U.S. presidential candidates, led by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, are increasingly turning to social media to talk directly to voters and bypass traditional news organizations, according to three leading journalists at Politico.
Politico editor Susan Glasser, executive editor Peter Canellos and senior foreign affairs correspondent Michael Crowley discussed election coverage with a group of Russian journalists visiting the U.S. as part of a program organized by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).
They said the candidates' tendency to turn to social media has made it difficult for reporters to follow their traditional role of fact-checking candidates’ statements or quizzing them about questionable claims. The Politico journalists also said that social media and new media have dramatically changed the political landscape, fueling the insurgent campaigns of both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Canellos and Crowley noted that even established politicians such as President Barack Obama are bypassing traditional media to speak to targeted segments of the electorate.
While earlier presidents held weekly press conferences to speak to the nation, the journalists said President Obama speaks to the press only about once a month. Instead of frequent, large press conferences, the president’s communications team now handpicks reporters for in-depth, one-on-one interviews, or grants interviews to comedians or YouTube stars who can reach more targeted swaths of the population.
Glasser said these changes have dramatically altered the traditional gate-keeping role of the American media, which helps explain why this election has foiled many of their predictions. She said the way Americans communicate, share and interpret information has fundamentally shifted, and that in turn is having a dramatic impact on the U.S. presidential election and those who cover it.
The impact of political polarization
“The United States is now basically an evenly divided country politically,” said Glasser, who noted that polls show the presidential vote will mostly likely be split 50/50, no matter who the two major parties nominate.
Because of this split, a small number of voters in only a handful of battleground states will most likely decide the presidential election, she told the Russian visitors.
“Expect only about 10 states to be truly competitive,” she said, adding that journalists should therefore pay close attention to what is happening in swing states such as Colorado, Florida and Ohio.
The Politico team urged the Russian journalists to also pay attention to U.S. congressional elections. Though it is understandable that the presidential election holds the most interest for the international press, they said congressional elections are just as important for the future of U.S. policy. Thirty-four Senate seats and 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs in November. The outcome will determine which party controls Congress, and whether or not the next president will be able to enact his or her agenda.
The 14 Russian journalists were in the U.S. for three weeks on the ICFJ-sponsored Russia – U.S. Young Media Professionals Program. The program aims to allow Russian and American journalists to build professional relationships and friendships with one another and establish mutual understanding while dispelling negative stereotypes between their countries. The journalists accomplished these goals while learning firsthand about each country’s media system, including the ways that digital media are changing the ways that journalists work.
Images taken by Samantha Juster. Pictured [left to right]: Peter Canellos, Susan Glasser and Michael Crowley.