Journalistic standards decline as the industry obsesses with war against Trump

Journalistic standards decline as the industry obsesses with war against Trump
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The one year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration is here and there is no sign the Trump-media war will deescalate any time soon. The Trump campaign foreshadowed a rancorous relationship with the news industry, and the combat has worsened since Trump walked into the Oval Office.

The Trump presidency has changed the conventions of White House and press interactions. There is no presidency in recent history, or maybe all of American history, that can be cited for comparison. Nixon hated the press and the press hounded him, but there was a degree of public civility and some protocol accompanying the relationship. People were shocked when Vice President Spiro Agnew called reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Such a comment today would be cordial banter from the Trump administration.

Trump seems convinced he won the White House in part because he attacked the press as part of the establishment that needed draining. Thus, he now governs with constant reminders to citizens of his perception the press is promoting selfish and partisan interests rather than the information needs of a democracy.

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The press has responded to Trump’s lambastings by substituting aggressive, hard-hitting reporting with antagonistic stories that combine facts and subjectivity in the same news reports. That works fine for loyalist followers of certain mainstream media outlets, but this approach alienates moderates, independents, and right-leaning news consumers who expect delineation between reporting and commentary.

 

The press’ antagonistic approach to journalism results in self-inflicted reporting wounds. Reporters in the Trump era have relied unnecessarily on weak or anonymous sourcing. Using background sources is essential in getting at certain stories, but over-reliance on secret sources gives an already skeptical public more reason to question media credibility. Worse yet, rushing to report controversial content based on flimsy sourcing inevitably leads to errors, as was seen on several high profile occasions last year. This, in turn, fairly or not, gives Trump more ammunition with which to demean and attack the press.

A hostile press leads to a hostile news agenda. A just-released study by the Media Research Center found that negative stories about Trump prevailed on the evening network newscasts in 2017. Other studies in the last year confirm the MRC results. Sure, Trump makes ill-advised comments and is a lightning rod for controversy. The nine to one ratio of negative to positive stories about the Trump administration, however, is an imbalance that defies solid reportorial judgement. 

News agenda-setters are similar to referees in sports, presumably keeping things fair in the arena. Fans would suspect an officiating conspiracy if the Boston Celtics were assessed nine fouls for every one for the opponent during an entire season.

On one level, news outlets have benefited from the adversarial relationship with Trump. Website clicks and cable news ratings are up in the last year. This doesn’t mean, however, that the nation is better informed or having more rational debates about the issues of genuine importance. Sensational and excited reporting does not necessarily make for effective “news.” Grandstanding at White House press conferences surely turns off more news consumers than it attracts.

The public is clearly discouraged by the media’s poor performance. A new study by the Knight Foundation shows public trust in media is at an all-time low. Further, the study indicates almost half of Americans believe the media is doing a poor job of supporting democracy. A separate study by the Pew Research Center shows Americans’ massive distrust of media. Compared to 19 other developed nations, Americans have the least trust in their media outlets to cover government fairly.

It is high time for the national news media to do some introspection. A free press was created by the nation’s founders to serve as surrogates for the public. Given the public’s lack of confidence, the media are apparently failing to serve that surrogate role. The citizenry is smart enough to recognize an underperforming media establishment.

None of this discussion is designed to portray Trump as a victim or suggest the press should take it easy on Trump. For all kinds of reasons, his presidency needs close scrutiny and tough reporting. That reporting, however, should be done with clear sourcing, some balance, and a focus on issues of significance. It ultimately matters little if Trump dislikes the press, but it matters a great deal that the public is giving up on the press.

The news industry today should reflect on the words of G.K. Chesterton, at one time himself a journalist, who became a leading sociopolitical observer in the early twentieth century. Chesterton wrote, “The curse of all journalism … is that we think ourselves cleverer than the people for whom we write, whereas, in fact, we are generally even stupider.” It is time for journalists to do better and live up to its First Amendment responsibility.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.