Groundtruth: 0% of US TV coverage of the election had to do with policy

Just days before the result of the 2016 US Presidential Election, Boston-based foreign news organisation GroundTruth took part in a panel debate on the question of media credibility.

In town for a team meeting, Charles Sennott and Gary Knight, founders of GroundTruth, shared their commitment to training up-and-coming talent in global correspondents in an age when digital media seems to cast doubt on the reliability of political news.

Calvin Sims, seasoned US foreign correspondent and chair for the evening, identified a ‘tectonic shift’ in global politics as a ‘pandemic of populism’ now affects elections in the UK, Europe, and US.

The ensuing debate asked how successful mainstream and off-beat media channels are in producing meaningful political analysis for a generation typically craving entertainment.

The panel (left to right): socio-political journalist and author Laurie Penny, eminent American broadcast journalist Michael Goldfarb (The New York Times, NPR), GroundTruth Co-founder and Managing Editor Kevin Grant, and – joining us stateside via Skype – freelance Bloomberg journalist Matt Negrin.

Election as spectacle

Sims’ began by asking how appropriate it is to engage with humour in covering this election.

A visibly excited Matt Negrin enthused that he is likely the only person left in New York not yet weary of wall-to-wall media coverage of the election, ‘It’s so much fun. The race is close enough that it’s still interesting to cover.’

Grant went someway in agreeing, expressing the collective surprise many in the media have felt witnessing Donald Trump’s continued extremist statements even after being selected as the GOP’s candidate. ‘Trump is not normal, he has never been normal his entire life,’ he said, ‘The only way to cover this race is to be a little bit stupid,’ arguing a level of incredulity is helpful for real analysis.

Penny echoed the feelings of some in the audience saying she was ‘disturbed’ by the ‘excitement angle’ expressed. ‘It’s a real mistake to see this as fun in any way. Politics is a bad drug,’ she said, distasteful of a media frenzy that lacks sober questioning.

Goldfarb countered, it is essential the media depict Trump ‘as the threat to democracy that he is.’ The broadcaster went on to draw comparisons with the recent Brexit result and the imminent American decision, saying ‘resentment has nowhere to go’ for young angry men displaced from traditional ways of life, leading to extreme choices at the polling station.

Language can be unthinkingly recycled by media outlets without real discussion of its meaning – particularly in relation to voter demographics. ‘Critique of media is abysmal in America,’ said Goldfarb.

Several short videos produced by GroundTruth show that humour can capture an audience and convey real political information – as seen in a ‘Fact-Checking’ sketch with memorable dialogue.

Social media and youth in a digital age

‘The digital space was supposed to make things more democratic’ – and yet often a paucity of voices seems to dominate the debate, even online. ‘What should the media consumer do?’ asked Calvin.

Acknowledging that ‘journalism is in the grip of a massive financial crisis,’ Penny argued the media has not found a way of monetising meaningful critique for a mass audience.

Grant held that the media still has a way to go, and often ‘doesn’t get to the heart of policy matters,’ partially because ‘there’s no clicks in unemployment stories’. Media Matters found that roughly 0% of US TV coverage of the election had to do with policy.

Social media is growing in importance as an ‘alternative’ to ‘the shouting match on TV’ for many millennials seeking political discussion, according to Grant.

New opportunities are emerging on digital platforms, and there is hope yet for intelligent nuance in the ‘crass, uncivil discourse’ (in the words of Sennott) which election coverage so often appears to be.