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Panel Takes on the Challenges of Reporting in an Election Year

Election journalism stage
Election journalism stage
From left to right: Matt Yglesias, Jane Coaston, James Bennett and moderator Musa al-Gharbi, assistant professor of communication and journalism, at the panel discussion, “The Unique Challenges of Reporting on the 2024 Election.”

The media plays a crucial role in communicating truth and overcoming polarization, but reporting in the digital age brings with it numerous challenges. On February 22, a panel of journalists and media professionals came together for a discussion titled, “The Unique Challenges of Reporting on the 2024 Election” that explored the role of journalism in communicating truth and overcoming differences.

The event, held at Stony Brook’s Charles B. Wang Center, was co-sponsored by the School of Communication and Journalism and the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Intercultural Activities.

Panelists included James Bennett, senior editor, The Economist and former editor and reporter, The New York Times; Jane Coaston, CNN on-air contributor, The New York Times opinion writer, and former senior politics reporter at Vox and MTV News; and Matt Yglesias, publisher, Slow Boring Blog, co-founder of the news website VOX, and a former Atlantic reporter. The discussion was moderated by Musa al-Gharbi, assistant professor of communication and journalism.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science. “We live in an age of significant myths and disinformation, deep social and political divisions, and the polarizing impact of social media. Tonight, we’re going to try to answer an increasingly difficult question, ‘How can the media ensure that public audiences have access to accurate and thoughtful engaging information and content?’”

“It’s challenging even to use terms like ‘the media,’ because the number of people who tell me that they don’t trust The New York Times but then refer to something that I know that they got from another media outlet is pretty high,” said Coaston. “They trust a media outlet, they just don’t trust my media outlets.”

Election journalism lindenfeld
Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science, introduced the discussion.

Coaston added that the challenge is not just about polarization, but also about media diversification, since people are able to seek out media outlets that will tell them what they already want to hear.

“We now have a nationalization of local news, and a localization of national news,” Coaston said. “I think about that phenomenon a lot in my work. I see people who are very worried about something that is taking place very far away from them in a state they’ve never gone to, in a city they’ve never visited. So when we’re thinking about ways to combat polarization, we need to talk about that not just in political polarization, but also cultural polarization, socioeconomic polarization, and what access people have to news.”

Much of the talk focused on dynamics surrounding former president Donald Trump and his relationship with the media. Yglesias said the amount of coverage dedicated to Trump is not just a product of what the media provides, but also what the audience demands.

“My job was to write articles that people would read,” he said. “I tried to write good articles, I tried to be fair, and I tried to be accurate. But we have metrics on the viral internet. In the end it’s ‘how many people read your stories?’ Your job is to write stories to get people to read. It’s pretty basic. But there’s this bottomless demand for coverage on Donald Trump.”

Bennett talked about the profound effect of the national decline in local news. “We haven’t reckoned with what the wipeout of local publications has done,” he said. “It speaks a lot to this issue of trust, because it’s deprived so many Americans of a journalism that they can actually see and touch. Today’s media environment has deprived newsrooms of a lot of journalists who had experience of covering communities up close and having to deal with their sources the next day. It created a ‘rootedness’ in the work that placed value on accuracy and fairness, and was something you were really held accountable for.”

Coaston said that coverage would be better if more journalists got back to basics, equating political coverage to covering a football game.

I firmly believe that every journalist should have to cover high school football for a while,” she said. “It’s easy if you report a game story. You don’t report your interpretation of what the score was. You don’t report the game was boring. You say the Bengals beat the Steelers 16-14, there was a safety, there was a great defensive play. You cover the basics. I want to see people talking about Donald Trump’s actual policies instead of the spectacle.”

Yglesias spoke about the perceived impact of journalism, and how the media’s real power is determining which topics to cover. “If you make the news about immigration all the time, right-wing political parties win elections; if you make the news about health care stories, left-wing parties tend to win elections,” he said. “That’s not to say you should make coverage decisions just to produce partisan outcomes. You should try to be fair in your coverage because it’s good for people to learn things. But you also shouldn’t think that you’re actually giving away some kind of political power by doing that.”

In the end, Bennett said it’s about giving people access to the information they need to make informed decisions.

“Our job as journalists is to do what can’t be done in Russia, which is to give them as complete a picture of reality as possible and then let them make their choices,” he said. “I’m presenting them with this wide range of opinions, because I want them to think for themselves. I don’t want to pretend that I have the ability to tell them how to think. That would be naive on my part. I recognize who we are and we certainly are susceptible to the propaganda. But the way we help struggle against that is by not participating in the propaganda.”

Robert Emproto

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  • Journalists should just report the facts. ALL the facts, not just the ones that fit their chosen narrative. And NO SPIN.

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