The Press in the Trump Era: How Did We Get Here? What Do We Do Now?
Three journalists who covered the turbulent 2016 presidential campaign say they expect the news industry will respond with vigor and without fear of intimidation to the presidency of Donald J. Trump. But they didn't agree what that response would be.
During the Feb. 2 panel titled “The Press in the Trump Era: How Did We Get Here? What Do We Do Now?” NPR correspondent John Burnett said he foresees “a lot more whistleblowers” and leaks in journalism. He referenced ProPublica and other national sites that post specific pages for the public to securely share stories.
“I love that,” Burnett said. “You know, we’re ready. We’ve got our catcher’s mitts here.”
The panel featured Burnett, who covers the border and the larger southwestern United States; Washington Post reporter Krissah Thompson, who covered Michelle Obama and now writes about the transition; and Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston, Washington bureau chief for nonprofit news organization.
Many UT journalism organizations assisted with the event, including Society of Professional Journalists, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association. Ala’a Ibrahim, president of the student chapter of NABJ, was the moderator. SBJ President Nicole Cobler, NAHJ President Cat Cardenas and AAJA President Sunny Kim played a role in coordinating the panel.
With the Trump administration expressing critical views of mainstream media, coupled with present distrust from the public, many aspiring journalists are wary of the future of journalism. Livingston said she was not swayed, saying she believed it would get better.
Thompson credited the time-honored tradition that anchors the profession of journalism and previous years of preparation. She also acknowledged that there has always been a tension between the public and mainstream media.
“I’m not sure there is going to be a huge shift in how we do what we do,” Thompson said. “I think what has and will continue to be key for us is holding fast to the principles of journalism that are some of the unshakeable pillars of why we do what we do, even though we are living in a time where it’s more contentious.”
Because of an ongoing misunderstanding between the media and the public, many journalists wonder if this dynamic will change.
Burnett categorized the new era with two audiences: “one audience trusts us more; one audience trusts us less.” He pointed out that Trump wants to directly communicate with the nation on Twitter rather than speaking through the mainstream media.
“I think this cue that you can blame the press, not trust the press or demonize the press is getting louder,” Burnett said. “As we try to do our jobs ever better and make the minimum number of mistakes, I don't know if we are even getting all the audience.”
While Burnett focused on the reader, Livingston spoke about the human errors that journalist make. The digital age calls for a fast-paced 24 hour stream of news, which means journalists are more susceptible now than ever to their mistakes being broadcast and remembered, unlike in past decades.
This, in turn, increases the pressure on journalists to strive for perfection, which Livingston claimed is not possible. She reminded students that JFK assassination broadcasts that were incorrect, which many don’t remember or speak of, compared to her own stories of today that are immediately notified and later could be used against her if there is a mistake.
“I think [the trust] is going to get worse because it gets worse every year,” Livingston said. “I mean, we are humans, and we are prone to error. Every time you make an error, that weakens your byline.”
The panel offered advice for the packed crowd of journalism students. Livingston highlighted three main points: grow a thick skin, understand that journalists have the greatest job in the world, and find a mentor who will share wisdom and nurture them into a better reporter.
Burnett emphasized the “sacredness of facts.” He then explained how journalists in the past fact check individually for their own fact sheets, but now there are permanent teams at NPR, specifically for presidential statements.
“We learn in these classrooms about how to verify information, and it’s never been more important than in this presidency,” Burnett said.
Thompson encouraged journalists to realize that they are not “just writing for this moment but for history.” She reflected on a speech made by a previous Washington Post reporter and her mentor, Anne Hull.
“One of the things she reminded the newsroom that at this time when it’s cool to have many Twitter followers and that journalists are becoming personalities, there is also still power in being invisible, being that fly on the wall.” Thompson said.
Freshman Journalism Major