Now that he’s in the running for the 2024 presidency, the Donald Trump media circus returns for a new season.
Trump is still newsworthy. He was weakened by his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, his attempt to topple the result, and the Republican candidates’ underperformance in the 2022 midterm election. Nevertheless, Trump is more than a party leader. Make America Great Again, colloquially called MAGA, is a political movement. Trump has a legion of die-hard supporters.
Then there’s Trump’s plot. Trump is to reporters what honey is to bears. Journalists value conflict, and Trump delivers it in abundance. That’s why he dominated reporting almost every week during his 2016 presidential election; why in his first 100 days as President he received three times as much media coverage as his immediate predecessors; and why he’s stayed in the news since leaving the White House.
He is also an easy “get”. At a time when politicians are increasingly scripted and sealed off from the media, Trump is on their doorstep. As President, he answered more questions from reporters than any of his recent predecessors.
There’s a third reason Trump will draw news media attention: he’s good for ratings. During the 2016 presidential election alone, he boosted cable television viewership by hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue. Broadcasters also benefited: CBS CEO Les Moonves famously declared that Trump’s presidential candidacy “may not be good for America, but damn good for CBS.” During Joe Biden’s presidency, TV and online news viewership has plummeted since the Trump years.
So the question is not whether Trump will be overwhelmed with coverage, but how journalists should report on him. If they are to serve the public interest, journalists cannot apply the usual rules for reporting on candidates. They report on a politician who regularly disregards democratic norms and lies mercilessly. As a veteran political journalism expert, I offer some recommendations on how to show due respect to Trump’s candidacy without reinforcing his false claims or promoting his anti-democratic beliefs.
Don’t play into his hands
Trump is a master at changing history when it doesn’t go his way or in his favour. To do this successfully, he relies on journalists to take the bait. Spreading Trump’s recent outrage only serves to give him disproportionate coverage and distract the public from what more deserves their attention.
Call upon his untruths, but do not dwell upon them
If any of Trump’s false claims are impossible to ignore, flag them as such in history. At the same time, reporting again that Trump is playing fast and loose with the facts means saying nothing new or unexpected. The latest untruth may be tempting, but that alone doesn’t make it new. A 2015 Columbia University study found that news outlets “play an important role in the dissemination of hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors, and dubious viral content.” Journalists don’t usually make false claims of their own, but do disseminate those of newsmakers. And once aired, the untruths are amplified on social media, where they take on a life of their own in part because people tend to accept false claims that are consistent with what they choose to believe. Few examples make this point clearer than the lingering belief by a sizable Republican majority that the 2020 election was stolen.
Don’t play up his social media provocations
When Trump was President, a third of his most popular tweets contained a false claim. But many Americans would not have heard them directly from Trump. One study found that only about 1 percent of his Twitter followers saw a tweet straight from his Twitter feed. Most Americans heard about his tweets through the news coverage.
Don’t confuse access with newsworthiness
The offer of a Trump interview may be tempting, but unless the reporter has a clear objective and persistently pursues it, it will only work to the advantage of Trump, who is a master at manipulating the agenda. Rather than speaking to Trump for insights into him, Elizabeth Skewes of the University of Colorado suggests getting them from people who have worked with him or studied him closely.
Notice if he ruins democracy
Obeying the law, respecting institutions, and following standard expectations — sometimes referred to as “democratic norms” — are critical to a healthy democracy. As watchdogs of the powerful, journalists have a duty to hold the powerful accountable, including Trump’s attacks on democracy and its institutions. But the danger Trump poses to democracy doesn’t give reporters – who provide facts, not opinions – a license to judge his substantive policies. Journalists are breaking their own norms by taking sides in partisan debates on political issues such as immigration and trade. Leave those judgments to the voters.
Avoid false equivalences
A story about a Trump misdemeanor need not necessarily mention something similar involving a political opponent. This can make Trump’s behavior appear normal when it isn’t. He is a serial violator of social and political expectations.
Journalists cannot assume that news consumers know what is happening on the surface or behind the scenes of their reporting. As early as the 1940s, journalists were criticized for not providing enough context for their audience. In recent years, journalists have attempted to restore public confidence in their work by being more transparent about news decisions. Context is a key element in explaining why the story is newsworthy and why it is being told the way it is.
Don’t lump all Trump loyalists together
The Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 are not fully representative of his supporters. What is overlooked in the post-election turmoil of 2020 is that Trump received the second highest presidential vote in history. Simplistic portrayals by Trump supporters deepen their distrust of the media and its reporting.
None of this will be easy. A century ago, the journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that the press does not order the political chaos, but “aggravates it”. Trump embodies chaos, and his reporting has indeed been chaotic. As one analyst described it back in 2018, “The press rushes from one disproportionate headline to the next, focusing on the crazy, the sensational and the polarizing.” road brings.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.