Peter Mansbridge says U.S. election shows media has "more work to do" to build trust

Victoria Ahearn
·4 min read

TORONTO — Veteran journalist Peter Mansbridge says media organizations will have to "really look hard" at the way they do their jobs, after another U.S. presidential election that caught many newsrooms off-guard.

The retired CBC News anchor and chief correspondent says there's been a decline in trust in the media, especially since the 2016 vote, which many news outlets didn't accurately predict.

And he feels the lack of understanding and coverage of voter thinking in the current race between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden is going to further hurt that trend.

Mansbridge notes the latest election "was a lot closer than we thought, and there seems to have been a basic, once again, misread of the American public and the American voter."

He says in order for media organizations to restore faith and trust with the people who depend on them for information, they're going to have to be much more transparent in the way they report, whether it's on polls or political stories or governments in general.

"I think we have to bring our viewers and readers and listeners into the mix much more than we have in the past — in explaining how we do what we do, why we choose the stories we do, why we choose the partnerships we do," Mansbridge said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press for his new book, "Extraordinary Canadians: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation."

Tuesday's election outcome remained up in the air Wednesday afternoon, as it was still too close to call races in several battleground states.

While voters decide for themselves how they are going to cast their ballots, the media influences those decisions with the kind of information they give and stories they tell, said Mansbridge.

"That's what I mean when I say we really have to re-evaluate what we we're doing," he said, noting the media also missed the mark on the 2016 election, partly because many outlets focused more on cities and didn't fully explore rural areas and the level of dissatisfaction within them.

"Those same levels of dissatisfaction clearly still exist," said the former award-winning anchor of "The National," who stepped down from his role in July 2017 after nearly three decades with the program.

"You've got a major urban-rural split, when you look at the maps, as we're witnessing them now — where big cities tend to vote, in the States, Democratic, as they tend to vote Liberal in Canada. And large swaths of the rest of the country, in smaller towns and smaller communities, certainly in rural areas, the vote is much different. Part of the reason for that vote is that people are really unhappy with the way they are seen, and how their concerns and their interests are confronted by governments and by the media, and by the way their stories are told. We've got to give it more than just word value when we look at it again now."

Mansbridge said he watched the election unfold from his home in Stratford, Ont., flipping between various channels, both American and Canadian. He noted that while Canadian channels can't compete with the American ones "on a glitz level," they can compete "in the quality of the journalism and the quality of the discussion that you put forward in trying to understand the unfolding story."

Mansbridge also said he was happy to see some of the major news organizations in the U.S. be more transparent than usual in the past week or so, in terms of explaining how they would cover the election and make decisions on that night.

However, he said he thought there would be more distance between the contenders on election night and was surprised how well Trump was doing.

And if many others feel the same, it may further erode trust in news coverage.

"We're going to pay a price for this," Mansbridge said.

"Those who already didn't trust the media are going to trust them less. Those who are wavering on the media are going to now seriously consider not trusting us. And those who have been our greatest fans are going to become our greatest critics demanding a better service, in general. Now, I know the media is not a monolith, we all operate kind of differently. But I think there is there are some general issues here that we've all got to face."

"Extraordinary Canadians: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation" (Simon and Schuster), by Mansbridge with Mark Bulgutch, is on sale Nov. 10.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press