Does regional media still have its part to play in influencing floating voters? As US election day draws ever closer, we meet some of the journalists, publishers and broadcasters whose editorial output could change the outcome where it matters the most.
Predicting election results is always hard but journalists are particularly cautious when it comes to this year’s US election. Burnt by getting it wrong in 2016, many are wary of opinion polls. “It will be close,” goes the refrain.
Talk to anybody about the vote, which takes place on 3 November, and they’ll tell you that the US electorate is as polarised as it has ever been and that staunch Trumpians won’t change their mind whatever the president says or does. Instead, the election will likely be decided on turnout. Little more than 50 per cent of Americans usually vote, so the winning side will be the one that engenders greater enthusiasm. At the same time, we’ve become accustomed to external factors influencing results – misinformation, social media, political meddling.
So can opinions be swayed? If so, what role does the media play in this? In the case of the US swing states in which the result of the election could be decided, local newspapers are often the most relevant news sources. Broadcasters and publishers who target specific demographics and create communities around them have also strengthened their bonds. Here we speak to the US journalists whose opinions matter and get their take on the ballot and their role in it.
JC Watts Jr is co-founder and chairman of Black News Channel, the nation’s only 24/7 culturally specific news network that reflects the black community’s viewpoints.
“The driving force behind working on the Black News Channel [bnc] for 15 years – and finally launching it in February this year – was to share a more comprehensive story about the African-American community. Telling stories from an African-American perspective is critical. Sure, the community has to deal with crime, just like every other community does, but there’s a whole lot more to the black population than crime, athletics and entertainment. I’m not belittling those things but there’s more to the community than what we see on most networks. We thought that a more comprehensive story about black Americans needed to be told – from wellness to education to current affairs and business issues.
When I was in high school we had three networks from which we got our news. It didn’t matter if you were black, brown or white, you got your TV shows from those networks. Today you have more than 250 channels. There are all sorts that speak to different demographics. If you want to speak to women or the lgbtq community, there’s a channel. Everybody should be represented.
Black News Channel is in about 40 million homes today. When you consider what has happened over the past six months, the demographic that we represent has been right in the middle of everything: the pandemic has affected us disproportionately and social-justice issues have been front and centre for us at bnc. We’ve been able to provide a service for our demographic and for the country.
“Over the past six months the demographic that we represent has been right in the middle of everything”
You have newspapers that endorse political parties but you rarely have broadcast networks that do likewise. In ethnic-minority communities, people still take a real interest in who The Black Chronicle [newspaper] might endorse. They need facts and data but there’s room for opinions. You need a trusted source for all communities to talk about the issues and ideas.
Political reporting is often based upon whether you’re on ‘my’ team or ‘their’ team. I don’t think the black community is enamored with the Democratic Party but Republicans are so poor on race issues. So I think that the black community will overwhelmingly vote Democrat.”
Long a Democratic stronghold, Pennsylvania turned red in 2016. Now the state is being treated as a bellwether of Trump’s ablility to hold on to his voters. The team at ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’ know that the nation’s eyes are on Pennsylvania.
“Reporters everywhere felt blindsided by what happened in 2016. We missed it in our home state so we felt some shameful ownership of that. A lot of our coverage this time has been about getting out of the city. Most Trump supporters are in rural areas. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand voters who don’t read our paper, who we don’t interact with a lot.
The polls say that Biden is up but I’ve done a lot of reporting in areas that went for Trump in 2016 that are motivated and energised. When your state is defined by such slim margins, it means that any voting bloc could make a difference. There’s value in writing about black voters who are considering Trump, or about white women without college degrees who voted for him in 2016 and are switching to Biden. These smaller demographics could have a lot of power.”
“When the pandemic happened, our reporters found that it was hard to go out and talk to voters. So what we are doing is convening a virtual round-table of 24 Pennsylvania voters between now and election day. They are informing our coverage and helping to open our eyes to things we never thought about. In turn we’re opening up our process to them. We put Democrats, Republicans and independents together. People were more candid, open, honest and vulnerable than I thought they would be. In the social-media age, we’re used to diving into echo chambers of people who see the world the way that we do but there’s a genuine curiosity to talk to people with a different perspective.”
