With all eyes on the presidential election in the United States, we have put together a series of blog posts on important aspects of the campaign. First in our three-part presidential election primer is an examination of the challenges facing journalists covering an extraordinary politician like President Donald Trump by Bruce Gillespie. Bruce is the chair of Wilfrid Laurier’s Digital Media and Journalism program and an accomplished journalist and author.
Covering Trump and the 2020 U.S. Election (Part 1)
As the U.S. presidential campaigns shift into high gear this fall, journalism scholars will watch to see what news outlets have learned from their mistakes four years ago. This is an important opportunity for news media to try to connect with readers and regain their trust, but it comes at a time when they are struggling to survive and face opposition from some of the most powerful politicians in the country.
After the 2016 election, mainstream news media were widely criticized for their role in the campaign. Trump’s celebrity status gave journalists an excuse to give him far greater amounts of coverage than any other candidate for the Republican nomination, and the levels of his coverage were highly correlated with his standings in the polls. Meanwhile, in the general election campaign, journalists’ tendencies to equate objective coverage with balanced coverage led them to write overly critical and sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton as they published every outrageous claim and promise made by Donald Trump, with a sort of can-you-believe-he-said-this glee, devoid of any critical context.1 They covered Trump as a reality TV star on a publicity tour as opposed to a politician with any serious chance of being elected, expecting readers to see through his exaggerations without much prodding. Clearly, this was a problematic approach, and unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that this year’s coverage will be much better, given how the press has covered Trump’s presidency in the intervening years.
One of the main issues is how the news media frame their coverage of Trump, which has a way of highlighting his disinformation and underplaying their fact-checking. Information in a news story is traditionally organized in order of descending importance: the newest and/or most important details appear at the beginning and the remaining details are slotted into place according to their ranking on a scale of decreasing newness or importance. This means Trump’s often-shocking claims are what lead most of the stories about him, while the verification and analysis of those claims appear much lower in the story.
This structure is particularly problematic in online news coverage, given what we know about how people read news online. By and large, we are skimmers who take in the headline and subheadline, read the first few paragraphs of a news story and then scan through to the end or simply move on. This habit, coupled with how news stories are structured, increases the likelihood of readers remembering only the disinformation mentioned in the story rather than the assessment of its accuracy.
This is not an impossible problem to remedy. One of the most effective ways is known as the truth sandwich, a concept credited to George Lakoff, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. The idea is simple: instead of beginning a news story with Trump’s claim, begin with the truth or the fact-check of his claim. Then, outline the dishonest statement made by Trump. Instead of repeating his often inflammatory, sexist and racist language, the statement should be put into the reporter’s words. Then, repeat the truth once more. The same thinking should apply to headlines, given their prominence when shared via social media: highlight the fact that Trump has lied or exaggerated while keeping a tight focus on the actual facts.
Despite how easily this model could be rolled out, few major news media have adopted it, choosing instead to rely on the shock value of Trump’s latest claim to garner attention online. Even if news media adapted their approach to covering Trump, they face an uphill battle in getting through to readers and regaining their trust. While Trump has played a significant role in fomenting mistrust of journalists and the news media during his presidency, going so far as to call them “the enemy of the people” and labelling news reports he finds unflattering as “fake news,” trust in news media has declined steadily since the 1970s.2 It has only been exacerbated by Trump and the ease with which disinformation and hate can be shared through social media. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, Americans who get their political news primarily via social media are less engaged and less knowledgeable than other adults. They are also less likely to follow major news stories, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election. Plus, they are more likely than other Americans to have been exposed to conspiracy theories.
In addition, there are simply fewer news media for Americans to consult, particularly at the local level. Since 2005, 2,100 newspapers have closed across the U.S.; in the past two years alone, 300 newspapers were shuttered, putting 6,000 journalists out of work and resulting in a print newspaper circulation decline of five million, according to The Expanding News Desert project at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The news industry also continues to contract, as regional media are consolidated by large chains backed by hedge funds and private equity, which are more interested in turning a profit than serving the public.
Taken together, these should form a stark warning for news outlets. They need to do a better job of reporting on Trump, not merely providing transcripts of his rants, in order to maintain and build on the credibility they have left at a time when they can’t take any reader for granted and have an important role to play in civic discourse.
1. Sides, John, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. Princeton University Press, 2019.
2. Ladd, Jonathan M. Why Americans Hate the News Media and How It Matters. Princeton University Press, 2012.