Brown University

Have journalists figured out how to handle Trump? by Victor Brechenmacher @ Brown University

It has become a received wisdom of sorts that the media failed to grasp Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 ahead of time because “the press [took] him literally, but not seriously; his supporters [took] him seriously, but not literally.” The news media, in other words, were too focused on Trump’s penchant for incoherent and blatantly false statements to understand how well his messages resonated among many voters, and why. With Trump in the White House, the media are certainly taking him seriously, but covering him has not become any less difficult. If anything, it has become more challenging as Trump has stepped up his attacks on the press.

Journalists across the country are actively reckoning with this situation. On October 23, 2017, I attended “Trump vs. the Media,” a public panel discussion hosted by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs on the challenges that journalists face in the Trump era. The panel consisted of Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for the Guardian US and Ben Domenech, the founder and publisher of the Federalist, a conservative-leaning online magazine. David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the progressive magazine Mother Jones, acted as moderator.

The key takeaway from the discussion: In the Trump era, political journalists are facing the twin challenges of covering a president whose relationship with facts is famously troubled, and who consistently attempts to undermine the press. The challenges are linked in two ways: First, journalists are still very much in the process of coming to terms with them and finding ways to counteract them – at least if Siddiqui and Domenech are any indication. Second, both challenges have grave implications for the state of democracy in the US.

Why are falsehoods spread by Trump and his administration a headache for journalists? For one, there’s the matter of sheer volume: As of November 13, Trump had made 1,628 false and misleading claims since taking office – an average of more than five per day. As Domenech and Siddiqui pointed out, this stretches the media’s resources thin, meaning that less time is spent explaining underlying, newsworthy developments that have been overshadowed by whatever Trump has said about them. In other words, the opportunity cost of fact-checking is immense.

However, the panelists missed a more important point. Journalists may see it as their professional duty to fact-check and correct demonstrably false claims. However, if the goal is to prevent readers from being swayed by misleading information, fact-checking is of woefully little use. A 2017 study on voters in France, for instance, came to the sobering conclusion that “fact checking improves factual knowledge of voters, but does not have an impact on voters’ policy conclusions or support” for a candidate. Researchers found that, when voters were exposed to false claims on immigration made by far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, those voters became more likely to support Le Pen. Whether the claims had been presented along with a fact-check or not made practically no difference. In fact, even voters who were given nothing but actual facts on immigration became more supportive of Le Pen.

According to the authors of the study, this is the salience effect at work: Covering a topic like immigration increases the salience of that topic as a political issue in voters’ minds. As a result, they become more open to a candidate who talks at length about this topic. The actual content of the coverage that they read remains incidental.

This does not mean that there is no place for fact-checking. But it complicates the idea that the news media can provide a simple corrective to Trump’s false claims through fact checking. This means that any wall-to-wall coverage of Trump – critical or not – is problematic. However, as Guardian reporter Sabrina Siddiqui pointed out, the news media are unlikely to heed this advice, for simple reasons of market demand. This was perhaps best summed up by CBS chairman Les Moonves, who in 2016 joked that “[Trump’s run] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Why does this matter for democracy? After all, being well-informed is not a legal prerequisite for voting. And as one contributor to this blog has pointed out, the tactic of intentionally misleading voters can be seen as just one among many tools in the unforgiving world of politics.

The problem with this view is that Trump and his administration have not simply used falsehoods and so-called alternative facts to influence voter preferences. Instead, false claims are used in no small part to discredit the media and critical reporting. This explains why the administration tends to brand media reports that question the accuracy of its alternative facts as agenda-driven “fake news.” The implication is clear: The administration is not simply stating alternative facts that exist alongside those of the fact-checkers. Instead, its use of the “fake news” label implies a claim to monopoly over truth, which the press must not contest. If, like political scientist Robert Dahl, you accept the idea that democracy requires alternative sources of information to allow voters to form and formulate their preferences, Trump’s claim that the news media are “the enemy of the people” should be troubling to you. As journalist David Corn put it at the Watson event, it is nothing if not “a creeping element of authoritarianism.”

Corn went on to soften this gloomy statement somewhat by pointing out that Trump’s verbal attacks may not be particularly effective. Recent opinion polling suggests that public confidence in print media and television news is up from mid-2016, while approval of the presidency and of Donald Trump has been decreasing. This suggests that branding media outlets as fake news has at least not been successful enough to erode the public’s trust in them – quite to the contrary.

However, the polls also suggest that this popular verdict is split along partisan lines. While trust in the media is up among Democrats, the opposite is true for Republicans, who have been growing more skeptical of television news and print publications, albeit by smaller margins. This suggests a more mixed picture. If Trump’s attacks on the media are primarily meant to undermine the media’s reach among his own base, there’s a strong case to be made that this strategy is working – and a strong case that this does not bode well for democracy in the U.S.


Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

1 Comment

  1. Margo Blank

    December 12, 2017 at 12:11 am


    I thought it was really cool how you integrated information from the panel that Brown hosted on campus. Beyond that, this article reminded me of Arlie Hochschild’s book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”. You concluded that fact checking isn’t of much use in convincing voters of political truths and in our class discussion of Hochschild’s book, we spoke about why this might be true. One reason for this that connects to a running theme in “Strangers in Their Own Land” is that voters do not like to feel like they are being talked down to or like they are being looked at as stupid. In the case of Donald Trump, this has a lot to do with tension among geographic regions in the U.S., the “liberal and elitist” northeast being the part of the country where it is assumed everyone is heavily invested in fact-checking Trump and his supporters. The point you made about journalists misusing their time by fact-checking instead of investigating the phenomena that led to the misconstrued information in the first place goes hand in hand with Hochschild’s discovery that polarization is compounded by ignoring the thoughts and feelings of people with political views that clash with media outlets. Hochschild kicked off her book’s fact-check appendix quite politely with the following introduction: “Often I felt that my new friends and I lived not only in different regions but in different truths. I would leave an interview wondering myself what the facts really were”.

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