The Incurious Reporters

Trump supporters jeer reporters at a rally in Naples, Fla., in October. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Journalists’ real problem isn’t a lack of friends with pickup trucks, but a lack of curiosity about those outside their cultural bubble.

It’s been five days, and 2017 already has its first big debate about journalism, courtesy of a tweet by Decision Desk HQ’s John Ekdhal:

It’s telling that such a seemingly innocuous question has sparked heated responses from so many of the reporters of which it was asked. Ekdahl’s point was that for a journalist to not know a single person who drives the country’s most purchased automobiles suggests that they live and operate in a cultural bubble. As Kevin Williamson and Jon Gabriel have pointed out, almost every community in America is unique, making it a cultural bubble in one way or another. But given that we’ve just emerged from a presidential campaign that the national media got wrong at nearly every turn, this particular cultural bubble would seem to be due for some self-examination.

The true journalistic sin is not a lack of friends with pickup trucks, but a lack of curiosity about the millions of Americans outside of major cities who own them, if you’re going to be writing about those Americans.

If your beat involves analyzing and assessing the views of the American electorate as a whole, it probably helps to know some people who think differently than you. At the very least, discussing the country’s cultures and perspectives requires an awareness of how unique and unrepresentative your life’s circumstances are. Yes, you should know who you are, but you should know who you aren’t as well.

The average white-collar professional is a distinct minority, and that status can manifest itself in unexpected ways. More than half Americans haven’t traveled on an airplane in the past year. About 70 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts, and 34 percent have no savings at all.

Likewise, some things that seem popular from media coverage are in fact quite unrepresentative of the country. When you see headlines such as “Five signs America is falling in love with public transit,” it’s very easy to forget that just 5.2 percent of Americans commute to work by public transportation. (It seems likely that the percentage of big-city journalists who use public transportation is much higher.) Time called Game of Thrones “the last consensus show on television.” But that “consensus” consists of about 23 million people in a country of more than 300 million. In March 2016, Buzzfeed referred to “the hit Broadway musical Hamilton that everyone you know has been quoting for months.” At that point, the total number of Americans who had seen Hamilton was roughly 384,000 people.

It wasn’t that long ago that the New York Times was gushing about the likes of Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias under the headline, “Washington’s New Brat Pack Masters Media.” Klein and Yglesias went on to form the online publication Vox, adopting the humble slogan, “The Smartest Thinkers, the Toughest Questions.” That slogan was most often sarcastically cited when the site made a surprisingly boneheaded error, such as claiming that there is a physical bridge connecting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, reporting that the city of Boulder, Colo., has 102 toilets for every resident, or mixing up gun-ownership rates and gun-violence rates.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that some reporting mistakes could be avoided or caught earlier if reporters and editors had a wider range of life experience, or more curiosity about the life experiences of other people outside of their peer group.

#related#In 2013, writing for Slate, Yglesias noted with great incredulity the considerable bureaucratic and paperwork hurdles he faced to get a license to rent out his old condominium in Washington, D.C.: “I’ve been to three offices, filed five forms, spent $200, lost a day of work — and I’m not even close to getting the simple license I need,” he wrote. “Cities make it ridiculously hard to start a small business. They need to stop.”

“No kidding!” plenty of conservatives scoffed, noting this was the sort of argument Yglesias rejected before his experience with the local bureaucracy. We shouldn’t knock someone for adjusting his perspective based upon firsthand experience. But a good journalist will attempt to get a detailed feel for an issue or the people involved before making a blanket judgment.

The good news is that it’s never too late to try looking at the world from a perspective that’s different than your own.

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