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Working Journalists Seminar at UWRF addresses election coverage

November 16, 2016

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this semester’s Working Journalist Seminar brought two journalists to the UW-River Falls North Hall auditorium to answer the question: What just happened?

Sponsored by the UWRF Communication and Media Studies Department, this year’s seminar was, in the words of Andris Straumanis, associate professor of Communication and Media Studies, “an analysis of the role of journalism in this year’s presidential election.” The title, fittingly, was ‘What Just Happened?’ About 150 people attended.

At the front of the room were two experienced journalists. Baird Helgeson is the current state government and politics editor for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, and he oversaw the reporting that went on during the conclusion of this year’s election. Dave Nimmer is a retired journalist who has worked for the Minneapolis Star (earlier version of the Star Tribune), at WCCO-TV and as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Helgeson and Nimmer were asked by Straumanis during the opening remarks to answer the question, “How would you rate the performance of media in this election?” They responded by emphasizing the importance of vetted media—thorough, complete news coverage by journalists whose job it is to sift through information for what is most important.

“We treat the campaign very seriously,” said Helgeson. “We’ve spent a lot of time with Trump supporters in the last month, [and] we’ve spent a lot of time with Clinton supporters in the last month. We try to sort of gauge the mood of the state.”

However, Helgeson said that the election still managed to surprise a lot of people.

“Could news organizations have done a better job of sort of sensing reverberations…that there was going to be a big change in the election?” Helgeson asked. “Perhaps. But I think if you paid attention to these news organizations day in, day out, you would have a pretty complete picture about what the election was about, and to a large degree what the issues were about.”

There has been a lot of interest in this year’s election. Nielsen.com recorded about 71 million viewers who turned out to watch coverage of the 2016 presidential election during prime time on Nov. 8, compared to about 66 million during the 2012 presidential election. A lot of pressure was put on the media to cover the event in a way that informed voters on what they needed to know.

One question from the audience at the seminar put it to Helgeson and Nimmer to explain why so much emphasis was put on Hillary Clinton’s one scandal (regarding her emails) compared to Donald Trump’s multiple scandals.

“The criticism I’ve heard from the people on the liberal end of the spectrum,” Helgeson said, “was that we held Donald Trump to a different standard. The criticism I heard from the right was that we did not fully pursue the extent of the email[s].”

Clinton’s actions, he said, did warrant extensive investigation in part because she should have been aware of the level of examination she would be under given the goal she was hoping to achieve.

“Don’t you think,” Helgeson said, “the scrutiny is kind of warranted? I guess I’m putting it back to you.”

There were a number of other issues that were brought up during the seminar. Nimmer discussed the dangers of demonizing the media, which was a common theme during Trump’s campaign, and both journalists touched on the role of social media as a news organization and how it played into the results of the election.

Katie Dorney is a first-year graduate student at UWRF studying TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She attended the seminar, and said that she felt the event put more emphasis on the election itself rather than journalism’s role in it.

“It became more of an issue of where people stand politically rather than just looking at how people report news,” Dorney said. She added, however, that she found value in attending the event.

“I think it was good to hear a perspective that we should look at newspapers a lot more, and take that into account rather than relying on the sources of media people our age typically use.”