Ethics in the news after Trump’s election


Donald Trump Sr at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon

Tom Law

On Thursday morning US news media got a taste for what a Donald Trump presidency could mean for press freedom. Gone were the customary shots of the incumbent greeting their successor on the White House steps. Instead he entered through a side entrance with the media cooped up in the pressroom.

When Trump returned to New York yesterday evening, and having been given back access to his twitter account, he sent this tweet:

After a day acting presidential, Trump’s invective and conspiracy theories about the media bias that had propelled him to the cusp of the being the most powerful man in the world were back.

Self-reflection among journalists about their role in the US election began ahead of the result but has been stepped-up over the last week. This is not because Hillary Clinton’s candidacy had the most media endorsements or the fact that, of the $400,000 donated by journalists and media professionals to the two campaigns, 96 per cent went to the Democratic candidate.

The soul searching among journalists about how Trump defied political gravity, despite a wave of scandals and investigative reporting that would have ended the race for any other candidate, had begun even before the result was known. They merely intensified after Trump’s victory.

The main points around which consensus appears to be forming are:


  1. Journalism from the newsroom is a failure for democracy

Senior Norwegian journalist and EJN board member, Bernt Olufsen, told me on Wednesday that the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union and Trump’s victory both demonstrated “journalism not speaking to people any more.”

The financial pressures of the industry mean that “journalism these days is more about sitting in offices and not interacting with people”, Olufsen said. This resulted in a failure to connect with the dispossessed and isolated communities that Trump had identified.

But reporting from areas that have long been ignored cannot be done through anthropological visits from the big cities, we must find a way to invest in local reporting, that is key to democracy.


  1. Talking head broadcasting cannot replace actual reporting

Watching CNN the day after Donald Trump’s election was illustrative; panel after panel of talking heads pontificated. The journalists, analysts and political stooges are almost indistinguishable from each other. Some, like Corey Lewandowski, were getting paid twice: by CNN and from his non-disclosure severance package after stepping down from running Trump’s campaign. The only respite from the talking heads was going live to hear speeches from political leaders.

The Associated Press was not alone in noting that CNN’s use of campaign surrogates such as Donna Brazile and Corey Lewandowski raises questions about ethics and, loyalties. A lack of thorough analysis and a tendency to take literally every outrageous statement only reinforced and gave confidence to extremist voices. Where was the journalism? Where were the voices of the electorate?


  1. Political reporting must go beyond personality

Media has allowed itself to be dictated to by personality, scandal and controversy. While Clinton had one main on-going scandal – her email server – Trump had multiple controversies a week, sometimes even within one speech.

In December, Bill Orme wrote in the EJN report on migration coverage:

“Over the course of the summer, the three US cable news networks devoted nearly twice as much air time to Trump as to any other of the 16 Republican candidates – and most of this coverage focused on his unapologetically xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric. He boasted that he had singlehandedly put immigration at the center of US political debate and media coverage for the first time in years – one of his few objectively accurate claims.”

CNN has conceded that they “probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies”. Saturated television coverage of Trump was profitable. Journalism is expensive. Struggling newsrooms too often opted for cheaper and easier studio-based solutions of professional commentators and experts.

Trump identified and exploited a political crisis and the disconnect between large parts of the public and the media. With coverage dominated by rivalries, real motivations and policy implications were lost in the noise.

Newsrooms are under pressure but journalism does itself no long-term favours by reporting the propaganda and sensationalism of demagogues literally. It is more important than ever for the craft of journalism to demonstrably show that it works in a framework of values that distinguish it from other forms of media communications as they become evermore ubiquitous.

We have to move away from an obsession with the personal politics of the election — the candidates, their statements and the personal reactions of the establishment elite.


  1. Journalists should stop obsessing over polls

Polls can be fallible sources. In the UK, the outcomes of the last general election as well the Brexit vote were called wrong by pollsters and therefore by most of the media. The US election coverage was at times dominated by polls and horse race reporting at the detriment of time that could have been spent on the issues at hand. Journalists need to have a more critical approach to polling and be more upfront with their audiences about their level of accuracy.

High profile pollsters like Nate Silver and Frank Lutz stake their reputations and therefore the profitability of their business on confidence in their numbers. Lessons will be learnt most notably. It now seems that some Trump voters (and Brexit voters) were not only shy to reveal their voting intentions but were also harder to reach.

Pollsters after Brexit were worried about their prospects but there was no real dip in demand; the media feeds off this information and struggles to understand the world without it. There was a certain irony of CNN and others pouring over demographic data the day after the same companies had misled them into calling the election for Clinton only hours earlier.


  1. Facebook, Google and Twitter need to up their game 

False news going viral on social media and one search engines must be taken seriously. The echo chamber of only seeing news shared by your friends and contacts is a threat to public debate and an informed electorate. A “license to lie” associated with polarisation, and echo chamber communications has been created that if unchallenged renders it almost impossible for facts, no matter how self- evident, to be accepted.

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman found that analysis of three hyperpartisan right-wing Facebook pages showed that 38% of all posts were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false. Silverman, who also exposed the industry of profitable false news websites focused on Trump and the US election from one small Macedonian town, concludes that:

The right-wing pages are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.

Never has there been a greater need for cool heads and for all media professionals to commit to ethical reporting. But how can journalists hold populist leaders to account? How can media be accountable to itself and its audience? The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse, according to Neiman Labs, which is why these issues will be addressed by the EJN’s Ethics in the News report coming out next month.

For an advanced copy or more information please contact me

Photo: Donald Trump Sr at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon (CC BY-SA 2.0)