Election coverage

Media Post-Mortems Ahead

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Faith in the media remains at a historic low but if news organizations provide fair and factual coverage, people might trust it as a key resource.

  • Facts


    • Politico is a Washington-based news media outlet launched in 2007 by John Harris and Jim VandeHei.
    • Politico launched a Brussels-based European edition called Politico Europe in 2015.
    • Some media coverage of the U.S. election has been criticized as being biased, celebrity-focused or unfair to the candidates.
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Focus on the media. Source: AP

It’s never too soon to look to the next story. With the 2016 election mercifully almost over, Kristin Roberts of Politico says the big story of 2017 will be an ongoing identity crisis in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Ms. Roberts, a Reuters veteran with a background in war and security reporting, currently heads up campaign coverage at the Washington-based news website. She told a team of journalists from Handelsblatt Global that while the Republican crisis might be more obvious, both parties will be interesting to watch.

No doubt the media and its role will also remain in the spotlight. Politico’s co-founder and chief editor John Harris, Ms. Roberts, and political reporter Steven Shepherd walked us through the highs and lows of this extraordinary election campaign during a visit to the media outlet’s offices in Virginia.

Chief among their worries in the campaign’s dying days is the security of their journalists, especially in this unusually nasty election cycle.

“I worried about my reporters’ safety every single day of the campaign,” Ms. Roberts said. “I have a background in reporting from war zones and hostile terrain whereas not everyone has all that experience – some of them are young and silly.”

Reporters have often been the target of aggressive taunts at rallies of Republican Donald Trump. And then there’s things like covering the far-right extremist wing. Ms. Roberts said she has chosen not to send in reporters when the situation seemed likely to be too dangerous.

“That’s when it stops being a good story,” she said. “There’s no need to take ridiculous risks. If the [white suremacist group] KKK shows up and they’re armed, that’s something we can cover from elsewhere… The point of going out is to talk to real people and to witness, but when there’s a threat to life, it isn’t for us,” she said.

Of course, Politico’s coverage might have to change quite drastically if Donald Trump wins. Ms. Roberts notes that, given the Republican candidate’s rough-and-tumble relationship with the media, many of them could be denied access to the White House. That’s just fine with Ms. Roberts – she said the better stories come from outside the Washington bubble anyway.

As a real-estate mogul and reality star over the past decade, Mr. Trump had certainly been less hostile to the media – and even hungry for the attention. But as the campaign has rolled on, Ms. Roberts says he’s gotten to enjoy that relationship less and less amidst the more critical coverage of a tight election.

How a President Trump might deal with the press is hard to gauge. Ms. Roberts said that through history, presidents have dealt differently with the press, but all have recognized that they need the media. “So does the public,” she said.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around news outlets too. Ms. Roberts said that the media in the United States had forgotten the concerns of working Americans who had lost the hope that their children’s lives would be better than their own.

“Washington was caught off guard by the extent of insecurity in true America,” she said. That’s partly down to regional news outlets, which she says are best-placed to convey people’s concerns aronud the country but hadn’t done so.

In the future, this could be a chance for local newspapers from Dallas to Tennessee to Des Moines, all struggling with circulation, to reinvent themselves and take a stronger role in the conversation and create a new identity.

No doubt there will be a general post-mortem by the media likely to follow this election, Ms. Roberts said. But she argued this was an even bigger problem for TV. The traditional print media has done a better job of maintaining critical, fair and balanced coverage of the election campaigns, she said.

Network media organizations were partly responsible for the extraordinary coverage of Mr. Trump. Ms. Roberts said that covering Mr. Trump’s every utterance and allowing him to call in around the clock was unprecedented, and was less fact driven journalism than infotainment.

“They’re addicted to the ratings but have lost a firm grip on the fundamentals of journalism.”

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Mr. Shepherd: “TV seemed to replace news with adversarial debate,” he said, adding that many networks seemed to have hired people because they were good on TV rather than solid journalists.

Mr. Harris was more sanguine on the Trump phenomenon and how much damage it has caused to the political and media culture. While the country appears to be polarized, he’s not expecting any rioting in the streets. People are agitated in a cable TV-age sort of way: “Our political culture is pretty secure,” he said.

And it’s not as if the public doesn’t share some of the blame, either. Ms. Roberts noted while people say consistently in polls that they want fact-driven journalism, their actions and the kinds of stories they click on often belie that. “But I truly believe that people need honest quality journalism,” she added.

When it comes Mr. Trump, the importance of the billionnaire businessman in the future will no doubt depend on the results of the election. “Generally though we won’t treat his every utterance as a potential piece of breaking news,” Ms. Roberts said.

There have been other things to question. Politico covered the independent candidates more than would have been necessary given the weakness of their polling, Ms. Roberts said. She said she had equal numbers of reporters covering Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton as the race drew to its nail-biting final stages.


Astrid Doerner was a Handelsblatt U.S. correspondent in New York and now is an editor in Germany. Nicole Bastian coordinates Handelsblatt’s foreign policy coverage. Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: doerner@handelsblatt.com, bastian@handelsblatt.comwilliams@handelsblatt.com

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