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 poor performance of Republican candidates in the 2022 mid-terms. 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 diehard followers.
Then there’s Trump the script. Trump is to journalists what honey is to bears. Journalist price dispute, and Trump delivers it in abundance. That’s why he dominated media coverage almost every week of his 2016 presidential race; why he had three times more media coverage in its first 100 days as President as did 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 race “maybe not good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” During Joe Biden’s presidencyTV and online news viewership is down sharply from the Trump years.
So the question is not whether Trump will be inundated with media coverage, but how journalists should cover him. If they have to serve the public interest, journalists cannot apply the ordinary rules to cover candidates. They are about a politician who routinely defies democratic norms and lies with abandon. Like a long-time researcher in political journalismI offer some recommendations for properly respecting Trump’s candidacy without amplifying his false claims or promoting his anti-democratic beliefs.
Don’t play in 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.
Tell her 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, the lies are amplified on social media, where they take on a life of their own in part because people tend to accept false claims that are what they would like to believe. Few examples illustrate this point better than the continued belief of a large Republican majority that the 2020 election was stolen.
Do not exaggerate his provocations on social networks
When Trump was president, a third of his most popular tweets contained a false statement. But many Americans wouldn’t have heard them directly from Trump. A study revealed that only about 1% of his Twitter followers saw a tweet directly from their Twitter feed. Most Americans have heard of his tweets through media coverage.
Don’t confuse access with timeliness
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 to Trump’s advantage, who is a master in diary manipulation. Instead of speaking with Trump for information on him, Elizabeth Skewes of the University of Colorado suggests get them from people who worked with him or studied him closely.
Notice when he trashes democracy
Obey laws, respect institutions, and follow standard expectations – sometimes referred to as “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 doesn’t necessarily 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.
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 offering too little context to their audience. 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 is told the way it is.
Don’t put all Trump loyalists in the same basket
Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, are not fully representative of his followers. Forgotten in the turmoil following the 2020 election was the fact that Trump received the second most presidential votes in history. Simplistic representations Trump supporters reinforces their distrust of the media and their 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 disproportionate title to another, 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.