Ian Leach: Why Donald Trump can win against print journalism

Monday, January 29, 2018 - 5:37pm

Over the past year, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in reputable journalistic outlets’ — like The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post — coverage of the presidency to what individuals might perceive as being more partisan than in the past. In many ways, this shift can be seen as a response to the pages of lies that PolitiFact has noted over the course of President Donald Trump’s presidency and his campaign. Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist: How do you cover a lie while making sure that A) your article isn’t seen as inherently partisan and B) your information establishes that the lie is, well, a lie. The New York Times has been grappling with this problem ever since Trump announced his candidacy for president. Despite the lies that Trump has told over the course of his presidency, newspapers still have difficulty explaining these kinds of falsehoods from a political official. In NYT Public Editor Liz Spayd’s article addressing The New York Times trying to grapple with these falsehoods, Spayd actually suggests using the term “lie” sparingly, something that should seem incredibly concerning. Because of Trump’s tendency to lie throughout his presidency, mainstream print journalism has yet to adapt to the era of Trump and has failed in many ways at effectively communicating how the normative values in American democracy are being broken.

I see Trump’s successful campaign as coming from this journalistic hesitancy. In attempts to ensure an article has a lack of partisan slant, the news will proceed to use language that seems distanced from the facts. This is normal, and many communications and journalism scholars would say this is critical for the news to do its job. With that said, this logic doesn’t quite acknowledge how this can be perceived by an average person reading the news. In attempting to make something feel “objective” — and many individuals, including myself, take serious issue with the idea of objectivity as a realistic goal — mainstream outlets can also make the news feel normal and ordinary. These stories can feel as if something that might be seen as “breaking the norm” as being an event that should happen in how we understand American democracy. Trump has broken so many norms that it’s hard for mainstream outlets to ratchet up the rhetoric when there are already so many values that are different from past presidencies.

To think of an example, recall the Access Hollywood tape. The New York Times decided that the article about the tape would be titled “Donald Trump Apology Caps Day of Outrage Over Lewd Tape.” The Times’s attempt to be impartial can appear as if this were ordinary. The word “outrage” can have some serious implications and connotations, but it doesn’t mention the comments Trump made on its own — quite literally why the story exists. Stories like these exemplify how the actual event has deviated from the norm within the article itself, but this sort of language in the title doesn’t do the article justice, and a casual reader may leave without fully understanding its importance. What it doesn’t tell the reader is that a man running for president said that he could sexually assault women. These horrific moments need to be said and written in ways that allow the reader to understand the gravity of what is happening in the political sphere, something that I don’t see happening in mainstream news outlets.

However, there is still hope in the journalism industry. Journalists are changing the way they present news, and there have even grown unlikely news sources that can help individuals interpret what is actually going on. When we think about the news, we think of the CNNs or The New York Times of the world as the only spaces where individuals get their news. Comedy shows rarely addressed politics even 10 or 20 years ago, excluding The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Now, however, more and more night shows and comedy shows are addressing serious topics in funny ways. Vox writer Carlos Maza, has had his finger on the pulse of TV political information for a while now, but his argument about how comedians have improved political awareness has become particularly salient: Comedians have the ability to call out ridiculous arguments and do so in comical ways, and it has started permeating into TV journalism as well. CNN’s Jake Tapper has increasingly become tougher in his questioning and statements, and it has garnered him millions of followers.

Print journalism needs to find outlets that can allow for the same sorts of interpretation — and, frankly, it needs to be done in ways outside of the opinion column. As we see print news employing more multimedia in their articles, these companies need to continue to evolve and change if they want to be able to inform Americans and call out events as normatively “breaking the rules” in our democracy. Read time for articles are dramatically lower, and this means that news stories need to be aggressive in getting important information in ways that a reader can interpret and take with them. Print journalism isn’t going to die, yet, but it could if the era of Trump permeates too far into the journalism industry.

Ian Leach can be reached at ileach@umich.edu.