“One of my biggest concerns is that it is very likely that tens of thousands of votes will not be counted because they’ll arrive after the deadline. That’s the kind of thing that can change an election. Because of how divided voting by mail is, we’re going to have a problem. It’s likely that mail-in votes are disproportionately Democrat.
There are a lot of people whose job it is to tell you what the Trump campaign is doing or what the Biden campaign is doing. There are only a handful of people whose job it is to focus on whether and how people are allowed to vote in Pennsylvania – a state that could decide the election and where the rules can help determine who wins. It is a huge responsibility. That’s why I view my beat as more than just telling people the news. It’s also important that we do some service journalism.”
The magazine’s senior editor on why it ran its first ever endorsement – for Joe Biden.
“We felt that science was on the ballot this year, in a way that it has never been before. Most obviously because of the pandemic. But also because of policies about climate change and healthcare, where science, evidence and data are crucial. One candidate has a history of denying all that and actively trying to weaken it; the other is guided by the science and the data. We wanted to make it clear that Donald Trump’s behaviour has devastating consequences. His inactions, such as the refusal to step up national testing programmes, has led to deaths. Voters should take notice of that.
People have been supportive of what we have said because this isn’t about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. What this is about is that policies should be based on good evidence. For the really big issues facing the country and the planet today, science provides that evidence and we ignore it at our peril. Let’s elect leaders who pay attention to it.
I don’t keep a gauge on the politics of our readers but Scientific American has a history of advocating for evidence-based policies and this decision to endorse a presidential candidate is in line with that thinking. I don’t think it’s going to shock our readers that we’re continuing our advocacy of policies based on good science and good data.”
For the past 45 years, Bhatia has worked in local newspapers across the US, including stints in California, Oregon and Texas. Three years ago, he was appointed as the head of the ‘Detroit Free Press’ in Michigan.
“Local and statewide is everything for us. We’re in Michigan, which is going to be one of the key states. My request of my staff is basically that there are no surprises come election day, that we understand the mood of the electorate and that we report it thoroughly. It’s still relatively early days. Even though people like to say that everybody’s made up their mind, there are still 7 per cent undecided in our poll, which is more than enough to influence the outcome. When Trump was in Michigan we approached the coverage from a fact-checking point of view because he said a whole lot of stuff about the car industry that was just false. It’s really important that we do that with both candidates and their surrogates.
I don’t see our role so much as swaying people as giving them the information that they need to make the right decision for themselves. It needs to be about telling people the truth, whatever that might be, and however unpopular that might be with one segment of the electorate or another. I get plenty of emails every day from people who are upset: ‘You’re too hard on Trump, you’re too easy on Biden’ – or the other way around. But I don’t think that you see the outright hatred that you see towards national media, especially cnn, Fox, msnbc or The New York Times. People look at us differently than they do the national media. So is the degree of trust higher? I think so.
I’ve been in the business for 45 years and I remain optimistic about the future of journalism. Those of us who are at the so-called metro papers still have a profound responsibility because we’re the biggest provider of news in Michigan. We’re going to see much more networking of journalism sources to keep state and regional news alive; a partnership and collaboration born out of economic necessities but also coverage necessities.
[To cover the election] we have three full-time people devoted to Michigan and we’re adding two more, one of whom is going to be strictly on ballots. Maybe it’ll break strongly one way but it’s going to be close. I don’t think it’ll be a 10,000-vote margin, like it was for Trump four years ago, but it’ll be close.
Detroit is an 80 per cent black city and Trump is having trouble getting traction. We have a story coming out on how suburban women are thinking differently this election; many people think they are the key demographic to whether Trump is re-elected. The overall lesson from four years ago is, ‘Don’t take anything for granted as stuff happens on election day.’
This is going to be a really different election night for those of us in the press because most of it will be done virtually rather than in newsrooms. And newsrooms are about as fun as it gets. You know, it’s eating cold pizza but it’s a lot of cold pizza. The energy, the excitement and surprises really are what makes it so fantastic and why I love it so much.”
