Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Setting the Tone: A Four-Step Formula for Covering the Trump Administration

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Setting the Tone: A Four-Step Formula for Covering the Trump Administration

Article excerpt

There is one worthwhile scene in the dreadful 1981 movie, "Absence of Malice," in which Wilford Brimley provides a beacon for journalists' behavior in this murky age.

If you haven't seen the movie, allow me to summarize and save two hours of your life you might otherwise have wasted. Sally Field is a reporter set up by government lawyers to make it look like Paul Newman is the subject of an organized crime investigation. The selfish motives of every character in this movie are transparent, but it takes Brimley, an assistant attorney general assigned to clean up the mess, to remind us of how a disinterested journalist should behave. Brimley devastates people on one side of the chaos and just as the other side is smirking, he turns to them and repeats the reckoning. Everyone is flattened and only the facts are left. Brimley had no interest other than getting to the truth.

This is how it should be with the press covering this or any other presidential administration.

White House criticism of the press has been a constant in Washington since John Adams signed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts that made it illegal to publish anything critical of the government. President Trump is continuing the tradition with his palette of criticisms ranging from bellowing stump speeches on "the fake news" to belligerent tweets to press conferences where he individually calls out reporters.

What's different about President Trump is the speed, the volume, the spread and the repetition of the press attacks. Then there's the defensive reaction of the press--combined with a misguided softening of the line between straight news, analysis and opinion.

Fortunately, the remedy is the same as it has always been--a disinterested press whose light shines skeptically into each version of the truth. And one more thing: a steely-eyed focus on the issues that matter while eschewing the peccadilloes of the president.

We have created the climate for the president to land blows in the fake news fight. An American Press Institute study found about one-third of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinions in the news media. And now a Duke Reporters' Lab study that shows "news organizations aren't doing enough to help readers understand the difference between news, analysis and opinion."

That's one thing you can start doing--develop a simple policy on how you are labeling your content. …

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