What the media got right and wrong covering the 2022 midterms

Leading up to the midterms, many news outlets projected major gains for Republicans, driven in part by polls that showed the economy as voters' top concern. But Democrats defied predictions on Election Day. What did the media get right and wrong in their coverage, and what are some best practices moving forward? "Newsroom Confidential" author Margaret Sullivan joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Leading up to the midterms, many news outlets projected major gains for Republicans driven in part by polls that showed the economy as voter's top concern. But Democrats so far have defied predictions, as votes continue to be counted control of Congress still hangs in the balance, but at a closer than expected margin.

    So what did the media get right and wrong in the 2022 midterm coverage? And what are some best practices moving forward? For that, I spoke with Margaret Sullivan, a former media columnist for the Washington Post and author of the book newsroom confidential.

    So if we do a media post mortem on the midterms, there was this focus on this red wave that did not materialize. Part of that, I think had to do with a misunderstanding of what polls can and can't do and what they should and should not do.

    But how should journalists think about the work that we do in an election year capturing the mood of the electorate, through interviews and field reporting, analyzing quality polling data, without leaving the audience with false presumptions?

  • Margaret Sullivan, Former Media Columnist, The Washington Post:

    One thing I'm pretty sure we should stop doing is trying to predict the future because we're so bad at it. And the polls that particularly individual polls are often wrong or skewed. So I think that the field reporting is more important. And I think more than anything getting across to our audiences and to citizens, what the stakes of the elections are, is the most important thing to focus on the issues more and the horse race less.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On the other hand, despite the best efforts by some on the right to sow distrust about the midterm elections, the integrity of the midterm elections, what we saw was an election that was peaceful, there was high turnout, and there were very few problems. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the mainstream press has gotten better about calling out election lies and conspiracy theories when they pop up.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    No question. And I think one of the things that the members of the news media did do well, this time around is to prepare news consumers for the idea that there may not be a decision on election night. And that doesn't mean that the election was rigged. It just means it takes time. And so that message is getting through. But I do think it could be done with a little more home.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Let's talk more about that. Because there were hundreds of election deniers who were elected, we expect the former President Donald Trump to announce a reelection bid this coming week. How should we think about covering people who say and do things that are objectively anti-democratic?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    We have to keep telling people what these newly elected officials stand for, and that they are election deniers. We need to tell people that they are lying about elections and whether they're talking about that issue right now. This is who they are.

    So we need to be very clear with people about not allowing that lie. And it is a lie, to be magnified and to be spread but to counter it all the time. And that's hard to do. It gives the sense that we're on somebody's side. And that's not really what's going on here. We're on the side of truth.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Do the old school journalism tenants still apply these days do you think?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    I think they apply when they're about approaching a story with the public's interest at heart and with impartiality and with fairness and accuracy. I don't think they stand up very well if we take everything down the middle and equate things that aren't true with things that are true or equate anti-Democratic candidates with those who accept democratic norms, it's that kind of false neutrality or false equivalence that we need to get rid of.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Is the mainstream press up to the job of covering 2024?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    I'm not prepared to say that the press is not up to the job. I think that they should give a lot of thought to what has to happen now. And that leadership has to come from the top of news organizations, and it has to be very directed. So, I do see some positive signs. And I think we could do a lot better. And I say we because I'm a member of the media too. We could all do a lot better.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Margaret Sullivan is a former media columnist for the Washington Post, and she's author of the new book "Newsroom Confidential." Thanks so much for your time.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Thanks very much.

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