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Journalists wrestle with 2024 election coverage

Journalists Evan Smith, Errin Haynes, Abby Livingston, Charlie Sykes, and Shauna Thomas speaking about election coverage at the 2024 International Symposium on Online Journalism.

“We’re going to see some of the best journalism of our lives this year,” Charlie Sykes said at a recent journalism conference. “But given the state of journalism and the audience, many of the voters who most need that journalism will never see it and will not believe it.”

Sykes, a long-time journalist and conservative political commentator who is now a contributor at MSNBC, was a leader among “Never Trump” Republicans.

As part of The International Symposium on Online Journalism panel discussion of coverage of the last two presidential elections, Sykes didn’t hold back on his view of coverage the last two cycles.

“I think we all need to apologize,” Skykes said at the April symposium, held in Austin, Texas and online.

This year’s presidential election can’t be covered like a normal election, Sykes said, with the industry reporting on it as though it was 1976. There are lessons to be learned about bias and false balance, he said, and it’s important journalists learn and apply them this political season. That will likely be harder this election cycle with the decimation of so much print media and the splintering of legacy and social media.

Shawna Thomas, executive producer of CBS New’s CBS Mornings, agreed the industry has a lot to learn from the unprecedented nature of Donald Trump’s election and presidency.

“We saw from that particular presidency — the guy from the Apprentice, and if you are from a certain generation, a guy from the New York Post all the time — and he was a celebrity,” Thomas said. “And we thought it was a celebrity thing to talk about. But it wasn’t a serious thing to talk about.”

Political journalist Abby Livingston, a writer for Puck, described how the industry should stop expecting journalists to be “predictive” and instead focus on “laying out what we know” about elections. 

“We think of [elections] as algebra,” Livingston said. “And people go into voting booths and we cannot predict them.”  

Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th*, said the industry made a mistake in not listening to  Black journalists. 

“There were so many Black journalists who saw exactly what was coming in 2016,” Haines said.
“My entree into political journalism was Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign,” she said. “Seeing that election, and seeing that election night I still remember it very vividly. And I remember the conversation in this country — the myth that we were post-racial finally as a country – after that moment, which I knew could not have further been from the truth.

“I think there were a lot of black people in this country, a lot of Black journalists in this country who understood that if anything in this country, we were about to be hyper racial,” Haines said. “And we didn’t listen, and we didn’t pay attention to what was happening in that country even as we were jubilant about our ability to elect the first Black president.”

The panelists were split on what the media should not cover.

Both Thomas and Livingston said news organizations should stop covering polling as elections are defined by multiple other factors. 

“I think there’s a value to [polls],” Livingston said. “But I also don’t think it’s the only thing we should cover. And when I open Twitter after one of those polls that’s all there is and that’s all we talk about and that determines everything.”

Haines called for the end of the narrative that Black voters “are enough in number to decide our elections.”

“We are not interviewing white folks about what they plan to do in this election in the same way that we interview voters of color,” Haines explained. “We need to do that a lot more.”

Sykes called for the end of “trivialization” of politics. 

“Do not mute the crazy, do not be numbed down, do not give into the banality of the danger that we’re facing,” Sykes said. “And don’t be distracted by ‘The Show.’” 

Dana Kim is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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