Expert Commentary

Covering identity politics: Tips from the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott

Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott talks about the role of identity politics in the upcoming midterm elections and what he thinks journalists can do to improve their coverage.

Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott, left, and Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele
Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott, left, and Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele (Allie Henske/Shorenstein Center)

Eugene Scott is a longtime political reporter who writes about identity politics for the Washington Post’s The Fix. Before joining the Post in 2017, he covered breaking news at CNN Politics. And prior to that, he reported on local politics for the Arizona Republic, Kansas City Star and Charlotte Observer.

Scott spoke recently at an event at Harvard Kennedy School hosted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which is where Journalist’s Resource is housed. After the event, JR asked Scott about the upcoming midterm elections and the role of identity politics, or political activities that are based on or promote the interests of certain groups that share a common racial, ethnic, religious, gender or social background. We also asked Scott what he thinks journalists can do to improve their election coverage.

Here’s what he had to say:


JR: Generally speaking, are newsrooms paying enough attention to identity politics in their coverage of elections and in their coverage of public policy issues?

“Generally speaking, no — because I think dedicating someone fully to writing or reporting on the various identities in a community is something many news organizations don’t feel they have the resources to do.”

JR: Should they?

“Absolutely. I think communities are large and diverse and filled with people who are impacted differently by different policies and politics. And that should be covered.”

JR: Thinking generally about 2018 election coverage, what are some angles that journalists are missing that they should be pursuing?

“It’s funny because that question will be best answered after the election, depending on the results. I think journalists are working harder to cover some groups that may have been ignored a bit in 2016. But I do think it’s possible that the media isn’t doing an exceptional job writing about just how supportive of [President Donald] Trump some groups remain. I don’t see that many pro-Trump pieces and I can’t help but wonder if there are more people who remain on the Trump train than is covered. … I can’t help but to wonder if more people will back conservatives than we realize because people who are critical of Trump are so vocal. It makes me wonder if those who are supportive of Trump are just a bit more closeted in their support.”

JR: When you spoke earlier, you said something about not being able to use the terms “Republican” and “conservative” interchangeably anymore. Can you elaborate?

“I think there are sizable percentages of conservatives who would no longer self-identify as Republicans because they don’t feel as though the GOP is the best representative for them anymore. … The flip is true as well. I know liberals who would not call themselves Democrats.”

JR: How should reporters cover midterm elections differently than they cover general election?

“I think midterm races allow for localized stories in ways a general election does not. You have candidates entertaining ideas and making arguments in statewide or congressional races so specific to the communities that they will represent that require a level of nuance and focus that is often absent from a national election.”

JR: Do you think the midterms will be an extension of the 2016 election?

“I think the 2018 elections are a referendum on Trump — how people feel about Trump and, by an extension, the Republican Party … I think Trump’s low approval ratings could lead people to elect a Congress that will hold him more accountable or at least have a much more difficult time putting his vision into operation.”

JR: You’ve mentioned that one demographic you’re particularly interested in is the “Trump Triers.” Why are you interested in this group, who are they and why are they important?

(Editor’s Note: The Post has written multiple stories about so-called Trump Triers, Americans who tend to vote for Democrats but chose Trump, a non-politician, for president.)

“I think many were swing voters. Many were suburban moms. Many were first-time voters. Many were simply anti-Hillary [Clinton]. They were people who were not satisfied with the status quo and viewed Trump as a change agent. We also have data that shows that many of them have not been pleased with the direction of the country under Trump and so it’s hard to believe that they will come out and support his party this fall.”

JR: Has there been much election coverage featuring conservatives from minority groups — black conservatives, queer conservatives or Native American, Asian, Latino, multiracial conservatives? Why aren’t we hearing more from them or about them?

“We’re not hearing a lot about a lot of minority conservatives because there simply aren’t a lot of minority conservatives. And there certainly aren’t a lot of minority conservatives winning primary elections heading into the general election. After the 2012 presidential elections, the Republican Party put into place a plan to win more voters of color. They were really ashamed with how they did in [Mitt] Romney versus [Barack] Obama. But the GOP arguably made it less likely that they would win conservatives when they made Trump their nominee. He consistently maintains low approval ratings from minorities.”

JR: There is debate in the journalism sphere about the value and role of phrases such as “racially tinged” and “racially charged” to describe a comment or interaction that is racist or could be perceived as racist. Can you share your thoughts on using these phrases in stories and headlines?

“That’s really difficult and I wish it wasn’t. There are some things I think are clearly racist or sexist or discriminatory in other ways that should be referred to as such. But it is not always that obvious, and so determining how best to respond isn’t always clear. But it can be frustrating and disappointing watching language that is clearly racist not being referred to as such.”

JR: During your talk, I noticed that when you responded to questions, you often cited certain data sets, poll results or research studies. Can you talk about the importance of relying on such information in news coverage? And do you cite this kind of information in your work more than the average journalist, do you think?

“I think data is helpful when trying to make a point. There are people who will believe your argument more when it is supported by research and social science. And so if the goal is to get readers to understand, it helps to have more material backing your point up. I think I use surveys and data perhaps more than the average journalist … I think that’s just what being an analysis writer requires. And I like polls and surveys and data because it can tell us about people beyond the groups in which we are in touch with personally.”

JR: What are some of the errors you see journalists making in their election coverage – or ways they’re not getting it quite right?

“I think we could always spend more time talking to real people. I think we could spend more time getting outside of our offices and getting on the ground with voters to see how they’re processing things.”


If you’re covering local or national elections, check out these tips from Tammy Patrick, a former elections administrator in Arizona who’s now a senior advisor to the Democracy Fund’s elections program. We’ve also spotlighted academic research on voter ID laws, disabled voters and door-to-door canvassing