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Journalism in the age of Trump

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AS AMERICANS REFLECT on the recent election and its results, journalists are asking questions about the role that media coverage played during the course of the campaign, and how best to confront the challenges that may lie ahead. On Wednesday (Nov. 16), the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) held its annual Theodore H. White Seminar on Press and Politics to focus attention on news coverage of the election and the role of the press in covering President-elect Donald Trump’s forthcoming administration.

Panel moderator Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center, called the election “astonishing and frequently mystifying,” and asked panelists for their perspective. Veteran reporter Bob Schieffer, longtime host of Meet the Press and the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at HKS, echoed him, saying, “Everything about this campaign was different.”

Schieffer pointed out that many journalists—especially those who did not support Trump’s bid for the presidency—took his campaign statements literally, including a number of troubling comments on policy issues such as immigration and climate change, and many derogatory remarks about women, African Americans, LGBTQ people and other groups. But, Schieffer added, Trump’s supporters didn’t take him literally–they responded to his more general attitude toward politics and the future of the U.S.

Nancy Kaffer, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press, admitted to being “blindsided” by the election results for that reason. “Even in Michigan, we couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “But Trump provided very simple answers to many people who were feeling left behind or let down by the economy.”

As the country and the press both seek to move forward, Derrick Z. Jackson, a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at HKS and a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, had some strong words for his colleagues.

“Trump was not only elected on the basis of being white, but will now be governing as white,” Jackson said. “Will the media – which is mostly white-led – cover Trump’s administration as a white administration? The media has a responsibility to deal with its own biases when it reports on Trump and his administration.”

The panelists answered questions from the audience, including one about how to prevent hate speech in the wake of Trump’s appointment of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon. Schieffer urged audience members to identify hate speech and then counter it with thoughtful, intelligent reporting. “We have to present the better argument,” he said.

“Subscribe to your local and national newspapers,” Kaffer added. “Pledge to support your public radio station. And disable ad blockers from your computer. I know ads are annoying, and information wants to be free, but reporters like to get paid.”

Mele posed a closing question to all four panelists: “What is essential to political coverage in 2020?”

Michael Tomasky, special correspondent for the Daily Beast, responded quickly: “We need real-time fact-checking of what both sides are saying. Even on cable TV – especially on cable TV – and real-time contextualizing of what it means.”

Jackson agreed, but cautioned, “It goes beyond fact-checking. That was abundant in this election, but it didn’t seem to matter. The media owes it to the truth to go beyond fact-checking. There has to be counter-reporting.”

“We have to help people understand how policy impacts their lives,” Kaffer said. “This election might result in a dramatic reshaping of American life. We have to help people understand that.”

“Our job is what it’s always been: to hold leaders in public office accountable,” Schieffer added.

Watch the full video of the seminar on the HKS YouTube channel.