Over the past decade, journalism has been going through an exponential business and technology shift. Starting in 2016, the press faced an additional challenge, Donald Trump. It may be hard for young journalism students to get some perspective here because 2016 may have been the first time many even had the right to vote. Regardless of politics, I think people on all sides of the aisle can agree Trump is unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. Whether you like him or not, Trump and his administration are forcing journalists to reconsider how they can best fulfill their roles as watchdogs.
How do you keep up when today’s contradiction, controversy or scandal overshadows yesterday’s? In the past, journalists had more time to investigate and give context to a story because the news cycle wasn’t so short. Since 2016, it seems there’s a new lead story every day.
This lecture will give a few pieces of background and tips for journalists on how to tell fact from fiction, how to hold the president accountable, and how to fairly serve their audience.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the word of the year. If we are indeed living in a post-truth society, journalists must work even harder to objectively decipher “alternative facts” from falsehoods.
Many of Trump’s controversies in 2017 surrounded members of his own administration. Oftentimes they contradicted Trump’s own statements or tried to prove that Trump was correct after his statements were debunked.
During an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd Jan. 22, 2017, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway made headlines for what she called “alternative facts.”
For a little background about the press secretary’s controversial first day of the Trump administration, NPR explained what led up to Conway’s interview in Delusions Or Deceptions? White House ‘Alternative Facts’ Rile Press.
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer sparked the controversy during his first unofficial press briefing Jan. 21, 2017, when he claimed the inauguration was the most-watched ever “both in-person and around the globe.” Regardless of whether anyone cares about crowd size, the frustration grew when journalists showed proof that Spicer was incorrect.
Conway deflected when questioned about the briefing the next day. Watch this short interview and consider whether alternative facts have a place in journalism. Also, pay attention to Todd’s question and interview style.
Reporters must ask questions
It’s crucial that reporters uncover facts by asking questions until they get an objective answer regardless of politics. It can be very difficult to interview people who don’t answer the question a reporter asks.
Reporters will not only be faced with this challenge while interviewing political officials. Reporters will also have to repeatedly ask the same question during interviews with public information officials, or PIOs. Reporters may also have to be persistent while interviewing anyone who doesn’t answer a question. This may also happen when someone is nervous about being interviewed and they go off on a tangent.
It’s a reporter’s responsibility to listen, and if the question is not answered, then they need to ask the question again.
Spicer was correct to call out an erroneous tweet by a reporter. But the press was also correct to hold Spicer accountable. It would be much easier for all of us to see the real facts if the deflection and bickering came to an end. But this is the world in which we live now.
For those of you who are curious what the truth was in regards to whether Trump’s inauguration was the most watch, Nielsen reported 30.6 million watched. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen, 37.8 million people watched President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
How To Cover Trump Stories
Journalists must avoid using subjective or bias language. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for an independent news organization, right or left. When the public is as severely divided as it is now, any subjective language will only serve to preach to the choir. You will alienate those who don’t want to believe you, even if what you’re saying is true. You will perpetuate the feedback loop that your audience is increasingly subjecting themselves to.
- Be accurate.
- Be objective.
- Provide attribution to any claim to increase credibility and transparency.
- Use data. Read CJR’s “Data empowers journalism independence in Trump’s era.”
- Hold the powerful accountable by calling out any false or misleading statements.
- Don’t get distracted. Don’t spend so much time on Trump that you forget your audience needs balance too. If you publish too much sensationalist Trump news, people may not listen when they actually need to.
Trump on Twitter
Staying focused on what’s important is easier said than done because Trump offends people so often it’s hard not to address his latest Tweet. By now we all understand Trump is offensive. Many of his supporters said they voted for him precisely because he didn’t feel the need to be “politically correct.” So who are we serving by doing wall-to-wall coverage on an offensive Tweet? Always ask yourself, is there a more important story or angle I should cover?
Take this Tweet for example:
What about this is important? Is it important that some felt this was an unprofessional and trashy thing for a president to tweet? Or is it important that some of Trump’s supporters may see this as a call to action against reporters? If you’re covering these types of Trump stories, remember why. Yes, they are newsworthy just because they trend and offend. But, you need to go deeper because this type of tweet from Trump is so common. Remember to focus your stories on impact, not clickbait.
The Poynter Institute published a list of suggestions for journalists covering Trump stories. It’s important for journalists to stay on top of new stories, but it’s also important not to forget past reports. Poynter identified many instances where journalists confronted Trump about false or controversial statements he made in the past. We must be persistent in our fight for accountability by not forgetting so soon.
Stay Informed To Catch Misleading Statements
Journalists must be able to quickly recall information to arm ourselves with it, especially during live interviews. If a person you’re interviewing says something false on your air or stream, it’s your responsibility to correct them immediately.
Need help improving your memory? I suggest taking online news quizzes every week. Forcing yourself to recall names, dates, numbers, and quotes will help make those more available to your memory. It will also make you feel more confident that you’re covering the story thoroughly and accurately.
I encourage you to regularly listen to at least a few of these podcasts to keep you up to date on Trump related news:
- Can He Do That?, The Washington Post
- Pod Save America, Crooked Media
- TrumpCast, Slate
- The Editors, National Review
- 5 on 45, The Brookings Institute
I suggest listening to news/podcasts when you drive, shop, run errands, exercise, get ready for work, clean, cook, etc. I listen to about four hours of news podcasts a day. I stream an additional three hours of live news. I spend about three hours a day reading the news. If you want to be a better journalist, learn to love it. If you become a better news consumer, you will become a better journalist. Check out the other five popular podcasts that will keep you conveniently informed:
Facts Are Facts
No political party can claim their own facts. People can have their own opinions, but facts need to be facts for everyone. Journalists must analyze statements and report the facts regardless of their own political affiliation or political beliefs. That is where media ethics will do justice to the masses journalists serve.
What happens when people, especially powerful people, are allowed to create their own facts?
Journalists must make sure our own words don’t become propaganda in the same way a political leader must be stopped from spreading propaganda. If there’s one thing we know for sure right now, it looks like the media and the new White House will be working very hard to hold one another accountable.
For tips on how to fact check read 8 Ways to Spot Fake News.
For a refresher on critical thinking, watch this simple video about how to identify your own bias and take the time to examine claims:
- The American Presidency Project
- Journalists fight the wrong battle on White House access
- An open letter to Trump from the US press corps
- Media Bias Fact Check
- President Trump’s anti-media meltdown – Poynter
- The biggest political story most journalists are missing
Featured image Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore (CC-BY SA)