Trump and Journalism’s Death Spiral

Mainstream American network and print journalism is in a death spiral (First though, this caveat. Journalism is a thousand voices and each voice should be judged individually on its merits). That said, come on people. How can anyone watch the nightly network news, or CNN or read the NY Times and not concede they have declared war on President Donald Trump.

They have reason to be defensive. Trump has launched an all-out assault on their credibility. But their response — to wage a battle to the death attempting to destroy him — makes them even less credible. They should answer President Trump the old fashion way, by being as fair and objective as possible (even if they can’t stand the guy). That is the only way they will restore their tattered credibility.

CNN reporter Jake Tapper looked into the camera and told the president to “stop whining” and get to work. The NY Times printed an opinion piece with a headline questioning if Trump was “a threat to democracy.” Yes, Mr. Trump’s biting personality is unprecedented in the Internet age, but so too is the media coverage. It’s never the media’s job to get back at anyone. At least, it shouldn’t be.

Let’s be clear, I’ve never been blind to the President’s flaws. The adolescent side of Mr. Trump, who spent his first full day in office complaining about crowd size estimates, or spent a week feuding with the parents of a dead war hero, has added a match to the burning hatred that consumes his critics. They have the right to protest from now to doomsday if they wish. But the press should not be part of the chorus. My own local newspaper actually did an editorial asking duly elected Trump delegates not to vote for him.

Media managers used to hide behind the “we have reporting and we have opinion pieces” defense. That line has been obliterated. Reporters routinely opine on the very stories they cover. Many major media outlets have now decided to cater to the audiences that agree with them. For example, imagine the difference in viewership between Fox News and MSNBC. News networks and major papers have become opinion news more than journalism. Mr. Trump has accelerated this death spiral but he did not start it.

Journalism has morphed into something else. The profession’s declining credibility could not have come at a worse time for it. In the 21st century, people are increasingly getting their news from each other, often from friends they agree with on most issues. The truth is nearly every network and every major newspaper has an agenda and none of them is truly objective (C-Span remains a rare exception).

There’s a silver lining. There are still many people in journalism who remain dedicated to the pursuit of the truth. I’ve worked with many of them. They must operate in this difficult environment. It is up to us to get our news from as many sources as possible and reward the ones that do the best job at being fair and objective. We can provide this badly-needed incentive. They are the ones that must survive.

Mark Grimm is a former TV news anchor/reporter, media professor and radio host who runs a public communication business.

Tricky Tweeting: Journalists’ Pitfalls in Social Media

How can an “objective journalist” be tweeting their opinions or posting them on Facebook? The social media revolution has created an enormous dilemma for reporters and editors with no simple answers.

AP social media guidelines for employees are clear, they “must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum” because those expressions “may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news.” Yet, journalists have to be on social media. No one engaged in gathering and reporting news can ignore what millions of their viewers, readers, and listeners are saying. We also have learned effective social media requires two-way communication with transparency from all those involved.

How can a reporter withhold what they really think and expect transparency from others? Isn’t it better to know what they really think than to keep their views hidden from us? Isn’t more disclosure one of the things journalists are fighting for all the time?

This problem is exacerbated by the blurring line between journalist and commentator. Our cable “news channels” are filled with anchors who blast away daily with opinions so personal they could scrape paint off the wall.

Like it or not, journalists are commodities. Their business role is to develop a following, a constituency that will ultimately consider buying the products and services from advertisers that pay the journalist’s salary and benefits. Those constituencies are now being built by interactive mass communication.

So what’s a decent journalist to do? First, be clear about who you are. If you are both a journalist and commentator, understand your comments affect your standing as an objective journalist. If you are a journalist alone, understand that once you state your opinion you become part of the story, part of the process of persuasion that envelops whatever controversy it might be.

There are journalists who genuinely believe being an advocate, too, is a path to a better society. To that I say, on whose terms? Isn’t the best path having a profession of hard-working people pursuing the truth each day and leaving the conclusions up to the people they serve?

It is a hard thing to bite your tongue on issues you know well. But, sometimes, it goes with the job.

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