EDITORIAL – Beyond Truth: 5 Lessons for Future Journalists during the Trump Administration

As journalism students and future journalists, we have good reason to be concerned about the Donald J. Trump presidency.

We’re fundamentally optimistic, of course. We dream of informing the public, and holding truth to power. We believe in the tenets of democracy, and the role of independent journalism as an accountability apparatus for the sake of the people – all people. Journalism is the only profession whose job description is ingrained in the U.S. Constitution with the First Amendment. Our duty to uphold these values is intrinsic to the success of our republic. They always have been and they always will be.

But, we have sincere reason to be concerned.

Trump’s campaign has been marked by vitriolic rhetoric directed toward basic democratic institutions. Trump has repeatedly made comments and campaign promises that demonstrate his disregard for free speech, free press, free exercise of religion, free and fair elections, and the free functioning of opposition parties. Trump has promised to open up libel laws, so individuals can more easily sue reporters. He has threatened to sue news outlets over objectively factual reporting. And, he has repeatedly denigrated and endangered individual journalists covering his presidential campaign.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has even called a Trump presidency a threat to press freedom.

Trump’s campaign has been marked by falsehoods. The American people have democratically elected a candidate who has consistently peddled untruths and furthered conspiracy theories since the start of his campaign.

Thus, will Trump’s rhetoric and campaign promises come to fruition during his presidency? Will a President Trump behave like a president, using facts instead of furthering fictions? For now, we cannot know.

But, what we do know is simple: the media got it wrong. The media failed to understand the voting populace, and aptly predict the results of the presidential election.

And we, as future journalists, need to reconcile with the media environment we are inheriting.

In this spirit, the MediaFile Editorial Board has compiled a list of lessons for future journalists (including ourselves):

1. Figure Out What Went Wrong

Something went horribly wrong. The media has relied on norms, historical data, and basic tenets of political thought in dispelling the likelihood that Trump would ascend to the presidency. And, an ecosystem of public opinion polling has fundamentally failed.

Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times called it “A ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ Lesson,” citing not only inaccurate polling, but also a “failure to capture the boiling anger of a large portion of the American electorate.”

Additionally, many feel that cable news channels gave undue exposure to Trump during the key early days of the primary race; giving in towards a propensity for infotainment rather than hard fact-based reporting.

“Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don’t have that kind of power,” writes Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post. “But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.”

But, change must seep through all news media outlets in the days following this election – not just CNN, but also The New York Times, NBC News, BuzzFeed, and more. Young, newbie journalists must rise up to defy the institutional and bureaucratic barriers to change at established news organizations. And, they must bring a spirit of old-school, shoe-leather journalism and a passion for serving the entire American public.

But, first we need to study the errors of this election. As they say, those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

2. Be Vigilant About Finding Truth and Dispelling Fiction

In an era of seemingly infinite news sources and audiences’ own ability to consume and regurgitate content through social media, it will become increasingly harder to discern what the baseline “truth” of any matter is.

This election cycle, audience perceptions of the media plummeted, mostly due to “perceptions of inaccuracy and bias.” Even our now-President-Elect Donald Trump based much of his campaign against a media environment he considered “crooked,” “liberal,” and generally biased against him. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 55 percent of surveyed voters agreed with his assessment.

Given the rise and legitimization of the conspiratorial media outlets in this election cycle, along with poor perception of the news media, it will be more critical than ever to be forthright in one’s reporting. This means that reporters must do the necessary digging to find truthful information, and also, in turn, report on it truthfully and with context. 

One positive takeaway from this election cycle has been the dominance of fact-checking in journalism. While the effects of fact-checks on the public are uncertain, the prioritization of facts in reporting is fundamentally a good thing. Young journalists should steadfastly use fact-checks to hold the powerful accountable.

Similarly, in this election, we’ve seen how digging through primary source information is powerful. Investigative reporters such as The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, The New York Times’ Susanne Craig, and BuzzFeed News and CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski have given the American public some remarkable journalism this cycle. Fahrenthold’s plainclothes reporting on the Trump Foundation has been particularly admirable and should become an example in journalism schools and newsrooms for years to come.

Understanding the value of this kind of reporting is crucial for aspiring journalists. Emerging journalists must be able to confidently dispel fact from fiction and opinion in the media. It’s not only critical for the future of quality reporting, but for the future of public information and our democracy as a whole.

3. Step Outside of The Bubble

“Drain the Swamp” is a Trump sentiment because his base feels that Washington, D.C., and all those who live and work within it, are completely out of touch with the heartbeat of the nation. And, while the expression is horrifying, they are completely right that D.C. is out of touch.

The “Beltway Bubble” is not exclusive to the halls of Capitol Hill, K Street, or polling firms. This attitude has permeated newsrooms of every D.C. media outlet and beyond. In 2016, the media got lazy. Journalists got lost in their own Twitter feeds. They were reliant on analysts and pollsters within a certain unquestioned groupthink. Many didn’t look in the eyes of the average Trump supporter or attempt to understand how they felt.

