The Fourth Estate and the 45th president: Four ways journalists can help hold Trump accountable
Today Donald Trump's presidential inauguration ushers in a new era in American politics. During his campaign, Trump's rhetoric helped create an environment that has allowed bigotry and violence to proliferate. Since his election, hate crimes and hate speech have spiked around the country, as membership in hate groups reached new highs — and as Trump stooped to new lows by taunting congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis as "all talk, talk, talk — no action or results" on Martin Luther King Day weekend.
Over the past weeks and months, many watched with horror as Trump's appointees raised the prospect of bringing his xenophobic, racist, misogynist ideology to fruition. For example, Trump's pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, vigorously defended Alabama's use of the death penalty, opposed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, staunchly advocated against immigration reform, and allegedly referred to the NAACP and ACLU as "un-American." Conflicts of interest and lack of qualifications for the job have not impeded the pathway to nomination for other appointees, such as education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, and secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, all of whom hail from the same billionaire class as Trump. The combined net worth of the Trump cabinet is now estimated at $11 billion.
Without question, we must reignite the capacity of civil society to demand justice and accountability from its elected officials. And in these efforts, a strong and independent press — the Fourth Estate — is more vital than ever. To quote award-winning actress Meryl Streep in her well-publicized speech at the recent Golden Globes ceremony, it is up to "the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage."
Yet journalists face unprecedented challenges with Trump and his incoming administration. How can journalists hold accountable a president whose rise was allegedly facilitated by news reports of questionable origin, who "gaslights" the American public by denying actual events and who regularly attacks the press and blocks their access?
We see four things journalists in the age of Trump can do to preserve the integrity of the Fourth Estate and its crucial role as watchdog in a functioning democracy.
1. Use accurate language.
Even as news stories reveal Trump's and his cabinet's views on immigration, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and communities of color, the news often describes them with vague and imprecise terms. Language matters: As a host of progressive commenters and media sites have pointed out, this kind of soft-pedaling only grants bigoted viewpoints an unwarranted aura of legitimacy. Not only that, but we know that since the media shape and reflect the national dialogue, the language used in news stories can influence how people talk about, think about and ultimately act on issues.1-4
That same kind of imprecision in language parallels problems we at BMSG have seen in the news about sexual violence, where, too often, violence is described using euphemistic terms to the same effect: The terrible reality is obscured, which makes it harder to talk about and harder to change. Even amid challenges like shrinking newsrooms, tightening budgets and questions about "fake news," the media must hold our president and his cabinet accountable for the impacts their actions have on our most vulnerable communities. To soft-pedal or avoid the truth of what these actions mean for communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ groups and women is to normalize them.
2. Provide historical context.
In today's 24/7 news environment, attention spans are short, which means journalists have to work harder to provide context. It's important though. Contextualizing a Trump presidency through the lens of history is vital if we are to understand aspects of the Trump administration that are simply beyond the pale of normal democratic discourse and policy. Former labor secretary and professor Robert Reich did this by listing 15 characteristics of tyrannical leaders throughout history, such as "threaten[ing] mass deportations, registries of religious minorities and refugees bans," and "appoint[ing] family members to high positions of authority." The parallels to Trump are not difficult to spot.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow also provided historical context for Trump's Twitter attack on congressman John Lewis by situating it within the historical context of the civil rights movement. Blow notes that while Lewis was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Trump was busy dodging the draft:
"In fact, one of Trump's five deferments was in 1965, the same year as the Selma marches and 'Bloody Sunday,' during which Lewis was struck so violently by a state trooper wielding a billy club that Lewis's skull was fractured. Coincidentally, Trump finally received his permanent exemption from the draft, a 4-F status, in the year before he and his father were sued by the Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — one of the many justice issues Lewis championed."
Journalistic work like this does more than simply call out Trump's hypocrisy. It is a form of public pedagogy that helps audiences place current statements and events within the long arc of history, making it easier for them to evaluate claims through the lens of their own values and ethics.
3. Increase newsroom diversity.
Changes to news organizations have resulted in the near abandonment of newsroom diversity initiatives, challenging efforts to make newsrooms reflect the communities they serve. Yet many key policies Trump has vowed to pursue will disproportionately impact communities of color, immigrants, the LGTBQ community and others. Those communities' ability to hold the Trump administration accountable will hinge, in large part, on whether the issues that affect them are covered in the news.
