Earlier this month, CNN hosted a town hall in New Hampshire with former president Donald J. Trump, moderated by CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins. The event garnered 3.3 million viewers, received mass criticism and raised an important question: By giving Trump a platform to spread misinformation and lies about the 2020 presidential election, his encounters with E. Jean Carroll and the January 6th Insurrection, did CNN jeopardize their journalistic integrity?
In the shitshow that followed, Trump was broadcasted nationally, reigning over CNN to the tune of an enthusiastic and largely-GOP audience. The town hall was an exhibition of misleading information, mockery and straight-up lies. According to CNN, Trump either lied or said misleading statements over twenty times during the town hall.
The town hall was a testament to the challenges journalists continue to face while covering politics. We’ve been asking the same question for the last decade: How the hell should journalists cover Trump?
In journalism classes in the past, we were taught to be objective at all costs. Do not editorialize and leave out all biases. However, as time goes on, we are learning more and more about the effects of so-called “objectivity” in journalism. Professional journalists are now leaning away from this precedent.
In a system predominantly built by and in pursuit of serving the white cisgendered man, the “objective” that journalists have been chasing for decades has revealed itself as dangerously biased. If journalists consider only the white audience, how does that affect reporting on non-white communities? If news organizations are only including stories about transgender and non-binary individuals from editorial writers in an effort to remain “unbiased,” how unbiased are they in reality?
Furthermore, how does this affect political reporting? Extreme partisanship in the U.S. still prompts many people to automatically judge publications for negatively reporting on someone like Donald Trump. However, if someone like Donald Trump uses a news organization’s platform to spew lies, how do we cover him while maintaining our commitment to the truth?
Journalists concerned with ethics have looked toward history for answers. Medill professor Peter Slevin focuses his classes on the role of the media in Trump’s presidency, according to Northwestern Now. He identified two articles that explain the way journalism changed after Trump’s infamous false claims that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
The Atlantic published an article entitled “The Death of ‘He Said, She Said’ Journalism” by Peter Beinart after Trump finally acknowledged the fact that Obama is a natural-born U.S. Citizen in 2016. “He said, she said” journalism, as used in Beinart’s context, is the kind of journalism that almost always includes both sides of a story, whether or not that the argument is justified or backed by evidence. This is also known as “both-sides-ism.”
Beinart claims this form of journalism, the kind formerly practiced by “objective” reporters, ended after Trump’s false statement. It showed that journalists should no longer publicly air both sides of a story without intense fact-checking for the sake of their audience.
It was The New York Times’ News Analysis story which stated that Trump’s claims were false that marked the change in so-called “objective” journalism, according to Slevin. It was not the typical piece that covered both sides of an argument, which in this case were Trump’s claims that Obama was not a U.S. citizen, and the obvious fact that Obama indeed was. The article was an in-depth analysis of Trump’s questioning of Obama’s citizenship, and one line in particular stood out.
“It was never true, any of it. Mr. Obama’s citizenship was never in question,” The New York Times said. “No credible evidence ever suggested otherwise.”
According to Slevin, this marked a major change in the journalism world, due to both the unpredictability of Trump and the lack of methods in place to deal with such a person.
“Donald Trump puts reporters in an impossible position, because he constantly makes it up, he invents things, he misrepresents, he lies intentionally,” Slevin said. “And when he’s called out, it doesn’t stop him.”
Before Trump, fact-checking was used as a method to encourage politicians and other people in the public eye to tell the truth, according to Slevin. If they were caught in a lie, then the shame of being called out in the media was typically powerful enough to keep them from repeating the mistake.
“Trump has changed the rules, the media has to change, too,” Slevin said.
Some people argue that the press should not cover people who spread misinformation at all because this allows them a platform to spread lies. However, is this realistic and could it potentially harm the general public?
Both Slevin and I agreed that it was important for the press to continue covering Trump and other figures within the Republican Party. It’s essential that the American public has knowledge for which to base their votes on. If the press refuses to cover a person or platform, then we are in trouble. People won’t know anything about who they are electing into office.
However, there are some proposals that journalists are taking into consideration, according to Slevin. Next time there is a town hall, maybe there won’t be a live audience in attendance. Their cheers and enthusiasm can make it seem as though the speaker is correct, even if they are lying.
Another proposal is that interviews should be taped, not done over live television. Slevin said that Kaitlin Collins was given the impossible task of fact-checking Trump in real-time. Taped interviews would allow networks to fact-check statements before airing segments, providing more well-rounded coverage of the truth.
Journalists will – and should – continue covering Trump ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. It’s impossible to say that journalists won’t cover Trump as we head into the 2024 Presidential elections. Now, with 10 candidates in the race and more likely to come, all front-runners must be covered.
As journalists, we must adhere to our ethics above all else. We must provide the public with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, while not allowing misinformation to spread.