Cambridge (US), Nov 16 (The Conversation) Now that he’s in the 2024 presidential race, the media circus that is Donald Trump is returning for a new season.
Trump is still newsworthy.
He’s been weakened by his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, his attempt to overthrow its result and the underperformance of Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms.
Trump is more than just a political leader. “Make America Great Again,” known colloquially as “MAGA,” is a political movement.
Trump is a hero to many.
Then there’s Trump the storyline. Trump is to journalists as honey is for bears. Trump is a conflict-loving journalist who delivers it with great frequency.
It’s why he dominated news coverage nearly every week of his 2016 presidential run; why he got three times as much news coverage during his first 100 days as president as did his immediate predecessors; and why he has remained in the news since leaving the White House.
He’s also an easy “get.” In an era where politicians are increasingly scripted and walled off from the media, Trump is at their doorstep. He answered more reporters’ questions than any of his predecessors as president.
There’s a third reason that Trump will get the news media’s attention: He’s good for ratings.
He boosted cable TV viewership by a staggering 80% during the 2016 presidential election. This resulted in an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Broadcasters benefited, too: CBS CEO Les Moonves famously declared that Trump’s presidential run “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” During Joe Biden’s presidency, TV and online news viewership is down sharply from the Trump years.
The question isn’t whether Trump will be covered by journalists, but how journalists should report on him.
Journalists cannot use the normal rules of reporting on candidates if they are serving the public interest.
They report on a politician, who defies democratic norms and tells lies without a second thought.
As a longtime scholar of political journalism, I offer some recommendations for giving due respect to Trump’s candidacy without amplifying his false claims or promoting his anti-democratic beliefs.
Don’t play into his hand Trump is a master at changing the story when it’s not going in his direction or favour.
To accomplish this, he depends on journalists to be his spokesman. Racing to air Trump’s latest outrage serves only to give him disproportionate coverage and to divert the public from what’s more deserving of its attention.
Do call out his falsehoods, but don’t dwell on them When it’s impossible to ignore one of Trump’s false claims, label it as such in the story.
Nevertheless, it is not surprising to hear Trump play fast and loose with facts.
The latest untruth might be tantalising, but that alone doesn’t make it news.
A 2015 Columbia University study found news outlets “play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumours, and dubious viral content.” Journalists don’t typically make false claims of their own, but do air those of newsmakers.
And once aired, the falsehoods get amplified on social media, where they take on a life of their own in part because people tend to accept false claims that align with what they’d like to believe.
The belief that the 2020 election was stolen is one of the best examples.
Don’t play up his social media provocations When Trump was president, one-third his most popular tweets contained a false claim.
But many Americans wouldn’t have heard them directly from Trump.
An analysis found that less than 1% of his Twitter followers actually saw a tweet from his Twitter account.
His tweets were most commonly covered in news coverage by Americans.
Don’t confuse access with newsworthiness The offer of a Trump interview might be enticing, but unless the reporter has a clear purpose and pursues it doggedly, it will work only to the advantage of Trump, who is a master at manipulating the agenda.
Instead of speaking with Trump to get insights on him, the University of Colorado’s Elizabeth Skewes suggests getting them from people who have worked with him or studied him closely.
Do notice when he trashes democracy Obeying laws, respecting institutions and following standard expectations – sometimes called “democratic norms” – are all critical to a healthy democracy. Journalists, as watchdogs of the powerful, are duty-bound to hold the powerful accountable, including Trump’s attacks on democracy and its institutions.
But the danger that Trump poses to democracy does not grant reporters – who are purveyors of facts, not opinion – a license to judge his substantive policies.
Journalists are breaking their own rules by participating in partisan debates about policy issues such as immigration and trade. These judgments should be left to the voters.
Avoid false equivalence. A story about Trump’s transgressions does not necessarily need to mention something similar involving a political rival.
Doing so can make Trump’s behaviour look normal when it is not. He’s a serial transgressor of social and political expectations.
Do provide context It’s not safe for journalists to assume news consumers know what’s happening either on the surface or behind the scenes of what they’re reporting.
Journalism was criticised by journalists for giving their audiences too much context as far back the 1940s.
Journalists have been trying to restore trust in their work over the years by being more transparent with news decisions. Context is a key piece of that, explaining why the story is newsworthy and why it’s being told in the way that it is.
Don’t lump all Trump loyalists in the same basket The Trump followers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are not fully representative of his followers. In the chaos that followed the 2020 election, it was often overlooked that Trump received the second most presidential votes in history. Simplistic portrayals of Trump’s supporters deepens their mistrust of the media and its reporting.
It will not be easy.
A century ago, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that the press, rather than bringing order to political chaos, tends to “intensify” it.
Trump is the embodiment of chaos. His news coverage has also been chaotic.
As one analyst described it as far back as 2018, “The press rushes from one out-of-proportion headline to the next, focusing on the weird, the sensational and the polarising.” More disciplined reporting would benefit the American people as the Trump circus takes its 2024 show on the road. (The Conversation). VM
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