U.S. Media’s Real Elitism Problem

Donald Trump's victory caught mainstream news outlets off guard. Were reporters too insulated to see his growing support?

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Stephen Colbert’s awkward jive on Election Night might have represented any number of newsrooms that evening: He didn’t see Trump’s victory coming, he wasn’t well-prepared, and he was very confused. Not that it was the media’s responsibility to “call” this election to begin with. The horse race is trivial, people often tell journalists—write about stuff that matters. Reporters did just that, digging into Trump’s charitable giving, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Bernie Sanders’s economic plan. Still, very few people in the mainstream press expected Trump to win, thereby influencing their coverage—newsrooms drew up plans to cover a Clinton transition, and correspondents wrote final-days-of-Trump features.

In the aftermath, many of the immediate post-mortems blamed a coastal bubble: Too many journalists had grown nearsighted in urban Democratic enclaves, the reasoning went, blinding them to what was taking place in Middle America. If more reporters actually spent time in fly-over country, instead of jetting through for a rally, they’d understand why Donald Trump won voters over. And if national newsrooms prioritized hiring folks who didn’t graduate from elite journalism programs—and maybe didn’t graduate from college at all—well, that wouldn’t hurt, either.

These critiques minimize (or, at their most uncharitable, just ignore) the tremendous effort journalists make to travel and hear directly from Americans. For example, our own James Fallows and Deborah Fallows have spent more than three years profiling ground-up change in local communities for The Atlantic’s American Futures project.

But there’s little question the journalistic class has diverged sharply from the country it covers. In 1960, nearly a third of reporters and editors had never attended a single year of college; in 2015, only 8.3 percent could say the same, according to Census figures extracted with the help of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS project. That year, 46 percent of adults 25 and older nationwide had never attended a university.

To a modest degree, journalists have also become increasingly sequestered on the East and West coasts, to the detriment of newsrooms in the interior of the country. In fact, as of 2011, 92 percent of journalists worked within a metropolitan area, up from 75 percent a half century earlier. The map below charts the share of America’s reporters who work in a given county. See that big circle? That’s Manhattan, which saw its share of journalists increase between 1990 and 2015, now hosting around 13 percent of the nation’s reporters. Meanwhile, Midwest centers like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kansas City suffered. (There are fewer journalism jobs overall since the heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, but non-coastal regions have been hit harder than New York.)

America may also be (slowly) moving away from a hierarchical system of journalism, which encouraged aspiring reporters to tromp around the country from job to job, seeking greater prestige and opportunity at publications with higher circulation or viewership, and seeing a bit of the country along the way. A depressed media market makes job-hopping harder, and besides, there are plenty of reporting jobs available in Washington, D.C., or New York.

Hiring standards have also changed. The arrival of the internet—and with it, digital production jobs—has spurred a new hunger for young, cheap talent. A college graduate can leave school and have a decent shot of getting hired at a national publication, an unthinkable proposition just two decades ago. But doing so foregoes the professional hopscotch that often pushed journalists into communities outside their comfort zone, forcing them into contact with people they otherwise would never have met.

Some of these trends might not be easily reversed. But what if Washington newsrooms split up and scattered across the country? This is now logistically feasible, after all. Pretty much any office job can be done remotely; most of my interactions with coworkers are through Slack, an instant messaging client, even though we work in the same building.

Christopher Ingraham, a writer with The Washington Post, may be a perfect test case—a national reporter at a national media outlet, who recently pulled up stakes and moved to rural Red Lake County, Minnesota. When I spoke with him, he had just arrived home after an hour-long drive to a radio interview in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It’s the closest town with a studio.

Ingraham, formerly from Baltimore, could be forgiven for expecting a bit of culture shock. Instead, he’s had almost none. “When reporters or academics play up the differences between the middle of the country and the outside of it, I think they’re actually reinforcing those differences,” he said. “If we get too hardened into this ‘Oh, the middle of country is really different and we need to understand them better,’ there’s the danger of creating this new narrative that just completely misses out on the actual complexity and reality here.”

Moving to the country has definitely helped his reporting, Ingraham says. It’s given him insight on issues important to rural communities, such as hunting and guns rights. (He just shot his first six-point buck.) But it didn’t help him predict the election. Here’s an excerpt from a story he published on November 13:

Voters in Red Lake County voted for Trump in a landslide, 61 percent to 29 percent. More striking, Clinton’s showing here was the worst of any Democratic presidential candidate since at least 1960. Given the vociferous campaign that played out on TV — and seemingly across the country — I wondered how such a dramatic political shift could be happening in an almost hidden way among my neighbors. It was, in some way, no surprise that busy reporters based in D.C. and traveling nonstop around the country had not grasped the entirety of this shift. I lived here every day. I missed it, too.

To be fair, Red Lake County is also a bit of a bubble. “Some of them view Minneapolis as a crime-ridden hellhole, whereas in D.C., you think of Minneapolis as this nice place with organic grocers and farmers markets,” Ingraham said, laughing. “It absolutely does go both ways… and Donald Trump tried to capitalize that, saying that you’ll get shot walking down the street in Baltimore. That’s just nonsense.”

Media organizations have struggled for a long time with a habit of hiring identical people. More than 80 percent of newsroom employees are white, according to a recent survey. That makes the calls to increase representation of disaffected white Americans sound a bit tone-deaf. “There’s not enough diversity in terms of other minority groups,” said Dori Zinn, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ diversity committee. “I think there actually might be too much of the, quote, ‘white working class.’ I’m unsure if that argument is necessarily sound.”

Then again, efforts to increase diversity don’t have to move along just one axis. Prioritizing a diversity of experience could mean hiring more people of color. It could also meaning hiring reporters with disabilities, or people with associate degrees from community colleges. All of these perspectives would enrich coverage.

But in predicting the next Trumpian surprise, there may be an even simpler solution. Washington, D.C., and New York are famously cities of domestic expatriates; many of the people who live there originally grew up somewhere else. As I look around my immediate vicinity in the newsroom, I can see a guy from Florida, two people from Nevada, a New Yorker from the Rust Belt, and an Iowan. As our phone conversation came to a close, Ingraham noted that journalists could probably learn a lot just by talking to people in their hometowns. “Actually go out there and listen to them… don’t just get a few Facebook comments and call it a day,” he said. The fix to the nation’s nearsightedness—and there’s a long, hard climb ahead—could start with a closer look at ourselves.