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Penn State journalism alumni discuss experiences covering presidential election

Over the past two years, journalists on the campaign trail have been covering something much larger than the race for the presidency — they’ve been covering political movements.

Three recent Penn State journalism graduates who’ve been closely reporting on the presidential election came together in a panel coordinated by the College of Communications on Tuesday night to share their experiences.

After the unexpected elections results — including Pennsylvania turning red after Donald Trump led Hillary Clinton 48.77 to 47.67 percent — the past week has been a time of reflection for Billy Penn reporter and curator Anna Orso.

Orso said she often wrote longer analytical pieces rather than “typical day-to-day, horse race” stories for the digital news outlet based in Philadelphia. She also covered the Democratic National Convention in July.

“There’s a lot that we can do as reporters to better report on polls,” Orso said.

Orso said it’s important to recognize small sample sizes aren’t accurate representations of the population.

A better strategy for reporting, she said, would have been spending more time in individual neighborhoods in order to dig deeper into the perspectives of voters.

Kevin Cirilli, a Bloomberg News reporter who tracked “every single second of Trump world,” said the signs of a Republican victory were there all along.

In the final days leading up to Nov. 8, Cirilli said he attended crowded Trump rallies at 3 a.m. and knew the voter turnout would be high.

“Did we miss it? I don’t think we listened enough, and I think that journalism has to come back to listening,” he said.

The election has also highlighted the problem of media illiteracy — a “core value” that Casey McDermott, a digital reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, said she would like to see taught in schools.

“It’s essential to live in a world where people can discern information, and discern what’s fact or fiction,” McDermott said.

Her focus has been on state-level politics and policy, with an attention to human-interest stories. In 2014, while at The Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, she reported on the visits of various politicians who would go on to become presidential candidates.

For Cirilli, the proliferation of alternative media outlets has only made it more critical for news consumers to “diet.”

Just as people can’t always eat candy, they can’t always turn to the “sexy” clickbait articles, he said. Though longer investigative pieces may be boring, Cirilli said the public needs to stay well-informed.

“As a result of being a consumer, you have a choice of where you go to get your news,” Cirilli said. “I think that will never change.”

Yet, the storytelling itself may change with the shifting media landscape.

Orso said many journalists, for example, have learned to redefine the meaning of objectivity and become comfortable in labeling statements as incorrect or racist.

“I don’t think that’s bad for journalism,” she said. “Calling a lie for a lie is not going to send us down the wrong path.”

Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.

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