The inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States continues the fine tradition [sarcasm] that became commonplace news reporting following his election victory: Advocacy over accuracy. In my book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers—and on this website—I explain there is a legitimate role for advocacy journalism (full book chapter). But over the past couple of months—with adverse and antagonistic Trump reporting exploding across the new, news, and social media landscape—misinformation and mischaracterization became normal and accepted. The trend is dangerous, as bias replaces fact-gathering. The precedents are dangerous for all news reporting, not just about Trump.
Yesterday’s blog posts, social media shares, and even some mainstream news media reports about the Whitehouse.gov website are examples—and they also are metaphors for the twisting of facts to (presumably) reflect the writers’ personal biases. What should be legitimate reporting of events are instead editorial comments—no, character assassinations—by news gatherers with clear anti-Trump agendas. Every news blogger or reporter who opposes Trump (and/or his administration’s real or presumed policies) should add a disclaimer stating this bias.
Consider these two headlines, by Millennial writers for audience of presumably similar age and attitude: “Trump’s White House Is Already Tearing Up Obama’s Websites” by Michael Nunez (Gizmodo) and “Trump’s White House website deletes climate change, LGBT pages” by Nathan Ingraham (Engadget). Both headlines spread fake news. The heds mislead, and the second feeds into a meme bellowing across all medias, yesterday. The reports are false but confirm the biases of those readers, listeners, or viewers who dislike the new president. Hence, my categorizing them as fake news, because Trump’s White House did not delete or remove these webpages.
Three days ago, the Obama White House posted clear guidance about how the digital transition would occur, such as social media accounts and, of course, Whitehouse.gov. That info follows a previous primer, both by Kori Schulman, Deputy Chief Digital Officer. She writes on Halloween: “The incoming White House will receive the WhiteHouse.gov domain and all content that has been posted to WhiteHouse.gov during the Obama administration will be archived”. The removal of climate change, LGBT, and other Obama White House webpages was part of a planned process, in coordination with the National Archives and Records Administration, not some devious action by Team Trump. The mainstream-reported fake news plays into a larger anti-Trump narrative about his presumed policies.
The absence of certain content is much different than deleting it. There is no nuance here, no grey area. To say “Company X fired Jack Citizen” is inaccurate if he resigned voluntarily. Such misreporting can malign his character or that of his former employer. Surely this is truer with these fake news stories about President Trump.
As bad as these are, there is so much worse—and I assert this while also praising the writer for banging out original content on a day when there was so much repetition and regurgitation. From Jezebel, by Gabrielle Bluestone: “Donald Trump Plagiarized Bane in His Inaugural Speech“. Bane is the Batman villain from Christopher Nolan film “The Dark Knight Rises”.
Accusing anyone of plagiarism is a serious matter, and no responsible reporter should do so lightly. Then there are the loaded connotations, of Trump stealing the speech of murderous villain who claims to liberate Gotham’s citizens while planning to obliterate them in a nuclear cataclysm.
The followups are many, including New York Daily News, which at least has the decency to use “channels” Bane in the headline rather than plagiarizes. Vice more accurately reports that Trump, a fan of the movie, “came close to quoting” the movie character, which is far from Gabrielle’s headline and assertion within the story.
News reporting is a sacred trust. A journalist’s responsibility is to act in the public interest. As Trump takes control of the Oval Office, there is too much an attitude across the Fourth (and Fifth) Estate that the public interest is protecting citizens from him. Accuracy, not agenda, is the foundation for responsible reporting and promoting the democratic values that preserve the Republic. Absolutely, Trump and his cabinet should be accountable to Americans. The news media must assure that he is, but based on the dissemination of factual information, not inflammatory and biased mischaracterizations.
Agenda is not accuracy. No one with anti-Trump bias should report news about him without at least posting the aforementioned disclaimer, which must be unequivocal. Something like: “Disclaimer: I do not believe Donald Trump is fit to be President of the United States”. Better still: Don’t report about him. Let someone else.
Publishers and editors should rethink their roles protecting the public trust and keeping the trust of their audiences. Does accusing the new President of plagiarizing a movie villain’s speech satisfy either mandate? No and no. You can argue that Jezebel is a blog, but mainstream news sites followed the story. Meanwhile the “deletes” headline is all many people will see, particularly as it is shared across the social media landscape. Spreading lies satisfies the public trust how?
I understand that many news gatherers are unhappy with Trump as elected President. Hold him accountable by reporting responsibly and accurately. Deciding he is evil and seeking to prove it, or to make your audience believe it, isn’t journalism. All stories should follow where the reporting leads, not end where the writer’s premise starts. The bias you inflict on Trump will infect your reporting about other people, occurrences, or things. Please rise to the responsibility of your profession.
Photo Credit: Franco Folini