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Pandemic tosses new curveballs to journalists covering election

“Unprecedented” has become the word of the year since the beginning of March, as all aspects of life have faced some level of upheaval. Presidential elections are no exception, according to journalists who covered the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden leading up to Election Day.

A panel of Boston University alumni — all working journalists — gathered to offer insight into the historic nature of presidential election coverage in a virtual panel Oct. 28 entitled “An Election Like No Other: Journalists Share Final Thoughts,” hosted by the College of Communication.

Kimberly Atkins, who graduated from COM and BU’s School of Law in 1998, is the senior opinion writer at The Boston Globe. Atkins said during the discussion journalists have been catching various curveballs since the 2016 election.

The COVID-19 pandemic haunts the majority of the political conversations in 2020, Atkins said. In past years, the issues at the top of voters’ minds may have been the economy, immigration or education, but now the coronavirus permeates conversations at the local and national levels.

“The pandemic has affected everyone in some way,” Atkins said during the panel. “For the incumbent president, the federal response to the pandemic is the biggest issue for those people voting against Donald Trump, voting for Joe Biden. One of the top issues is that it is a referendum on the federal response to the pandemic.”

Kristin Fisher, a Fox News correspondent and 2005 COM alumna, described the ups and downs of covering the White House for a major news channel.

For many journalists covering the campaigns, Fisher said, daily life during the pandemic is still very much face-to-face, a challenge that forces many to weigh personal health and safety against their dedication to their work.

“I never in a million years imagined that I would feel so uncomfortable and have to have some really difficult conversations with my husband about going out and covering these kinds of events,” Fisher said during the panel. “We made the decision that it was important enough for me to go ahead and take that risk like so many other members of the White House press corps.”

Besides the new normal of public health precautions, this election cycle brought a variety of new challenges to the public and the press, the panelists said, including understanding the vote-tallying process and anticipating legal challenges, similar to those that followed the 2000 election, if results are contested in some states after Tuesday.

Atkins said social media is an example of a breeding ground for disinformation, and complicates the nature of an election.

“It shows the difficulty in the social media age to deal with misinformation,” Atkins said, “especially when that misinformation is embraced by elected officials, by candidates who are running for office and even by the president of the United States.”

Fred Bayles is the former director of the BU Statehouse Program — an internship through which students are connected to news outlets in Massachusetts to cover government and politics. Bayles said social media poses a disadvantage to journalists seeking an accurate reading of public opinion.

Bayles said in an interview that face-to-face interactions between reporters and their sources typically offer more context and randomized sampling in the field, while social media tends to amplify the loudest voices.

“There’s a lot of studies that show that a majority of Americans are not radical left or radical right. They’re in the middle, and the people engaging on social media are really more of the ideologists,” Bayles said. “So I would not trust social media as a replacement for [in-person interactions].”

Critics of 2016 election coverage often point to off-target polling, which resulted in a surprising finish to the presidential race when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the candidate polls had favored at the time.

Panelist Steve Kornacki, a national political correspondent for NBC News and a 2001 COM alumnus, dug into the nuances of political polling and the various paths to victory each candidate may follow. He recalled the efforts of political journalists calculating all possible election night outcomes, even if the result of the 2016 race was ultimately surprising.

Pollsters in 2020, Kornacki said, are more cautious in calling the race even when poll leads are substantial.

On Election Day, Biden averaged 8.4 points ahead of Trump in national polling, according to political polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight. In some battleground states, the two candidates were neck-and-neck, with Trump polling just 0.8 points above Biden in Ohio and 1.3 points above in Iowa.

As of 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, Biden led Trump by 1.6 percent for all states that have already been called.

BU journalism professor Chris Daly said in an interview the nature of the news cycle often forces journalists to publish only the most essential points of their political analyses, sometimes carved down to a headline or short broadcast package.

“Sometimes, if you have to write a headline, if you have to write a teaser for your next segment,” Daly said, “well, you may have to throw some of that detail and qualifications overboard and just say, ‘Hey, landslide?’”

Presidential debates have also caused controversy this year, Kornacki said during the event — although that may be credited more to the media’s dissection and analysis of the first debate, which became hostile at multiple points.

But Fisher said presidential debates would likely remain a tradition in American politics, despite the two on Sept. 29 and Oct. 22 — which were immediately subject to public mockery for having resembled reality TV more so than civil discourse.

Atkins said debates have been lacking in recent years, which is evidenced by the logistical issue of hosting record numbers of candidates on one stage during the 2016 Republican primary and 2020 Democratic primary.

It was predicted that final results would not be available for days after the election this year. As of Wednesday morning, seven states have not been called for either candidate — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Alaska — leaving 87 electoral votes still up for grabs.

Atkins said this uncertainty means voters have to wait for full results to come in, especially because of the president’s efforts to invalidate the voting process this year.

“They should be prepared not to be alarmed by anyone,” Atkins said, “including the president of the United States saying that the vote, because it isn’t known completely on election night, can’t be trusted.”

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