What It's Like Covering the US Election

Guardian political reporter Sabrina Siddiqui about life on the campaign trail

Political reporter Sabrina Siddiqui on the campaign trail. Picture / @mjlee215

As votes are cast and tallied for the US election, spare a thought for the reporters who have followed the gruelling campaign from the start.

Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for The Guardian, tells Rebecca Barry Hill about the past few months.

What sort of experience has it been for you covering the 2016 campaign trail?
This campaign season has truly redefined the 24/7 news cycle, particularly with respect to the election largely revolving around one candidate, i.e. Donald Trump. It’s truly rare that one candidate is not only able to dictate the news cycle but to also define it by manipulating the coverage of the media, and that is what Donald Trump was able to do from day one.

Those of us covering the campaign were no longer simply reporting on the day-to-day of the 2016 election, we were reporting on what Donald Trump determined the news cycle would be. And that, to me, has been the biggest arc of this campaign as far as narrative is concerned.

What sort of hours are you pulling - and how much sleep are you getting?
I still believe the primaries are the truly gruelling part of the campaign. There came a time late last year (as in, autumn/winter of 2015), that I was predominantly on the road through the early state primaries and pulling anywhere from 12 to 16 to 20 hours a day. And once we reached January of 2016, as in the onset of the early voting states, we were all working seven days a week for especially long hours.

I was covering Marco Rubio at the time, and on any given day we would have our first rally at 7am and final one at 8pm, easily clocking in a day that exceeded 12 hours, not even including writing our actual stories. So much of our time, especially in the primaries, is spent driving across states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, each of which are comparable to the size of entire countries in Europe. So that truly underscores how this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure, but also very much a grind.

What are the perks of working on the biggest story in the world right now?
Ultimately, the whole world is watching and that’s what gets you through any given day. The United States is regarded as the leader of the free world, whether people agree or disagree, and that dictates how the elections are perceived as well as the weight of how we report on the choices before Americans. It’s intimidating, without question, but it also helps you maintain perspective in an environment largely driven by Washington. When you take a step back and realise your reporting could influence thinking more broadly, not just in the US but around the world, you start to realise what’s at stake in terms of doing your job as well as you can.

Is there a story you’ve written that you’re most proud of?
It’s hard to single out one specific story. I travelled to Chicago and interviewed women who lost family members - mostly their children - to gun violence. That was important to me, because gun control has become a partisan issue and is lobbed around like any other political debate. But talking to mothers on the south side of Chicago, who lost their sons or daughters to the most routine of gun violence, enabled me to tell the stories that are so often overlooked.

We think of mass shootings when it’s a mall or movie theatre or school, but for some reason in minority communities we just assume gun violence is prevalent. I feel proud of being able to give voice to those who felt as though their lives didn’t matter on the same scale, simply because the media at large had decided it was expected for gun violence to occur within their communities.

Can you recount your funniest moment on the trail?
Funniest moment may be tough, but I would say in South Carolina during the primaries I appeared to reach my wit’s end. I broke out in hives while in the travelling press for Marco Rubio’s campaign. It must have been stress-related, because I had no apparent allergies that would cause such a reaction. But imagine you are a reporter in the travelling press, on a bus that is scaling every region of South Carolina, and you break into head-to-toe hives.

The campaign offered to take me to an emergency room, but when a candidate is criss-crossing a state as large as South Carolina the last thing you want is to be left behind. I kept thinking, okay take me to an emergency room ... but then the campaign and travelling press will end up three to four hours away by the time I’m done being treated, and then what? How do I catch up? In the end, the help from Senator Rubio’s campaign plus a health combination of steroids and cortisone saved the day ... but it was quite the experience when caught up in the thick of a volatile campaign season.

Your worst moment?
I would say this campaign has been unique in that certain groups of people have been targeted. As a Muslim American journalist born to immigrant parents, there have been many terrible moments for me this campaign season. I had to tell my then 7-year-old niece why a major-party candidate said Muslims can’t be president. I had to face voters who told me they wanted Muslims either placed in concentration camps or killed.

And all of this was further incited by the rhetoric of people aspiring to be president. It was tough because I had to remain an impartial journalist, but also not let it affect me even though what I was hearing was in many cases unprecedented in terms of our political discourse.

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