Now that he’s in the 2024 presidential race, the media circus that is Donald Trump is back for a new season. Trump is still newsworthy. He was weakened by his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, his attempt to overturn his result, and the underperformance of Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms. Nevertheless, Trump is more than a party leader. “Make America Great Again”, colloquially known as “MAGA”, is a political movement. Trump has a legion of die-hard followers. Then there’s Trump the script. Trump is to journalists what honey is to bears. Journalists value conflict and Trump delivers it in abundance. That’s why he dominated media coverage almost every week of his 2016 presidential race; why he got three times more media coverage in his first 100 days as president than his immediate predecessors; and why he has remained in the news since leaving the White House. It is also an easy “get”. At a time when politicians are increasingly scripted and isolated from the media, Trump is on their doorstep. As president, he answered more questions from reporters than any of his recent predecessors. There’s a third reason why Trump will get media attention: he’s good for the ratings. In the 2016 presidential election alone, he grew cable television viewership so much that his advertising revenue increased by hundreds of millions of dollars. Broadcasters also benefited: CBS CEO Les Moonves said Trump’s presidential run “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” During Joe Biden’s presidency, TV and online news viewership declined sharply compared to the Trump years.
So the question is not whether Trump will be inundated with media coverage, but how journalists should cover him. If they must serve the public interest, journalists cannot apply the ordinary rules for covering candidates. They are about a politician who routinely defies democratic norms and lies with abandon. As a longtime scholar of political journalism, I offer some recommendations for properly respecting Trump’s candidacy without amplifying his false claims or promoting his anti-democratic beliefs.
Don’t play into his hand Trump is a master at changing history when it doesn’t go in his direction or in his favor. To achieve this, he is counting on journalists to take the bait. Running to air Trump’s latest scandal only serves to give it disproportionate coverage and distract the public from what most deserves their attention.
Call out his lies, but don’t dwell on them When it’s impossible to ignore one of Trump’s false claims, tag it as such in the story. At the same time, to report once again that Trump is playing fast and loose with the facts is to say nothing new or unexpected. The latest untruth may be enticing, but that alone doesn’t make headlines. A 2015 Columbia University study found that the media “plays a major role in spreading hoaxes, misrepresentations, questionable rumors, and questionable viral content.” Journalists generally do not make false statements, but broadcast those of journalists. And once spread, lies are amplified on social media, where they come to life in part because people tend to accept false claims that are what they would like to believe. Few examples illustrate this point more clearly than the lingering belief of a large Republican majority that the 2020 election was stolen.
Don’t play on his social media provocations When Trump was president, a third of his most popular tweets contained a false claim. But many Americans wouldn’t have heard them directly from Trump. A study found that only around 1% of his Twitter followers saw a tweet directly from his Twitter feed. Most Americans have heard of his tweets through media coverage.
Don’t confuse access with news relevance The offer of a Trump interview may be enticing, but unless the reporter has a clear goal and pursues it doggedly, it will only work at the advantage of Trump, who has mastered the art of manipulating the agenda. Instead of speaking with Trump to get information about him, Elizabeth Skewes of the University of Colorado suggests getting it from people who have worked with him or studied him closely.
Notice when it trashes democracy Obeying laws, respecting institutions, and following standard expectations — sometimes called “democratic standards” — are all essential to a healthy democracy. Journalists, as watchdogs of the powerful, have a duty to hold the powerful accountable, including Trump’s attacks on democracy and its institutions. But Trump’s danger to democracy does not grant journalists — who are purveyors of facts, not opinions — license to judge his substantive policies. Journalists violate their own standards by taking sides in partisan debates on political issues such as immigration and trade. Leave those judgments to the voters.
Avoid false equivalences A story about a Trump transgression does not in itself need a mention of something similar involving a political opponent. It can make Trump’s behavior normal when he isn’t. He is a serial transgressor of social and political expectations.
Provide Context It’s not safe for journalists to assume that news consumers know what’s going on on the surface or behind the scenes of what they’re reporting. As early as the 1940s, journalists were criticized for providing too little context to their audiences. In recent years, journalists have sought to restore public confidence in their work by being more transparent about news decisions. Context is a key part of this, explaining why the story is newsworthy and why it’s being told the way it is.
Don’t put all Trump loyalists in the same basket The Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 are not entirely representative of his supporters. Forgotten in the turmoil following the 2020 election was the fact that Trump received the second most presidential votes in history. The simplistic portrayals of Trump supporters reinforce their distrust of the media and its reporting.
None of this will be easy. A century ago, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that the press, rather than bringing order to political chaos, tends to “intensify” it. Trump personifies chaos, and his media coverage has indeed been chaotic. As one analyst described it as early as 2018, “The press rushes from one headline disproportionately to the next, focusing on the weird, the sensational and the polarizing.” More disciplined reporting would benefit the American people as the Trump Circus takes its 2024 show on the road.
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)