After 18 months of coverage, three South Florida television journalists reflected on the challenges – professional and ethical – that faced them during the presidential race.
Jim DeFede, a CBS Miami political reporter and host of “Facing South Florida,” has been involved in politics since he was 10 years old.
“My first job was handing out flyers for the Nixon campaign in ‘72 in church parking lots in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,” he said.
His father, disillusioned by his political idol after the Watergate hearings, urged DeFede to grow up to hold politicians accountable and not be fooled by corrupt ones.
“Geez, why did I turn out to be a political reporter?” DeFede said.
But this election has baffled him.
“Everything we thought we knew about the public and presidential elections were completely upended in this one,” he said. “When Donald Trump makes a statement about John McCain – when he said John McCain wasn’t a hero – I gasped and said ‘Okay, that’s the end of the Donald Trump campaign. You can’t say that.’”
“You go back to Mitt Romney’s 49 percent number and that killed his entire campaign. And yet, that would just be nothing four years later with Donald Trump.”
He said he and other reporters have dealt with the professional and ethical dilemma on how to report on false statements or outright lies. He believes journalists should fact check, but thinks the way this is delivered to the public should be toned down.
“It’s fine to point that out. But you don’t have to be snarky about it, saying ‘Trump said this [and he’s lying],’” DeFede said.
He said he prefers challenging a candidate during the course of an interview instead of simply saying the candidate was lying on-air. They need to be given a chance to respond.
Amanda Plasencia, a general assignment reporter for NBC6, has been covering rallies and other political events during the election season. She agreed journalists have to fact check.
“It can be tough under tight deadlines, but it’s always good to be as thorough as possible and double check everything that you’re reporting. As journalists it’s our duty to find the truth and fact check as much as we can,” Plasencia said.
But fact checking is made more difficult when candidates refuse to talk.
With just hours left before Election Day, DeFede said he and others have been requesting interviews with Clinton – to no avail.
“So you have one campaign which is a firehose of material and you don’t know how to drink from it. And then Hillary Clinton is a desert, nothing comes out,” DeFede said.
As he, his executive producer and the CBS Miami news director prepared for an interview with Trump in late October, DeFede added that the worst part of covering the election from a broadcast standpoint is the back and forth of scheduling.
He thinks that may be why many people see the media as biased toward Clinton since coverage about Trump is overwhelming, and generally negative, while reports about his opponent are considerably fewer, and often more positive.
“It’s because Hillary Clinton didn’t give us anything to put on,” DeFede said.
Plasencia added that social media also plays a role in the public’s perception of coverage.
“In the age of social media, a reporter has to be extra careful about what they post as to not appear biased,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Glenna Milberg of Local 10 said she believes the work political reporters do is essential.
“Candidates will frame their campaigns and appearances to portray themselves in the best light to voters. Our job as journalists is to report facts – not only the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ – but the ‘why’ that give context to the rest,” Milberg said.
Milberg carved out her niche in political reporting at Local 10 after being a general assignment reporter most of her career. She believes that expertise is an asset to her news team.
“So much of politics has become spin and sell, sometimes it’s hard for people to trust what they see and hear. That’s where reporters come in,” Milberg said.
“The word ‘politics’ makes some peoples’ eyes glaze over. The reality is – politics is about the most interesting subject in most peoples’ lives. Our job is to help them engage.”
Although the current election is unusual in all manner of ways, Milberg said many aspects of political reporting have stayed the same.
“The mechanics of reporting, though, remain consistent. Covering every election means understanding issues, interviewing candidates, challenging them to support their positions, ferreting out deception and making sure people understand the facts and the context of the decisions they are asked to make,” she said.