If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from covering the 2016 presidential election, it’s that the best stories can and should come from unexpected places.
I take that literally: when I file radio stories for NPR these days, I’m usually kneeling in front of one of those squishy mattress covers, surrounded by my husband’s jackets in my home in southeastern Virginia. Compared to press buses and noisy airport hallways on the campaign trail last year, it’s an upgrade.
Now that the election is over, I’m one of several NPR staff reporters living and working outside not only the D.C. Beltway, but also outside of other major media hubs like New York or Los Angeles. I’d argue that to really understand this country and cover it well, the national media would benefit from more full-time journalists living and working outside the obvious places.
Much has been written about how the media “missed” the Trump phenomenon, but for people who live in “flyover country” or outside of the media hubs, I don’t think it was such a surprise. For me, while I never confidently predicted a Trump victory, I wasn’t surprised by it, either—not after spending nearly 18 months on the trail with primary candidates and the eventual Republican nominee.
I’d seen teenage girls at the Iowa State Fair screaming with excitement at Trump’s arrival; arenas with lines out the door on cold winter nights; elderly and disabled people standing on hard concrete floors for hours waiting for their glimpse of the real estate mogul. I’d talked with countless voters who all told me a version of the same thing: that the culture and economy were changing in ways they didn’t like and Washington wasn’t listening, and that the political and media establishment made them feel disrespected and left behind—a sentiment Trump tapped into with his talk of “the forgotten man and the forgotten woman.”
The inability of the media and the pollsters we relied on to fully capture the Trump phenomenon only served to feed that narrative. As Evan Osnos wrote for this outlet, much of the national press underestimated the level of support for Trump and, importantly, the intense distaste among many voters for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. For many Trump voters I met, that underestimation looked like sheer incompetence at best, or worse, a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Trump’s victory was less than surprising to me for another reason: I know the people who voted for Trump well. I grew up in the Midwest, in an evangelical family, and have worked mostly in smaller cities, surrounded by a mix of liberals and conservatives, secular folks and devoutly religious people. With a few brief exceptions, my home address had always been in the Midwest or South, until NPR recruited me to cover the campaign. I knew that for many socially conservative voters who found Trump’s tone and rhetoric unsettling, their disdain for Clinton and the political establishment was stronger still.
A lot of my job became explaining to liberals why on earth anyone would vote for Trump, and explaining to conservatives why on earth anyone would vote for Clinton. Sometimes it felt like translating between people from two different cultures. In times like these, we could benefit from more journalists with a fluency in communicating between urban and rural, secular and religious, white-collar and blue-collar, and all the other shades in between.
That fluency is best learned and maintained through time spent meeting and talking with people from a range of perspectives. Just as journalists embed ourselves in wars or political campaigns, we should be “embedding” ourselves in communities that revolve around agriculture, or insurance, or the military – rather than media or government. National debates over issues like school choice, or pipelines, or water rights, or eminent domain tend to start small, in city councils and county zoning boards, before they ever make big headlines; to understand why they matter, you have to know the people they matter to.
On this subject, I would echo much of what journalist Melody Kramer wrote in December for Poynter about the need to hire journalists who live outside the major media hubs. The problem is not that national journalists are maliciously ignoring residents of small cities and rural areas. Instead, it’s a matter of perspective—none of us know what we don’t know, and there’s a reason D.C. is often referred to as “the bubble.”
Also, as Kramer pointed out, many journalists either can’t or don’t want to live in the handful of media power centers; if you’re from a small town in the middle of the country, moving far away from family and friends for an entry-level salary might not be feasible or appealing. There are excellent journalists at local newspapers and public radio stations doing award-winning work all over this country—and they often report stories first that later become national news. Importantly, many aren’t at larger news organizations by choice, because that’s not the lifestyle they want to pursue—but their talents and perspectives could make national journalism stronger if editors and publishers could find more ways to incorporate them.
There are many ways this can be done—and is already being done in a growing number of newsrooms, particularly in response to 2016. Let me highlight a few examples:
- The editor-in-chief of Reuters recently issued a message to staff restating the organization’s journalistic philosophy, and urging reporters to “Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.”
- The New York Times has announced it’s hiring a religion and values correspondent outside New York City (and, I would argue, hopefully outside of Washington as well).
- For well over a year, Politico has been slowly expanding to include more state-focused publications and continues to publish pieces from local journalists based at news organizations outside the Beltway.
- My own employer, NPR, has a long tradition of relying heavily on its network of member station reporters who live and work in communities around the country. NPR recently began a new effort to partner with station-based reporters to cover state government and look for emerging national trends.
As the old saying goes, all politics is local… and all national issues begin somewhere—in real places, where real people live, and where real journalists might want to consider living, too.