Having been born on an election day, news director Henderson was destined to report on the ballot.
“This has been an unusual year. It’s almost like the whack-a-mole game: things pop up and then something else pops up at the same time that demands the attention. And all of these things intersect with politics.
Radio Iowa was launched in 1987. We provide news and sports, as well as newscasts on the hour. We all feel a real sense of service to the community – and the community rewards us by tuning in, whether there’s some sort of critical event or just to find out if their [American] football team won last night.
There are many community-minded radio stations in Iowa. This year they’ve made a herculean effort to serve their communities. A huge storm hit the state in August and caused perhaps $1bn [€850m] worth of damage. People lost their electrical power. In that environment, radio plays a key role in telling people the important things.
Elections have largely been nationalised in presidential years when so much attention is paid to the horse race at the top of the ticket. This year seems different in that things do appear to be polarised: people are sorting into two camps. During the Iowa caucuses in February, it was difficult to find people who had voted Republican in the past at a Joe Biden event and it was very hard to find a Democrat who attended President Trump’s rally here in Des Moines.”
For more than 20 years, Sykes was the host of the most popular conservative radio talk show in the swing state of Wisconsin. In 2018 he founded national news website The Bulwark, joining forces with other disaffected Republicans.
“I think of my life as before and after 28 March 2016. For 23 years I had a conservative talk show on Wisconsin’s largest radio station. I was an outspoken conservative, very close to every Republican leader in the state. But from the moment that Donald Trump came down the golden escalator, he seemed to be a cartoon version of everything the left had said about the right: racist, misogynistic, xenophobic.
One by one, other Republicans decided that, ‘Maybe it won’t be so bad. We have to stick with the team.’ I could feel that the audience that had been with me for 23 years was shifting. I hadn’t changed where I was on Trump but the Republican Party was changing. It was adapting itself to Trump, at first reluctantly, then with a sort of transactionalism: ‘We’ll get things from Trump that we wouldn’t get from any Democrat.’ Gradually that became a habit. And here we are today, where the Republican Party is more like a cult of personality than it is a political party – and I’m the one who’s excommunicated.
When I voluntarily left my talk show at the end of 2016, I wasn’t on the team any more – for the first time. At The Bulwark we gave voice to people who otherwise would have thought they were out on an island by themselves. We create a space, voice and structure where these dissenters can express their opinion and realise that they’re not alone. Right now you have people who have been in the [Trump] administration coming forward and saying, ‘This was wrong.’ These are people who have come in from the cold and become outspoken about what they saw. What role did we play in that? Maybe just to keep the fire burning on the outside, saying, ‘If you want to break with this administration there’s a place you can go where your story will be told.’ It’s important to document and comment on what’s happening from a source on the centre-right. Why do you preach to the choir? So that they will sing.
“The notion that I could write an article to get people to re-evaluate a fundamental life choice would be naive”
If you think of me as being an optimist, you’ve misunderstood me. I struggle for optimism. It is difficult to reach into these bubbles and convince [Trump supporters] to come out. I tried when I was on the air, at a time when my influence among conservatives was much greater than it is now, and it became increasingly hard. There are so many ways now of rationalising your position; it becomes a sealed universe. So I wouldn’t say that The Bulwark is going to convert hardcore Trumpers to moderation. The notion that I could write an article that will get people to suddenly re-evaluate a fundamental life choice that they’ve made would be naive. My goals are more modest than when I was on the radio: I understand that if you are going to be a ‘never Trump’ conservative, you have to embrace your temporary irrelevance. Even after the election there’s going to be tremendous resistance in Republican circles to listen to anything that we have to say.”
A conservative columnist at the liberal-leaning paper, Will is set to vote Democrat for the first time.
“It’s my conviction that the US needs a two-party system with two sensible parties – and one of the parties ought to represent conservatism. Trump is not a conservative in substance or manner. I’m eager to give what my little column can to ensure that Biden wins.