"We need diversity of all kinds in the newsroom, especially from places where catching a few classes at the community college can take as much Herculean effort as getting into Harvard," writes Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times. By standing firm on efforts to diversify news rooms, the press can also send an unmistakable signal to Trump: His position will be scrutinized, reported, and he will not be allowed to simply talk over and ignore the issues facing communities of color and other marginalized groups. Their demands will be heard.
This diversity must also be tethered to a new spirit of collaboration among journalists. In an open letter to Trump, the U.S. press corps calls on journalists to put aside competitive instincts because teaming up holds the best chances of achieving real accountability. This sentiment is echoed by Carrie Brown, Social Journalism Director at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, who writes: "We also need to do a far better job of encouraging open communication among the journalists already in newsrooms, because if people are too afraid to point out our blind spots, even the pitiful diversity we already have can't offer us much. I know far too many well-intentioned, brilliant white male editors who dismiss or fail to take seriously the concerns of their younger, more diverse staff members — and when it happens to my former students, it breaks my heart. And it does. Regularly."
This is how a commitment to diversity and collaboration — combined with a willingness on the part journalists who are white, cis male, and/or heterosexual to truly listen to perspectives other than their own — can help empower journalists to work from a place of strength even in such uncertain times. Meanwhile, efforts to diversify newsroom management ranks, where news coverage and other major editorial decisions are made, must continue.
4. Continue to denormalize hate speech.
There is hope: The very audacity of Trump and his cabinet's behavior is inspiring rage, anxiety — and more importantly, action. Across the internet, the #NotNormal hashtag, which calls out the divisive aspects of the Trump rhetoric and how the media report on it, is flourishing.
Bloggers and journalists have also called out flawed reporting around Trump strategist Steve Bannon and others. After the appointment of Bannon (a leader in the white supremacist "alt-right" movement) to a senior position in Trump's White House, the Associated Press and ThinkProgress issued guidelines calling on reporters to provide detailed descriptions of organizations based on their actions and ideology rather than relying on their self-selected titles. "A reporter's job is to describe the world as it is, with clarity and accuracy," wrote the Think Progress editors. "ThinkProgress will no longer treat 'alt-right' as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members. We will use terms we consider more accurate, such as 'white nationalist' or 'white supremacist.'"
More recently, other journalists, trade organizations, and publications have begun producing resources, thoughtful self-critiques and guidelines to support and sustain journalists' efforts to write authentically and accurately about hate speech whenever it occurs.
We all have a role to play
Pulling back the curtain on what Trump's presidency means for vulnerable communities is critical to ensuring that we don't backtrack on the important civil rights gains of the 20th century. But journalists can't do it alone. Public health and social justice advocates — indeed anyone working to build healthier, safer, more equitable communities — have unique and vital perspectives that must be elevated in the public discourse.
At a time when facts and evidence are being undermined and deemed irrelevant, we need advocates who can make the case for policies grounded in data and research. At a time when many feel isolated and rudderless, voicing our shared values matters more than ever, since research shows that audiences are moved to action, above all, when a message resonates with their core values. Bringing these values of fairness, human dignity and community to the fore — by voicing them as loudly and with as much conviction as we can muster — will play a key role in efforts to bring the changes in policies and public consciousness that the times require.
At BMSG, we are committed to understanding and supporting the media as a tool to effect social justice. We will continue to monitor and spotlight coverage that contributes to the normalization or promotion of hate speech, oppression and bigotry. We will strive to hold media — as well as our elected officials — accountable when hate and bigotry are discussed as though they are acceptable forms of discourse. And we will work proactively to elevate opportunities to create and maintain a public conversation that centers our most vulnerable communities and advances equitable, just policies.
President Trump and his colleagues present one vision of our country, but we don't have to accept their narrative. There is a different story to tell about America, and we must do everything in our power to tell it with clarity, with vision, with purpose and with hope. We cannot afford to do otherwise.
1. Dearing JW, Rogers EM. (1996). Agenda-setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
2. Gamson W. (1992). Talking politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
3. McCombs M, Reynolds A. (2009). How the news shapes our civic agenda. In: Bryant J, Oliver MB, (Eds). Media effects: Advances in theory and research. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis. p. 1-17.
4. McCombs M, Shaw D. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly; 36(2): 176-187.