for Obama for hope and change but didn’t feel it happened and wanted to try something new.
There were also many college educated in the electorate that voted Trump. Many were called “leaners,” a term I’m stealing from a cable pundit. These are the folks that when asked by a friend who they would vote for, would lower their voice and lean in and quietly say, “Trump.” But many in the media assumed only the “poorly educated” would vote for Trump. We were biased.
Reporters are often asked to do stories with “person on the street” sound. Typically, they go to the nearest strip mall or downtown street. How many reporters went out to the rural parts of their coverage area? That’s where the Trump voters were. Those were the people that elected Trump.
You can wonder how the pollsters got it so wrong. But we’re the ones on the front lines – we should have seen it, too. Instead of dismissing Trump as a fad, a character, a loud mouth with offensive comments, we failed to see his following.
So How Do We Change?
To start, we all need to take a step back and look at our processes and decision making. It’s too late for election coverage, but the story isn’t over.
- News managers should sit down with their team and ask, “Were we biased against Trump and his followers?” Watch a few stories from when he was in your market and compare them to your Clinton coverage. What stands out? Was your presentation fair? Or were we the liberal elite that tried to ignore him, felt embarrassed by him, and scoffed at his viability? It’s too late to change it now, but what does it tell you about yourself?
- Did we take time to really explore the issues he was campaigning on? Did we dig up local facts on how many jobs were lost? Did we talk to those who lost jobs during the recession and are now working again? Are they making less or more? How many 50-year-olds were laid off and are still without jobs? Did we do reporting or just cover that day’s events?
- Most of us working in newsrooms don’t look or live like many Americans. Pull out your latest content research projects and look at what stories are important to people. Share this with your producers, reporters and photographers. Focus more of your attention on the heavier TV viewers – blue collar workers, folks without college degrees, people who may not look like you but rely on you for local news and information. Tell their stories or stories that impact them.
- If you take these steps, be transparent with your audience about your findings. If you felt your coverage could have been improved say so, and explain the steps you’re taking. (But don’t alienate the other half of the country.)
- Literally talk with your viewers. Years ago stations did ascertainments. We brought people together to ask what was going on there they live. Consider doing a few of these throughout your viewing area. Invite viewers to meet over coffee and hear what they have to say. You’ll get story ideas and they can also vent. Earn their respect again.
I’ll be the first to admit it. I didn’t get it.
Right now, it’s not about ratings. It’s not who had the story first. It’s about our credibility, our ability to be objective, our ability to understand our viewers – and show them clearly we are not part of “The Rigged System.” We cannot afford to be elite.