“To put it bluntly, the media missed the story,” writes Sullivan. “In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it.”

But to remedy this, we can’t just send the equivalent of embeds into Middle America and hope for the best. According to Rutenberg, that would “miss something fundamental.”

“Flyover country isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind — it’s in parts of Long Island and Queens, much of Staten Island, certain neighborhoods of Miami or even Chicago,” he writes in The New York Times. “And, yes, it largely — but hardly exclusively — pertains to working-class white people.”

The faster journalists realize that the white, male, non-educated voter has an equal voice in political society, the better. He may not be their next door neighbor, and he might not vote in every election, but he turned out for Trump – and the media failed to properly cover the trend.

4. Diverse Voices Need Representation Now More Than Ever

Let’s face it – the demographics of the news media, while improving, are predominately white and predominantly male. This is a trend, some say, of oppression. What does that mean for journalism?

“[It’s a question] about why the country is more brown than ever but mainstream journalism is so White, and all the stories we might be missing because of it,” says The Undefeated’s Lonnae O’Neal.

Donald Trump’s victory – the culmination of a campaign with less-than-stellar race relations – has brought about insecurities and fear from women and individuals of color. These concerns, coupled with the preexisting lack of diversity in media, make one takeaway crystal clear: diverse voices – voices spanning ethnicities, races, cultures, sexualities, genders, and backgrounds – will be critical for the future of media.

The goal for this diversity should not be the mere checking of boxes or meeting of hiring quotas. Diversity is essential for accurate representation of the whole of America. Emerging journalists must recognize that reporting should become less of “telling somebody’s story,” and should become more empowering for individuals to tell their stories on their own.

Emerging journalists should consistently consider aspects of diversity not only in what they’re reporting on, but how they are doing so. Journalists should consistently ask themselves: What perspectives could be added from a source with a race/ethnicity/sexuality/gender that I haven’t yet heard from? Is my reporting actually representative of the community that I am covering? Whose story is not being told?

For now, Trump may be “exposing” the diversity problem newsrooms face. Yet, once election hype has calmed, the future of how the media adequately represents and covers the diverse facets of America will be contingent on how news organizations embrace our country’s many shades.

5. Be Innovative

Young reporters need to consider how they reach – and build – their audiences. And, inherent in that discussion, is the issue of access.

Journalism has not really figured out a good business model. Why would people pay for journalism when they can get it somewhere else for free? And, what does it say that paywalls dominate the most reliable and trusted news websites? If truthful information is a public good, why cannot everyone experience this on the same level?

This is not just an issue for news organizations. This very significantly affects individual reporters. Young reporters tend to understand personal branding and the individualization of news – so, they need to consider how their reporting reaches (or fails to reach) certain audiences.

In procuring a better media environment, we’re going to have to use all available tools – and create new ones too. We need journalists that are entrepreneurial and innovative, that can find  creative ways to spread truthful information and communicate to a broad public.

We can find new and innovative ways to resonate with varied audiences, and convey important information about politics and the state of affairs.

A Final Note

The future of journalism is bright. While working journalists have a unique perspective and understanding of what has transpired, we also know that the media’s future plays an important role moving forward. When MediaFile launched in August, AdWeek’s Corinne Grinapol had kind words about our unique opportunity:

“The longer you are part of something, the more experience you have and the greater your understanding of how things work, but that latter part can also work against you, especially if your role is to critically examine the thing you’re part of. It becomes harder to remember that how things work aren’t necessarily how they should or could.

As students, MediaFile’s writers and reporters can fill an important role, armed as they are with their fresh, hungry eyes and academic understanding of the craft and practice of journalism and communications.”

Journalists – and new journalists with fresh perspectives – are needed now more than ever.

So with all this said, let’s dust off our boots, throw on our press passes and get ready to cover these next four years with vigor, passion, and a commitment to the truth and to our fellow Americans.

One thought on “EDITORIAL – Beyond Truth: 5 Lessons for Future Journalists during the Trump Administration”

  1. Regina says:

    Great editorial!
    Journalism is our last bastion of hope…to make possible an informed and engaged citizenry who will cast their votes. This election faltered on the “informed” part of the equation, partly due to the inaccuracy of polling, but also due to the fact that media coverage of the campaign was for the most part focusing on quick sound bites , (which were abnormally plentiful…and for all the wrong reasons). The sentiments behind those sound bites were not examined and reported as thoroughly as they should have been. If they were …the media might have been able to pick up on the fact that polls were truly not reflecting what they were hearing and seeing throughout the country while on the presidential campaign…and that in and of itself would have been the story.

    The outcome of this election is not what many Americans expected…including journalists. As we move forward, we all need to be aware that it’s a long time until the next election, but it starts now. And if you truly want to see things change in the direction that our country is headed, you have to stay involved. You cannot quit now.
    The media needs to continue to remind us all of that.

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