Nate Silver, Columbia Professors Call on Media to Improve After Election Failures

The panelists speak in front of a capacity crowd at Low Library (Photo credit: Patrick Ralph)
The panelists speak in front of a capacity crowd at Low Library (The Ink/Patrick Ralph)

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight founder and editor-in-chief, and three Columbia University professors called upon journalists to improve their work during a panel discussion on the 2016 presidential election Tuesday night at the Low Memorial Library at Columbia.

The talk, sponsored by the Data Science Institute at Columbia, focused on how failures of data, polling and the media during this year’s election will affect democracy. Along with Silver, the panel featured Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science. Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs and political science, moderated the discussion.

“Data let us down,” said Fuchs. “The polling was wrong, and the media didn’t do an adequate job as the Fourth Estate. And these failures threaten our democracy.”

Students and community members filled the library’s rotunda to capacity. The panelists credited Silver’s presence for the large turnout.

Silver, whose data consistently showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump in the run up to the election, criticized journalists for assuming Clinton would win. “I thought it was unbelievable how confident some news organizations like the New York Times’ political reporters were that Hillary Clinton would win,” he said. “From looking at their coverage, the Times was pretty much hedging a Clinton win. I also wouldn’t rule out inherit bias on the part of some pollsters.”

According to Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s reporting and statistical model saw a Trump presidency as more plausible than most news organizations did. Silver also said that most polling organizations predicted the exact opposite results for the electoral college and popular vote from what occurred.

“The diverse Clinton electorate is on the two coasts,” said Silver. “This helps in the popular vote, but not in the electoral vote. Instead, Donald Trump won the electoral college.”

Bell compared the media’s coverage of the presidential election to that of the Brexit referendum in Great Britain.

“There was a similar sense of confidence and internal bias from the media in Britain during Brexit,” said Bell. “Both the American and British media displayed the same qualities of being liberal and elite.”

Silver agreed and said American journalists should have looked more closely at what was going on in Europe.

But Bell did not think all journalism failed during the election. “We’ve never known so much about two candidates than we have about these two,” Bell said. “There was some great reporting during this election, so I’ll defend the practice of journalism.”

Shapiro said that state polling projections were part of the problem, too. “We need more accurate state polls if we’re going to fix this,” he said.

According to Bell, data literacy among journalists and voters will be key to regaining confidence in the media going forward.

“There never has been a high trust in journalism,” she said. “We are in an incredible self-examination mode, but I am hopeful we will see more of a commitment to good journalism.”

Silver added that the diversity of journalists must also increase in order to rebuild faith.

“Trust in journalism is as low as it has ever been,” Silver said. “Maybe the next media startup should be in the Midwest, not in New York City.”