Reporting on the election with all five senses – and from home

A conversation with the New York Times’ Peter Baker

By Ella Lee

Peter Baker’s best ledes just ‘pop up’ in his head. That’s not because the New York Times reporter has all the answers, but because good journalists use all five senses — and ledes combine those senses, as succinctly as possible, to reflect what the reporter has witnessed.

But 2020 has changed the job. Baker, along with most Times journalists, has been working from home since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reporting journalism is about seeing and hearing and experiencing and feeling and touching and smelling and all those things,” he said. “You can’t do that over a Zoom call, and you can’t do that watching a stream.”

As the 2020 election got closer, those challenges became more apparent. The Times determined early last spring that its reporters would not go to the White House unless it was their turn to staff the press pool, Baker said.

“In the fall, when [President Donald Trump] was doing these rallies, it put us in an awkward position, because rallies are clearly unsafe,” Baker said. “Thousands and thousands of people there, who were not socially distanced and generally not wearing masks.”

Still, he and other Times reporters attended some of Trump’s rallies until a colleague got sick with COVID-19 and the bureau decided not to send reporters anymore.

Reporting on the election from home all-but-eliminated the fundamental aspects of covering a political campaign — sights and sounds, witnessing what energizes and motivates a candidate and their supporters.

“You don’t get any of that doing it from home; it’s nothing the same,” Baker said. “It’s the difference between playing video baseball, and actually playing baseball; you can play a video game, or you can actually go to a park and hit balls. And those are two very different things, you know, it’s just not it’s not even close.”

Despite the world turning on its head in March, one aspect of Baker’s job remains the same, and has for the past four years: Trump. That’s made covering his administration both “wildly unpredictable and wholly predictable” at the same time.

“I don’t think he’s changed; I think he’s just more,” Baker said. “A lot of things he did were shocking, but they were not surprising. He did a lot of things in Washington that just aren’t done for a lot of reasons and he just blew past all sorts of norms and boundaries that other presidents respected. And yet, none of that is really a surprise in the sense that that’s what he clearly made his political career about.”

Trump’s presidency has required journalists to learn quickly — relying on fact checkers to ensure the veracity of the president’s words and adjusting coverage to most productively reflect his antics, like non-stop tweeting.

“I think all journalists kind of wrestle with figuring out what the right level of attention was to give to the various attention-grabbing things he did,” Baker said. “And I’m not sure if anybody ever came up with a completely satisfying formula, but clearly it did evolve over time.”

As the pandemic continues and American politics evolve, so too will journalism. But what Baker says is the most important skill for young journalists to achieve is one that can be harnessed regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in: persistence.

“If you can’t get the information going through the front door, then try going through the window,” he said. “Do whatever you need to do to get what you need for your story.”

 

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