Friday, November 11, 2016

Getting an Election So Wrong: The American Media and Pollsters in 2016

“After projecting a relatively easy victory for Hillary Clinton with all the certainty of a calculus solution, news outlets like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and the major networks scrambled to provide candid answers.”[1] The dynamics likely went beyond even candid answers from the media, with major implications for how much reliance Americans should place on their media-establishment for political information.

“You were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans,” filmmaker Michael Moore wrote.[2] To be sure, “all the number-crunching of state polls pointed to resounding success” for Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.[3] The journalists could simply insist that they were reporting those polls. “Virtually all the major vote forecasters, including Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, The New York Times Upshot and the Princeton Election Consortium, put [Hillary] Clinton’s chances of winning in the 70 to 99 percent range.”[4] Even so, Chris Wallace, an anchor at Fox News, make the following observation on election day. “A lot of media outlets made a decision sometime after the convention that Donald Trump was beyond the pale and they no longer had to observe the normal rules of journalism and objectivity.”[5] Clearly this was true of The Huffington Post, which declared Hillary Clinton “cleared” by the FBI on the Sunday before election day in spite of the fact that the agency was still investigating the Clinton Foundation, whose fundraising may have involved quid pro quos involving Hillary Clinton’s role as U.S. Secretary of State.

At the very least, groupthink was in the mix, meaning that the mainstream media was “on the same page” concerning assumptions regarding the upcoming election. Besides their being just plain wrong, their narrowness was such that society itself could hardly break free of the force of the narrative. Moreover, the narrowness suggests that the power of the American media was at the time too concentrated, such that alternative views, which can provide a check on groupthink, could not get through. In a representative democracy, a narrow conduit by which information is not only conveyed, but also interpreted and subject to ideology, represents a major flaw. Put another way, that the mainstream media outlets were all singing the same song suggests that societal debate on matters of public policy was also very likely too narrow, and subject to everybody being wrong in a major assumption.

Yet Wallace’s assumption that merely reporting the polls would be objective is vulnerable. Polls can only contribute so much. The “failed election predictions suggest that the rush to exploit data may have outstripped the ability to recognize its limits.”[6] Such limitations include “the potentially flawed assumptions of the people who build predictive models.”[7] Additionally, polling can offer only probabilities that cannot fully capture whether the motivation to vote will actualize at the proverbial ballot-box. For one thing, social desirability may spur poll respondents to say they will vote only because it is a societally recognized duty. Lastly, polls prior to an election cannot account for voters who change their decision at the time of voting.

So even the media’s common assumption that polls can and should receive such overwhelming emphasis was faulty, and the groupthink on this point left the electorate vulnerable to going to vote with a flawed understanding of how Americans had been reacting to the candidates. Just as political campaigns are not objective, journalists (and especially those who serve as commentators) are not merely conduits for facts. Given the subjectivity all around, a certain wideness of narrative (and assumptions) made more likely by a less concentrated mainstream media would enhance the American democracy.

[1] Jim Rutenberg, “News Outlets Wonder Where the Predictions Went Wrong,” The New York Times, November 9, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Steve Lohr and Natasha Singer, “How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election,” The New York Times, November 10, 2016.
[5] Jim Rutenberg, “News Outlets Wonder Where the Predictions Went Wrong,” The New York Times, November 9, 2016.
[6] Steve Lohr and Natasha Singer, “How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election,” The New York Times, November 10, 2016.
[7] Ibid.