In an unprecedented year of pandemic, fires, floods, civil unrest, and economic crisis, the country is in the throes of one of its most divisive election seasons. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime story, and Newmark J-School graduates are out in the field covering it for every type of medium and news organization.
Emma Davis ’19, a production assistant for MSNBC host Ali Velshi, is one of the school’s newer alums learning the nuances of following hotly contested elections while coming to grips with her own political views. Many others from the school are digging into political beats around the country including Rachel Glickhouse ‘15, who is putting together ProPublica’s weekly Electionland newsletter, and Graham Kates ‘10, who wrote about a President Trump campaign app for CBS News.
In July, Davis helped assemble a panel of six socially distanced voters in Bucks County, Penn., a key swing-state area that Trump won by less than 1% in 2016. “My job was to figure out where to find voters of different perspectives — not just white suburban voters but people who had lived in the county for generations,” she said. “We had three men and three women. Three were Republicans including a registered Republican who wouldn’t vote for Trump. Three were Democrats, three were people of color, and one was from the LGBTQ community.”
She discovered that panelists she knew as cordial and decent folk had opinions she found “ill informed.” It got her thinking about how journalists must manage their own views when producing stories. For example, how she would respond to the former Democrat and COVID-19 survivor who plans to vote for Trump a second time: “If I were having a personal conversation, I would have asked her, ‘Why are you voting for him?’” Davis said. “But as a booker, I had to ask, ‘What got you to this place?’
“It felt very humanizing,” Davis added. “Despite outrage about this panel on Twitter, it was a reality check.”
Davis will get to continue these conversations as Velshi convenes panels across eight more swing states. Another aired this past weekend in Minnesota, where Velshi received national attention in May after he was hit by a rubber bullet shot by police while covering protests in Minneapolis over George Floyd’s death.
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Davis, a Wesleyan University graduate, credits her mother and grandmother as two big influences in her decision to become a journalist: Grandmother Charlotte Beyers was a respected documentary filmmaker and science writer; her mother, Norie Clarke, is a lifelong activist and organizer.
At the J-School, Emma was inspired by a class she took with NY1 political anchor Errol Louis and Daryl Khan, a criminal justice system expert who directs the urban reporting program. A discussion on how land use plays into city politics broadened her view of the issues that might be important in an election.
In a recent interview, Louis said earlier in their careers reporters should learn that “absolutely nobody is concerned about how you personally feel about the candidates, the campaign, the speeches or anything else happening on the trail. Neither your boss nor your audience cares about what you had for breakfast, what time you plan to go to bed, or what kind of computer you use. They certainly don’t care whether your personal beliefs line up with the candidate’s. In fact, they probably don’t know much about the candidate in the first place, which is why you have a job.
“What people do want to know,” Louis said, “is what you saw, what was said, and what it all might mean. That’s a tall order to execute day after day, and it’s also what you’re being paid to do, so focus on that. Spell names correctly. Make sure the numbers make sense. Check all your sources and keep looking for more. But don’t imagine you have to approve of any particular politician or their beliefs (Spoiler alert: most of them are disappointing at best, downright awful at worst).”
Louis, who has just covered his 10th political convention, said he reminds young reporters like Davis that audiences expect journalists “to think big picture and long term. It’s a high privilege that should not be squandered because some soon-to-be-forgotten politician rubs you the wrong way. Ten campaigns from now, you’ll laugh about it.”
Davis says she is impressed by the interviewing skills of journalists like Louis and Velshi, especially how they synthesize complex issues as they prepare and deliver their questions. She hasn’t interviewed any presidential candidates yet, but she’d like to one day. In the meantime, she is watching and learning as she virtually crisscrosses the country doing her job.