As the United States election campaign, one of the most toxic and bruising political brawls of recent times, finally draws to a close, many journalists both in America and across the globe are confounded by the success of a candidate who has defied political gravity and forced editors and reporters to question their attachment to the cardinal principles of journalism — balance and impartiality.
The election may well turn out to be an anti-climax, with opinion polls suggesting voters will resoundingly decide not to put him in the White House, but Donald Trump has, says the New York Times, tested American journalism to the limit.
The question that mainstream journalists have faced is how do we cover a demagogue who encourages hate and who challenges the values of tolerance, pluralism and humanity upon which democracy, if not journalism itself, depends? (Is, for instance, the use of the word “demagogue” in the last sentence justified?)
The answer for some, according to a recent report in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), has been to rethink their coverage and to do so in the spirit of the journalism made famous by broadcaster Edward Murrow more than 60 years ago.
Murrow focused his attention on another loud-mouthed politician, the ferocious anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, recalls the CJR, and pointedly signed off his prime-time film on the red-baiting McCarthy with words that resonate in American politics today:
“He didn’t create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully,” Murrow said of McCarthy. Most of Murrow’s argument relied on McCarthy’s own words, but in the end Murrow shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent—or for those who approve,” he said. “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
The argument is a simple one – because Trump’s language and actions fall outside society’s acceptable social norms, journalists may be justified in parking their duty of detachment in favour of more openly critical reporting.
Trump’s outrageous behaviour coupled with his fact-free and malicious use of information has certainly angered many people in the news business. He’s even, according to one veteran campaigner, turning into a global threat to press freedom.
Many observers on all sides of the political spectrum are shocked by his racist and nationalistic tendencies. Whenever he opens his mouth he expresses sentiments that are abusive of the rights of others. He has targeted women in particular, but Muslims, migrants, Mexicans, media and even distinguished military veterans have been on the receiving end of his lacerating anger about the world around him.
Trump is the consummate populist. He is a barn-storming politician with experience in the media game who exploits the anxiety, anger and uncertainty of a significant minority of people who have lost faith in their government, the state and the establishment – including mainstream journalism with the latest polls showing public trust in media at an all time low.
His success does not necessarily reflect widespread endorsement of his policies, much less his character, but it is a sign of political crisis, and this is the context that provides the link with Murrow and McCarthy – who saw a communist conspiracy on every street corner.
While McCarthy targeted liberals, artists and intellectuals in his search for people to blame for widespread public fearfulness in the first years of the Cold War, Trump also appears to be hunting for scapegoats, particularly among America’s migrant and Muslim minorities, to blame for America’s current social and economic crisis.
But journalists need to tread carefully. Trump, unlike McCarthy, is not deeply embedded in the political superstructure. He is an outsider – even in his own party – and is running for office with all of the public scrutiny that entails.
As a candidate for office Trump should indeed be a media target, as the New York Times has said, particularly for journalists who take seriously their responsibility to expose vested interests and hypocrisy in public life, to provide context for outrageous political statements, and to stick to the facts in their reporting.
Indeed, asking hard questions, highlighting untruths and deceptive handling of the facts and balancing coverage with counter opinions remains the best and most trusted way to tell the Trump story.
Many reporters ask whether, when the evidence piles up, about his attitude to women; his loose attachment to facts and respect for others; and his incitement of other to hate and intolerance, we in journalism are still be obliged to seek “balancing” narratives in our reporting.
The answer, simply, is yes we are, but only when the facts require it and when it make sense to do so; we don’t need to second-guess blindingly obvious realities on the basis of absolutist commitment to “balanced” journalism. We do it when the facts demand it.
One thing we have all learned from the Trump campaign – and also the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom where politicians also made up much of the story as they went along – is that if we want to build public trust and make democracy work, we need to respect facts and stick to fact-based communications.
Everywhere people are waking up to this. Today there are more than 100 fact-checking sites available on the web and Google itself, rather belatedly one might think, has introduced its own fact-check service alongside its news service.
This trend recognises that around the world, and not just in the United States, there is widespread public disenchantment with government, politics and establishment institutions. Cosy relationships between media and politics mean that people often see media as part of the problem, not the solution to their anxiety about what they are being told.
Journalists and editors in the United States, most parts of Europe and in scattered outposts of democracy around the world, enjoy a degree of freedom in their work and can report the Trump phenomenon in context, but others are not so blessed.
Trump’s campaign is a global story and there are plenty more authoritarian figures like him in modern, global politics and some of them have power already in their hands.
Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, and Hungary’s Orban all follow a democratic path, but they have little time for notions of democratic pluralism and press freedom. Independent media face daunting challenges in these countries and journalists often risk their jobs or liberty when they stand up for principles of impartiality and balanced reporting.
Their attachment to these values in the face of political pressure should make journalists and editors in countries where the press is free think hard about the primacy of editorial integrity and the ethical values that make journalism a different and distinct part of public discourse.
In an age when public confidence in politics and government is dangerously low and is creating fertile ground for the hateful politics of Trump and others, media need to take their distance from political and corporate power and stand up for ethical journalism.