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Liana Sayadyan

Media Researcher Louise Lief: 'Why Did The American Media Fail to Grasp Trump’s Powerful Message?'

Media researcher Louise Lief was in Armenia from December 6-8 at the invitation of the American University of Armenia’s School of Communications to attend the Digital Investigation conference organized by the Media Initiatives Center. During a discussion at the session entitled “We are the Media, Lief talked about cooperative models to include citizens in the process, noting that the American media came up short when it came to covering the U.S. presidential primaries because they were cut off from the public and did not grasp the mood of the electorate. After the conference, Hetq talked to Lief regarding the role of the media and social websites in the primaries and the future of the media.

Your conclusion is that Trump's primary win was the failure of media coverage in the United States. 

Yes, in essence the media failed to see how powerful his message was in certain places and with certain people... They didn't think it would resonate as much as it did. So, the interesting question is why?

What was the base of that position of media? Did they rely on sociological surveys?

Polling surveys all showed that Clinton had a big advantage. No one was predicting that Trump would win. Trump himself didn't think he would win. So, it really shows that again, as someone who's interested in the information landscape and where we use journalists to fit in, it shows how much that landscape has changed and how unpredictable it is, and how it's harder to get information about the entire society. All the predictions were wrong.

Does it mean that traditional methods of surveying public opinion aren't useful now? Do we need to find new models of surveying?

I think the polling organizations that were not correct are going to look at the data and see what happened. And there's a whole issue now with people having cell phones and some people not having landlines. The question is how polling is being done. Do they really get an accurate picture or are people self-selecting? So, I think there's a whole reassessment of what happened. And then, based on what they find or what they think happened, then they must rethink and redo it. Americans love polling surveys, and they’re considered to be the absolute predictor that are very reliable as they have their margins of error.

I have just read an article published by a Swiss newspaper Das Magazin describing how big data helped Trump to win. It is about Cambridge Analytica, which analyzes data collected from social media to measure the behaviors of people. Trump was their client, so he created his speeches based on the demands of the public.

Well, I don't know if that was the case, but I know it's a new era and a lot of Facebook is a new phenomenon. People really started to use it in 2006 so it's something very new and people are trying to figure out how it works and one thing the investigative organization called Pro Publica which is one of the most prominent in the US and they have a very interesting project looking at how Facebook works, their algorithms, how they decide what to show to which person. So, this is a whole new field of study. Trump's election, and I think Brexit, are two examples of the societal consequences and a big complicated messy question about how do you address this. There are no answers yet.

It's obvious that the informational revolution brought many positive opportunities for journalism but it has also had some negative impact. What do you think about this?

What I think and what I'm very preoccupied with is where the public sees the media in this new landscape, where do we fit in; what is the value that we're bringing to people. I think we must ask the question why should people trust us? They don't know you, so why should they trust you and your information? How can you build a relationship of trust with the public so when you do have an investigation, not just on national politics but on anything, they trust your information and they feel they have some way to act on that. This is a very big open question. When you only had, at least in the United States, one or two newspapers in your community and your local television, you didn't really have any other options and that became the news the community worked on to understand what was going on in the community. That model is gone. The community can find information in lots of different places. Doing an investigation, you need to think about the whole picture and find ways to build that foundation, to establish that trust. So, for example when you do an investigation people should say ah, I trust Hetq because I know they've done this, I know they care about people like me.

Is investigative journalism in demand in the US? For example, in Armenia, although we have a good reputation, we cannot compete with news websites in terms of visits' ranking.

It's my impression that investigative reporters are a smaller community in the media because the work is challenging. I think a lot of people don't understand how journalists weigh the information, the ethical issues that come into play. Some news organizations are not responsible.  There have been a couple of court cases that have gone against journalists with very big financial penalties and the public was angry about what they were doing. There are good news organizations in every country and some that aren't responsible that have a political agenda, and they will not write about anything that doesn't fit in their agenda, and people are confused. I think it's a lot to expect the public to be able to understand this universe. 

Is there work to do regarding media literacy in the United States?

In every country I've written about, something that's even more basic than media literacy, is the information literacy that you receive from any kind of information from anywhere. What are the questions that you should ask? This is something that's now being taught at universities. In American universities, they have a whole course on it. The librarians who deal with information teach   information literacy. Back to the media. It's a larger question than the media can do on their own, they need allies in society that care about good information. For me, if you can establish that trust then you can do lots of investigations, you can have a big impact, you can contribute to reform efforts for better government. But if you don't have that trust, this is what I worry about in the United States.

What are the trends of media development in your opinion? What’s going to happen in the future?

The model I've talked about yesterday, the Texas Tribune, is very small, and they are in a very heavily Republican state, and they have chosen a very careful course of keeping the door open to everyone and being a neutral place where citizens and politicians can talk about policy issues. And they do look at money, they do look at politics, they do investigations. What I like about it is the new model, they invite the public in. What do you think? What are you interested in? That's something new, that's not the way traditional newsrooms were, with the editors usually sitting around a table and saying, “well what story should we do, what do we think the public needs to know or wants to know". And one of the founders of that new model said that there's a better question than asking what they need to know, what they want. Ask them.

In the presidential debates, I always found the questions from the audience, in the town hall meetings, to be much more interesting than those of the professional moderators. Why? Because they're asking ordinary questions of things that they care about. 

Photo by Narek Aleksanyan