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After Trump’s Upset, Is It Time to Rethink How Journalism Is Taught?

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
A photojournalist outside the Trump rally at the Travis County Expo Center on August 23, 2016.

The Election Day win of President-elect Donald Trump has left pollsters, journalists and many others looking for lessons learned. Among the men and women who prepare tomorrow’s journalists, there is also some soul-searching. Many are looking to recalibrate.

Understandably, journalism students were watching news coverage of the presidential election with great interest. Among them was UT journalism freshman Will Clark. It was, in some ways, a great master class in how journalists work. There were problems in polling, in the pervasive use of social media and in under-reported stories.

“We kind of grew up in an age where a lot of people distrusted the media,” Clark said. “As we go into being journalists, we’ll take that self-awareness with us and hopefully realize that the public doesn’t have to trust us immediately. It’s our duty to build trust with the public.”

Clark is right about that suspicion. The most recent Gallup pollshows Americans trust in the news media is at an all-time low.

Only a third of all Americans trust the media and some local college journalism educators are worried not only about that trend, but also about the growing reliance on social media.

At St. Edwards University, journalism coordinator Jena Heathwill be reinforcing that her students broaden their world.

“For the last three or four years, I’ve taught about the filter bubble – the self-reinforcing world of social media,” Heath said.

Heath said it is possible that many news consumers – including journalists – get much of their news through channels that include only sources they agree with. That, she says, may lead to a false sense that the world conforms to a journalist's own personal world view. 

At the UT Austin School of Journalism, professor Tracy Dahlby said his students started paying close attention to original coverage – reporters doing the kind of shoe-leather work that has long been the hallmark of American journalism.

“I had a number of students who were very critical of social media,” Dahlby said. “Many of them had been following election results, the returns on Twitter and Facebook. When they found out that once you separate the sort of electric moments and excitement from the coverage, they’ve felt they’ve been kind of bamboozled. And they were very critical of what one student called ‘the feedback loop’ in social media.”

There's also journalists' role of helping the public understand polls. This election, Austin Community College’s Paul Brown says, polls got it wrong. Journalists could have helped provide more context this election cycle, he says.

“Are you mentioning the margin of error?” Brown asked. “Are journalists and the companies they hire...missing trends because technology like cell phones or population bases that may not be as engaged in responding to polls, or people who may not respond to polls accurately because they don’t want to admit to supporting one side or the other," Brown said. "All of those things have to be considered before you just jump to conclusions.”

A related concern is the rush to teach digital tools and social media, which may crowd out basic reporting.

“As this election showed, journalism remains rooted in getting off your phone, getting away from Twitter, getting outside and reporting in communities and talking to people, and people who are unlike yourself,” said UT School of Journalism head R.B. Brenner.

One challenge facing news outlets today are related to economic problems: The news industry has faced deep cuts since about the middle of the 1990s, as advertising dollars declined. Employment in newspapers dropped by nearly 60 percent from June 1990 to March 2016. 

“One of the fallouts from this election is people saying, ‘We need to have more reporters on the ground out there talking with real people,’” Brenner said. “Well, that’s absolutely great, and essential, but you have to pay for it. And every place I go, whether it’s a big city or a smaller market, you walk into any newsroom and ask ‘How many people do you have now compared to 10 years ago?’ And they all say ‘fewer.’ Many say, ‘a lot fewer.’”

Students like UT journalism junior Ale Martinez said another factor was evident in the campaign coverage, and she said she was disappointed that journalists too often seemed to be taking sides. She believes journalists should seek out diverse sources from different viewpoints.

“You’re supposed to be open to hear everything that someone is supposed to tell you, because you’re supposed to be honest and accountable,” she said.

While journalism educators are rethinking how to prepare the next generation to do a better job, there's also the other side of the equation.

This campaign season also saw a rise in fake news sites. Several journalism professors said there is a need to convey to audiences why an independent news media is essential in a democracy – and how to seek out responsible journalism. Perhaps, it is time for a news literacy campaign. Because, if the public is choosing fake news over carefully reported journalism, all the best work may be for naught.

This post has been updated to clarify a statement from the head of the UT Journalism School.

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