CHICAGO — Journalists have no idea how the 2020 election will play out. And that’s a good thing.
Some of the country’s top political journalists came together last week for a gathering convened by the strategist David Axelrod, to talk about how to cover the presidential race in a way that won’t leave anybody dumbfounded on election night. The ideas that cropped up again and again on the panels were so basic to the practice of reporting that they are all too often ignored.
Travel the country. Talk to people. Assume nothing.
Such fundamentals may not seem fashionable in a media industrial complex that rewards logorrheic punditry and feigned certitude. But the inability of the media class to imagine the success of Donald J. Trump — and its underappreciation of the grievances that drove his supporters — has left reporters, pundits and producers wondering how they can be more prepared this time around.
The pressure is on for journalists to be smarter in 2020. Even as online and TV business models encourage scooplets and mini-scandals. Even as the sitting president works to erode trust in the press.
No one said it would be easy.
“We judge the marathon at every 100-yard marker, forgetting that it is a marathon,” said Mr. Axelrod, a mastermind of Barack Obama’s political rise, who founded the Campaign Journalism Conference in 2015 as a crash course for young reporters headed out on the trail. “There’s this pressure between the 24/7 immediate gratification elements of the modern media environment, and covering the story as the story should be covered.”
The two-day event, with about 250 people in attendance, was co-sponsored by Mr. Axelrod’s political institute at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Google hosted the talks at its expensively amenitied office building in Chicago’s hip West Loop neighborhood. Yes, lattes were served.
All of which prompted Ben Smith, the puckish editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, to quip that Fox News’s take on the event “will be Axelrod and Google gather in Chicago to scheme how to stop Trump next time.”
Mr. Axelrod called that “a glib and very typical-of-our-time interpretation of this,” adding, “You have to gather somewhere.”
In fact, the event featured Democratic and Republican speakers, with much of the discussion focused on practical, nonpartisan reporting advice.
Here is what’s on the minds of leading journalists as the 2020 race begins.
Twitter isn’t everything
Peter Hamby, the host of Snapchat’s “Good Luck America,” said he had an eye-opening moment while watching the second debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I was looking at Twitter: ‘Trump’s nuts; this is crazy; he’s going to lose.’ But I was getting text messages from regular people who were like, ‘Trump’s winning. I like this,’” Mr. Hamby recalled. “It’s our duty to listen to voters.”
Most political journalists spend a lot of time on Twitter tracking the real-time thoughts of pundits, activists, campaign operatives and reporters like themselves.
Most speakers here said that was not a great idea.
“You have to be skeptical of what you’re seeing and reading on Twitter and applying it to the electorate,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “If you think you understand what’s motivating voters because you’re reading it on Twitter, you may be completely wrong.”
Elite conversations are nothing new in politics, going back to the days when columnists like Robert Novak wielded huge power. But Twitter’s rise coincided with a vogue for “tipsheet journalism,” in Mr. Hamby’s phrase: the who’s-up-who’s-down reporting that prizes tidbits over deeper dives.
“Even in the press, some of us in recent years scoffed at shoe-leather reporting: We have data now; we have so many elite voices who are so smart,” Mr. Hamby said. “We lost sight of some very fundamental old-school habits of good political journalism.”
That advice goes for editors, too. “The worst thing you can do to a reporter is: ‘Oh, my God, did you see this tweet? Can you write it up?’” Mr. Smith of BuzzFeed said.
“Otherwise known as, every day covering the White House,” quipped Margaret Talev, who covers Mr. Trump for Bloomberg News.
Know what polls say (and what they don’t)
The CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny cautioned conferencegoers to steer clear of prognostication. “We’re not in the predictions business, so don’t act like we are,” he said. “We don’t know the outcome, and we should embrace that.”
Or, as Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, put it, reporters talking about polls are a lot like preteens talking about sex.
“They know all the words. They talk about it a lot. But they have no idea what they’re talking about,” she said.
Polling is crucial for campaign coverage, but in 2016 the attention on number-crunching sites like FiveThirtyEight led to a conflation of reporting and forecasting. (For some readers, the election night “needle” on The New York Times’s home page remains a source of post-traumatic stress.) Journalists here said news organizations had an obligation to be clear that polls are about probability, not prophecy.
“A two-point race or a three-point race should be reported as either candidate can win,” said Mr. Feist of CNN, referring to a poll’s margin of sampling error. “There shouldn’t be an assumption that a candidate is ahead. We need to help our viewers understand that.”
Mrs. Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, expressed frustration that coverage of noisy horse-race polls last time around obscured broader trends. He urged reporters to weigh polling data with their own observations, like the language voters use to describe candidates.
Some news organizations are refocusing. HuffPost, whose forecasting model gave Mrs. Clinton a 98.2 percent chance of victory hours before Election Day, plans to analyze others’ polls in 2020, but will not be modeling its own.
Expertise is a coin of the realm among political journalists. But overconfidence can keep reporters from seeing what’s in front of them. Mr. Axelrod warned that polling numbers, for instance, can be warped to justify a reporter’s assumptions, right or wrong.
“The data out there didn’t necessarily mean that Trump was going to lose, but people took it that way, because they couldn’t imagine Trump winning,” Mr. Axelrod said. “That was the fault in a lot of the commentary — I was guilty of some of it — and some of the reporting.”
And with more than 18 months to go before Election Day, extrapolating any conclusions seems a losing game. “Trump showed us that we simply don’t know what a viable presidential candidate looks like,” said Eliana Y. Johnson, a reporter at Politico.
For reporters seeking a three-dimensional view of a campaign, the smartest path may be one of moderation.
Follow Twitter for “a directional sense of where the conversation is headed,” as Mr. Smith said. Keep track of political shoptalk, like consultant hires and ad buys. Read polls, but understand their limits. Talk to as many voters as possible, in as many places as possible.
And expect the 2020 campaign to be like nothing you’ve ever seen.
“Don’t be so focused on what happened in 2016 and trying to avoid those mistakes that you make all sorts of new mistakes,” said Amanda Terkel, the Washington bureau chief for HuffPost. “And then we have to have a conference about them.”
Mr. Smith was willing to make one prediction. “Every four years we have these gatherings,” he said. “Then you look back and think, oh, my God, we were idiots.”