The understandable hostility of many journalists to Trump has seeped into their writing and their topic selection to an extraordinary degree. Some of our great newspapers have become openly partisan, not just on their editorial pages but in their news reporting too. When this is over and Biden wins – as I expect him to – there will be, I hope, reflection on the part of the mainstream media as to whether they want to carry on this way or reclaim a journalistic ideal of evenhandedness. There’s reason to worry that journalists have found their new role as undisguised advocates exhilarating and won’t want to change.
For a columnist, the meta problem is this: the kind of people who read writing by people like me are uncommonly interested in politics and are well stocked with information and opinion. They are least apt to be moved by what media do. In my columns I like to have a high ratio of fact to opinion and to present facts that will challenge settled assumptions. The 2000 election turned on 537 votes, so at the margins things can matter.”
Walinchus is executive director of Eye on Ohio, a non-profit news outlet for investigative journalism.
“This election highlights the importance of good information. Eye on Ohio has a misinformation and disinformation fellow, Shana Black. She goes through the dregs of the internet to find the craziest stories on Facebook and Twitter. We don’t necessarily publish them because we don’t want to give oxygen to conspiracy theories. But we take them to local papers and radio stations, who can go into the stories in more depth.
Ohio’s economy – previously very manufacturing-heavy – has really changed over the past few years, particularly in places such as Cleveland, which has lost a lot of its population. On the other hand, the state capital, Columbus, has gained a lot of new people and become more of a technology hub. So it’s now an interesting demographic mix.
We have a whole bunch of data on just how vital civic journalism is and how it impacts on government. When newspapers close, people go to the polls less often, politics becomes more partisan, people who vote do so less often, the number of overall voters goes down and fewer people run for mayor. The national media absolutely do not pay enough attention to local news. A friend of mine once said that when they do, it’s almost as though they’re on safari and they’re coming across an expedition in the jungle. It’s important to not parachute in but to actually have reporters who are living in a region and can understand its particular context.”
Anderson is editor in chief of two Florida-based newspapers, one serving politically marginal Orlando, the other covering left-leaning South Florida. She aims to keep opinions and political endorsements separate from the newsroom.
“I took over the editor in chief role at the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2018, just two weeks after the high-school mass shooting in Parkland. The whole newsroom – more than 100 people – was involved in covering that tragedy and eventually, after 10 months of investigation, won the Pulitzer prize for it. Then in November 2018, I also took over the editorship of the Orlando Sentinel, which is my hometown newspaper. The approach for both is similar in that we focus on enterprise journalism. We also have a penchant towards covering corruption – the misdeeds of those in power. That’s at the heart of what journalism is about.
As news reporters we don’t take an advocacy role. Separate from the newsroom is our opinion department and editorial board, which take a strong advocacy position on certain things. Those who don’t agree with the opinion pages think that it influences our news. Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining the difference between news and opinion but I can’t understate how polarised a time it is right now. Conservative readers, especially, are more suspicious of the press in general, since our president has demonised us and called our motives into question.
We have one editorial board in each market. I’m an official member of the editorial boards but I haven’t been participating in them – I pull myself out so that it doesn’t affect the news side. The boards interview every candidate who runs for local or state office. Before that we do background checks; we ask them to complete a detailed questionnaire. We put the interviews online so that people can judge for themselves. After the interviews are over, the editorial board will see which candidate would be the best fit for that role and publish the endorsement. It’s a lengthy process – the board interviewed more than 80 people in South Florida and in Orlando – but it’s also one of the most valued things that we do, according to readers. They want to vote and they want to make an informed decision.
The presidential endorsement has the least effect; there’s so much information about the president and his challenger. But we do weigh in from the lens of what’s best for our community and what’s best for our state. The priorities in covering the build up to the election will be on the state’s readiness to handle the crush of mail ballots and to conduct a scandal-free election. We’ll be looking at any attempts at voter suppression and we’ll be covering any candidate visits to our state, and what they’ll be focusing on to sway the last undecided voters. We also have to be prepared for surprises that might try to tip the balance one way or the other.”