Since Donald Trump won the race for the United States presidency in November of 2016, a debate has formed around whether it affected, and continues to affect, the quality of media coverage surrounding him. Trump has been heard several times addressing CNN and NBC as “fake news,” while praising Fox News over other news outlets, and this, as some may argue, could have influenced how people trust media coverage. In a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) event titled “Journalism Under Trumpism” held on February 12th at Thomson Reuters Toronto, many journalists discussed where, in this political context, journalism stands today in the media world.
Madelaine Drohan, a Canada correspondent for The Economist, stated she has observed that the U.S. president is affecting Canada, as well. “Trump’s rhetoric’s been adopted by some conservatives in Canada,” she said. “I went to a conference in conservatives within the last year where every session talked about fake news and everyone was all stirred up about journalism. I’ve never experienced that—in [my] four years of reporting in Canada—I’ve never felt that I was in a hostile environment as a journalist before. So that is having an impact.”
Some panelists also addressed the challenges that reporters constantly face in their news coverage.
“For years before the 2016 election, we’ve seen some issues with […] the news cycle. For example, black reporters and black people in general. You know, watching these videos that go viral in the news of armed shootings of men and boys, and women and girls, and it’s […] a sort of exhaustion,” said Alexandria Neason, a staff writer at CJR and a senior Delacorte fellow, adding her own experience, “And it’s a very strange intersection of I’m a reporter and this is my job to watch this, to read it, to write about it, but I’m also a black person living in America who’s impacted by this outside of just my role as a reporter.”
An issue that is currently facing many journalism organizations is people losing trust in them. Trump highlighting “fake news” and “alternative facts” may have influenced may people to doubt what journalists are reporting. According to CJR’s chief digital writer Mathew Ingram, the shaken-trust existed before Trump, as well. “In a way, I think you could say that Trump tapped into something that already existed. It’s not like he created this crisis of trust. He tapped in [and] he knew it was there and he’s fed it like a fire,” he said.
Among one of the comments made by the audience is that even if journalists give the public what they need, rather than what they want, people may not like them. The journalists present at the panel were specifically asked how they can separate their emotions, remain unbiased, and try to gain people’s trust back. Paul Thomasch, America’s top news editor at Reuters, stated an example when a leader says they’re going to take a certain action, what reporters try to examine is the impacts of this action as well as to explain to the public what the meaning of the action really is.
Neason also addressed this point throughout her talk saying, “I think it can be difficult to sort of muster the energy to do your job every day. It’s hard to be a journalist. It’s hard to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. It’s harder when the news is upsetting constantly. And it’s harder still when there’s the sense that the public doesn’t believe in your role as a journalist, and in some cases, just thinks that you are not truthful, and that you’re not pursuing the news in an honest way.”
She says, in a way that aligns with journalistic values that are long standing.”
Neason also continues to say, “You can acknowledge that you have, you know, I’m a black woman and there are things that are going to affect me and I’m going to react to, as a Black woman no matter what […], but I can say that and I can acknowledge that, and then I can try really hard to make sure that I’m reporting things in a fair way. And I’m being transparent about the fact that whatever policy, whatever scandal, whatever it is—that perhaps there’s some stake in this that I might experience,” she added.
Drohan noted though that there isn’t an easy answer to gaining people’s trust. “When we talk about how did we engage the audiences, we’ve lost a lot of the audiences already. I mean, it’s not going to be simply a question of, you know, telling them in a different manner that a free press is good for you because some of them aren’t listening to us anymore. So that goes back to how do we gain the trust and how do we fix the business model? And there isn’t an easy answer.” She, however, emphasized transparency as a possible method to win back people’s trust. “When you look at why the media has lost trust, [in North America], people think that they [the media] have hidden biases and agendas,” she said, “So if you’re upfront with your agenda then at least you’ve gotten rid of part of that lack of trust.”
The panelists also spoke about the rise of online platforms, its impact on regular news outlets, and the power of social media. According to Drohan, the media business was already in a weak form even before Trump became the president, and part of the reason was social media and Google taking the attention from the regular media outlets, “Because they were bringing in all the advertising dollars. So that really weakened the media organizations to take on some of these problems that have come along with Trump.” In terms of how to deal with Trump, she explained that it is important to address “the fundamental problems that he has actually latched on to” before addressing the solution itself.
Besides taking attention from the traditional and regular form of news organizations, journalists are still able to reach people through emerging news platforms. In response to how digital tools could help improve citizen engagement, Ingram pointed out that they do have a “huge” potential and that they are better than “old-fashion” type of news.
“Now, there’s so much more potential to reach people in ways that matter to them whether it’s Snapchat, or Instagram, or email newsletter, or whatever,” he said. “So, I think, there’s not just journalists, but anyone who’s interested in helping people understand what’s going on around them, should be doing as much as possible, in as many different ways as possible. And yes, that includes Facebook.”
Moderating the panel were CJR’s editor-in-chief and publisher Kyle Pope, the advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Courtney Radsch, and the executive director at CPJ Joel Simon. In addition, other journalists at the panel included Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s North America program coordinator; Jeff Ballou, news editor at Al Jazeera English; Stephen Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief; Kathleen Caroll, chair of CPJ and former Associated Press executive director; and Reg Chua, Reuters’ chief operating officer.