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Some lessons from the election

| Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, 4:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

Fake news about the presidential candidates received more traction on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter than real election reporting from several mainstream news outlets combined, according to a recent Buzzfeed analysis.

That has led The New York Times , The Washington Post and others to take aim at fictional news sites and raise questions about how much they helped turn the presidential election for Republican Donald Trump.

But it might be just as valid to ask questions of mainstream media news organizations that missed the insurgency of Trump's supporters — and that even seemed to ignore these angry voters in the days leading up to the vote.

It should not be surprising that reporters in New York, Washington and Los Angeles have little connection with populist voters in the flyover areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and the rest of the country, said Robert Stewart, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

If you unfriend everyone on Facebook who disagrees with you, before long you will see only posts from people who agree with you. The same thing happens if you don't have any real friends who live in areas where populism took root.

“I think you could actually ask the question, ‘How misleading are the mainstream media?' Because in a way we were all misled,” Stewart recently told me. “I don't think it was intentional. I would hate to think that there is any conspiracy afoot. But it is the echo-chamber effect that I think is at play.”

In the days since the election, news sites have scrambled to find populist voters and hire reporters who can best tell their stories. Reporters have flagellated themselves and vowed to do better.

In an open letter to readers, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote: “Did Donald Trump's sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”

Without answering his own question, Sulzberger said the newspaper would redouble its efforts to report on the entire country “honestly, without fear or favor.”

That effort must trickle down to journalism schools, too. In an age when anyone with a computer can be a publisher and broadcaster, students must understand not only technological skills but also the foundations of ethical reporting: accuracy, fairness and a willingness to hear from all sides.

Ohio University's president recently removed the name of alumnus Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman and CEO, from the newsroom at the university's journalism school. Ailes had given $500,000 to the school in 2007.

The school did not make the move for political reasons but because of allegations that Ailes had sexually harassed women who worked for him. Still, the move broke a visible connection that professors could use to talk about the work of Fox News reporters who do uphold journalistic traditions.

“We have to do our best not to isolate people who come from different political backgrounds when they end up in our schools of journalism,” Stewart said. “I think they often can feel very isolated.”

Under a Trump administration, conservative voices will find a more robust platform than they ever have enjoyed before. It will be more important then that journalists — across all personal beliefs — strive for truth and fairness above all.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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