Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Covering Trump--and holding him accountable
Our current presidential campaign is providing a laboratory for studying how media cover a candidate who uses inflammatory language and demagoguery. Interestingly, the candidate in question is not dissimilar to candidates I’ve seen in East Africa who rely more on bombast and emotion than logic.

Of course, I’m referring to Donald Trump, who has provided a grateful American media a steady stream of newsworthy, ratings-fueling statements about his opponents, Mexican immigrants, and Syrian refugees.

Given the divisiveness of his statements and his bombast, how should media covered Trump? One piece of advice comes from The Washington Post's senior politics editor, Steven Ginsberg, who says his paper will continue to cover Trump the way it covers all major candidates. "We should be diligent about [holding them] accountable for what they say," said Ginsberg, who interviewed Trump for the Post. "If it's illegal, we should say so. If it's unconstitutional we should say so. If it's un-American, we should say that too…" But Ginsberg cautions that journalists should weigh carefully what they seek to accomplish, asking whether they want to serve as watchdogs or to knock a candidate, in this case Trump, out of the race.” (NPR, Dec. 11, 2015).

Other journalists like Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post, take a more aggressive view regarding Trump. "We have a certain obligation," Grim says. "When we see a strain of hate- and fear-mongering rising to a certain level, the press does have an obligation to try to call that out and point out what it is that's happening…The idea that you would block all Muslims — including American citizens — from coming into the United States is not just absurd, it's not just unconstitutional. It's evil, and it's fascist. And it's OK to go ahead and say that, and in fact, media organizations ought to." (NPR, December 14, 2015).

Like journalists in the developing world covering their own bombastic politicians, American political reporters would do well to utilize the points articulated in the “Connecting Peace and Electoral Journalism” checklist which I’ve distributed to journalists worldwide. Especially important are those items admonishing reporters against inflammatory, divisive, or violent statements by candidates;  airing comments and reports that encourage divisions within society; and letting candidates “get away” with using imprecise, emotive language, including  name calling.  Instead, peace journalists would hold candidates accountable for what they say, and offer dispassionate, critical analysis of comments and policy positions. 

Similar ethical principles are reflected in a piece published by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics about strategies for covering Donald Trump. Their advice includes offering side-by-side comparisons of the candidates’ positions and experience; (mostly) ignoring the outrageous; and asking “why” and “how” questions of all candidates. “Saying that ‘I will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it’ is not a plan. Asking Trump why the nation needs a wall, why the wall would stop the problem he articulates and how he intends to get Mexico to build it is important…Getting Trump to explain how he will get some of his difficult to implement ideas, such as rounding up 11 million people who are illegally in the United States and returning them to their country of origin, through the U.S. Congress is a required task for all campaign reporters.” (Center for Journalism Ethics, November 20, 2015).

Journalists should report about Trump, Hillary, and rest in a way that holds them accountable for their statements and policies, while simultaneously turns down the rhetorical, partisan heat.

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