By Pallavi Guha
Philip Merrill College of Journalism
For the past few months, U.S. and global media have been engaged in predicting the next commander-in-chief of the country. Until the election results were announced, the various legacy media organizations favored Secretary Hillary Clinton in this political spectacle. It was nothing short of a horse race, in which the various media outlets focused on the surveys and polling numbers.
Before FBI Director James Comey announced reopening the investigation of the Clinton email, the New York Times predicted Clinton had a 99% chance of winning against Trump, eventually reducing it to 85% on the day of the election. But it was still way off the actual outcome. And the Times is not the only one that misread voters; others like AP, FOX, CNN and FiveThirtyEight got it wrong too. These inflated numbers completely blindsided the Democrats and the Clinton campaign.
Since then, journalists, political leaders and the citizenry, have been asking the same question: How was the fourth estate not able to gauge the public opinion?
Cut to June 2016, the Brexit polls in the United Kingdom, where the national British media took sides in the referendum. The prestigious ones like The Guardian, The Observer, The Times and a few others endorsed remaining in the European Union. The polls and predictions to remain or leave the EU once again were not close to the result. Yet again, the stalwarts of journalism got it wrong.
Why are we seeing repeated failures of the media to predict or understand public opinion? Having covered pre-election coverage in the UK and India, the reliance on data and statistics are much greater now compared to previous elections. Depending on social media platforms and survey results seldom gives journalists access to public opinion. Most individuals are skeptical to share their political preferences on social media platforms. According to Pew, only 9% of social media users engage politically on social media platforms. These platforms don’t always provide the true public opinion since they are known to be echo chambers.
Secondly, the phone-in surveys completely ignored the undecided voters. These voters were not all undecided – many were closeted Trump supporters. But the constant labeling of Trump supporters as “racists” by the legacy media, forced them to withhold their choice.
Being a resident of suburban Maryland, I saw numerous Trump-Pence signs on the road and front yards, compared to Clinton-Kaine. And Maryland is a true blue state. Isn’t this a sign of something? And I kept wondering how could journalists miss it?
One of the many reasons that this signals to is the increasing disconnect between the legacy media and the people. A key example would be the media endorsement of a candidate or an issue. Endorsing a candidate or an issue takes away the objectivity of journalism. The media fails to look beyond its position and assess it dispassionately, much like the signs and phone surveys.
In spring of 2016, we discussed the issue of media endorsements. Most of my students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism objected to them. Irrespective of their political choice, they thought it was biased.
As a former journalist and a journalism educator, I have always believed objectivity is the cornerstone of journalism. A bit of media credibility erodes every time, when the media fails to understand public opinion. We fail the people, we fail ourselves and we fail the country every time the news media makes a wrong prediction.
Pallavi Guha has been a professional journalist and media educator for a decade. Pallavi has worked internationally for leading media organizations including BBC News and television in London and The Times of India in India. Pallavi has been a teaching assistant and taught courses on gender, race and class in media, Images of journalists in films and Media Literacy. Pallavi’s academic background is in international relations, politics, communication and women studies. She has been published in peer-reviewed journals on intersections of gender, social media and politics. Pallavi frequently presents her work at academic and professional conferences. Currently, Pallavi is working on multiple research projects including sexual harassment of women journalists in Indian newsrooms, implications of social media for voter engagement in India. Pallavi’s research interests include social media communication, gender, politics and media in India and US. Areas of expertise: India, social media, politics and feminist activism in India.