By David Jarmul
Media coverage of the 2014 midterm elections reflected continuing upheaval in the news industry, with data-based reporting expanding while also showing its limitations, three leading journalists told an audience that filled the Fleishman Commons in the Sanford School of Public Policy Saturday afternoon.
“Whether it’s a good time to be a journalist now, I’m not sure. It’s an interesting time.”
— Nate Silver, founder and editor-in-chief of fivethirtyeight.com.
Silver, who moved his celebrated polling blog earlier this year from The New York Times to ESPN, said his statistical approach to covering elections serves to enhance, not replace, conventional political reporting. “We love it when reporters are actually going out in the field and saying, ‘Here’s what I see,’” he said.
Molly Ball, who provided just this kind of coverage of the recent campaign for The Atlantic, said in-the-field reporting was “absolutely complementary” to statistical analysis. Describing how voters across the country told her repeatedly about their “discouragement and disappointment” with President Obama, Ball said reporters need to “trust your eyes and ears and write what you really see.”
Major news outlets made “no big mistakes this year” in their election coverage, but many voters were less interested in campaigns than in other issues, said Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent for CNN and host of the program Reliable Sources. “We drove interest in Ebola, we drove interest in ISIS; we did not drive interest in the election,” he said, adding that candidates are increasingly circumventing the news media to interact with voters directly.
The journalists spoke at the 2014 John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press. Bill Adair, a Duke professor of public policy and founder of PolitiFact, hosted the discussion.
All three speakers agreed data journalism is becoming more important and sophisticated. “We are not at the point of diminishing returns yet as far as people’s appetite for this form of coverage,” Silver said. Yet pollsters face serious challenges as more Americans trade their landline telephones for cell phones – and then don’t answer their cell phones except for familiar numbers. Online polling is a possible alternative but needs to become more rigorous.
The midterm results were “a big warning sign for Democrats,” some of whom place too much hope in changing demographics and other trends as they look to 2016, said Ball. She disputed claims that the election lacked a coherent theme. “It did have a theme and the theme was Barack Obama,” she said. “The smart Democrats are taking a hard look at where they are and how they can adapt."
All three speakers predicted more changes in the news industry. “ABC World News Tonight is not the same product that it was eight years ago or four years ago. CNN is not the same product. Fox News is not the same,” said Stelter, who noted that many television stations reaped a financial windfall from “horrific” campaign ads this year yet made few new major investments in their news coverage.
Silver expects news outlets to increasingly differentiate, much like restaurants defining their niches. Ball struck one note of optimism, saying, “When I left newspapers five years ago, it really felt like a moment of death in the industry. Now it feels like a moment of transition … there are green shoots out there in the industry.”
Sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, the colloquium was established by Philip and Nancy Zeidman in memory of their son, John Fisher Zeidman, a Duke student who died in 1982 after contracting viral encephalitis while studying in China. The Zeidman Colloquium celebrates John Zeidman's passion for examining the interaction of politics and the press.
Other reports and interviews:
The Duke Chronicle, FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver tackles election predictions, website goals, by Gautam Hathi
The Duke Political Review, a student publication, Q&A with Nate Silver, by Jacob Zionce:
Time Warner Cable News, Journalist Panel Critiques Midterm Election Coverage, by Chris Williams