How Journalists Should Act In The Age Of 'Alternative Facts'

Give up any pretense at “objectivity” as reflected in balanced news coverage.

President Donald Trump’s first days as president have been troubling to many journalists. He criticized the press, calling the media “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” He challenged media coverage of his inauguration, lashing out at perceived slights over attendance figures. He declared war, voicing his disdain for “dishonest media.”

The chattering class recoiled. Journalists on Twitter expressed concern for the next four years of reporting on Trump. The Wall Street Journal, usually supportive of Trump, noted, “this was not a presidential performance.”

The Journal is right, but presidents are rarely presidential in their first week in office. Trump is not a typical president. He is our first president in more than 50 years without any experience as an elected official. Journalists need to treat Trump like the political novice he is. It will take time for him to understand that the norms and practices guiding presidents and politicians for more than a century are the best practices for the current administration.

Scholars in media and political science have long been fascinated by the relationship between the president and the news media. Our former colleague, the late Timothy E. Cook, articulated this as the “negotiation of newsworthiness,” the idea that politicians and the news media engage in an elaborate negotiation. Politicians provide access while the news media provides the coverage necessary to govern. Presidents can provide journalists with the most coveted access in Washington.

In our new media environment, Trump may believe he doesn’t need the press. He might believe social media will allow him to circumvent the media filter. Comments from Kellyanne Conway made this implicit threat on Meet the Press this week: “if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.” Fragmentation of media markets changes the power dynamic in important ways: (1) Presidents can go around the press via social media; (2) Presidents have a wider range of potential outlets to choose from. This competition may empower presidents.

Yet, if traditional media power may be declining, the news media, an ill-defined collective mass of media outlets, continue to function as the fourth branch of government. Presidents need public support to govern and mass communication via the news media is still the most effective way to reach large audiences and garner widespread support for policies.

To be effective in the current environment, however, the press needs to rediscover its power.

We suggest three strategies for journalists. First, give up any pretense at “objectivity” as reflected in balanced news coverage. In the interview with Kellyanne Conway (noted above), Chuck Todd said Trump’s complaint about inauguration crowd size was ridiculous. Conway quickly called him out for overstepping his bounds as a journalist. But calling something ridiculous when it is in fact ridiculous is not biased, it is called for. The goal of the news media is to get at the truth, not to provide a “fair” accounting to both sides, especially when one side is manipulating the process or being fundamentally dishonest. Claims of media bias, we should note, are almost always politically motivated. Trump’s most recent “war against media” statement, for example, is not a serious claim of bias but an effort to influence media coverage by claiming bias.

Second, journalists need to re-establish their role as an agenda setter, proactively setting the terms of the conversation as opposed to merely reacting to what is said (or, in Trump’s case, tweeted). This requires actual reporting and not endless talk (and what passes for analysis – having various “experts” comment on what just happened, when the experts are hired shills).

Third, journalists can (and should) turn off the microphone to the bully pulpit. There is no duty to report “alternate facts.” Functioning democracies depend on an informed electorate. When the administration spouts misinformation, journalists should not feel compelled to repeat it even if the purpose of repeating it is to denounce it. Trump strategist Stephen K Bannon was right for the wrong reasons when he said the media should “keep its mouth shut.” The press that was cautious about spreading unconfirmed rumors about candidates before the election should be just as circumspect before sharing alternative facts emanating from the administration.

Overall, we should view this first week through the lens of a negotiation. The opening salvo of the Trump administration’s negotiation with the press was to call journalists a bunch of liars. He employed a similar tactic for the intelligence community, then attempted to reconcile with his speech at the CIA. He takes strong positions, then moves to accommodate.

These tactics may work in business, they do not work for the long-term relationship that the president has with the press (or the intelligence community).

The American public depends on the press to continue to engage in the negotiation of newsworthiness by asserting its own right to cover (or not cover) the administration. The press should stick to traditional news values instead of retreating in the face of the Trump administration’s bluster. This passage from Trump: the Art of the Deal may helpful:

The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.

More generally, the news media should stop the hand-wringing and continue to move Trump to the traditional norms of presidential communication, they should treat him like the political novice that he is, and they should continue to serve as the fourth estate for the American public.