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ProPublica reporter critiques media’s election coverage during lecture at Syracuse University

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

Political reporter Alec MacGillis spoke Tuesday night at Syracuse University's at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. MacGillis won the 2016 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, an SU-sponsored award.

When the first question about Monday night’s presidential debate was asked, the audience at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium broke into a collective chuckle. But for speaker Alec MacGillis, this year’s election cycle has been anything but funny. It’s been “insane.”

MacGillis, a political reporter for ProPublica, spoke Tuesday night at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications after receiving the 2016 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. In an hour-long question and answer session with Newhouse faculty and students, MacGillis discussed his experiences as a political journalist at various national newspapers, his thoughts on the 2016 election cycle and the current state of the news industry.

Most of the conversation was about the media’s coverage of the first presidential debate.

“The media just sees these debates as sporting events, as pure show without any meaning or consequence or morality,” MacGillis said. “Political reporters were positively giddy in anticipation of the debate.”

MacGillis said he believes the media’s constant attention on the 2016 election is a result of consumer’s demand for coverage of candidates. He added that the average news consumer only cares about candidates’ lives and which candidate is winning.

The government’s frequent struggle to pass laws as a result of party divides means that political reporters have nothing to cover except the presidential campaign, MacGillis said.

“There’s so many people covering the campaign now that the media can do the polls and you can write about the small things,” he said. “When nothing’s happening in government, you just go cover the campaign.”

Although MacGillis has previously reported for national newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post, he did not cover the debate. His work at ProPublica focuses on covering stories that national newspapers do not.

“We work on plugging some of the gaps created by the shrinkage of local metro newspapers,” MacGillis said.

The conversation quickly shifted to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s rise in popularity and how it is linked to the consolidation of media companies.

“One of the reasons why Trump supporters despise the media is because there’s very few regional companies where people live,” MacGillis said.

He added that because most reporters are based out of New York City and Washington, D.C., journalists have become a part of the east coast elite that Trump supporters are resentful of.

MacGillis shared stories from his coverage of Trump rallies in areas performing poorly economically. He said attendees often hissed and booed at reporters that were covering the events from the press area.

MacGillis has written stories exposing how the oil industry worked to gain access to oil in Alaska, how bankruptcy lawyers worked to strip coal miners of their health insurance and how socio-economic changes in Dayton, Ohio are reflective of Donald Trump’s rise in popularity.

In 2008, MacGillis and his team won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting.

Despite his frustration with media’s coverage of politics within the last year, MacGillis said his work at ProPublica has been fulfilling. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit news organization that does investigative journalism. He said he enjoys the freedom that the small political magazine gives him to cover the stories he is interested in.

“At ProPublica I write pieces that are more fun to read than newspaper stories,” he said. “They’re still investigative and have an edge, but they’re just good stories.”

In March, MacGillis received the Newhouse Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting at a Washington, D.C. dinner, where President Barack Obama gave the keynote speech. MacGillis said the award motivates him to continue to work in his career.

“Being a journalist is the best job in the world. It’s the life of a king,” MacGillis said.

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