February 20, 2017

Remember Inauguration Day?

A month ago, journalists wondered whether the lessons from the Trump campaign would apply to the Trump administration. Would President Trump lay off Twitter? Would his media-bashing continue? And would he keep shutting down disfavored news organizations?

So far, the answer to those questions appears to be No, yes and yes, in that order.

But the fledgling Trump presidency has also imparted several important lessons about the way journalism should be practiced over the next four to eight years. Below are five of the biggest.

Don’t let social media set the agenda

As he did during the campaign, President Trump tweets nearly ever morning between the hours of 4 a.m. and 11 a.m. Often, the tweets focus on his grievances against the media or a particular story he finds objectionable.

While President Trump’s Twitter feed is fodder for quick stories about his feuds against various individuals and institutions, those articles are usually trivial and lack the heft of serious investigative journalism. Rather than letting Trump set the agenda from his phone, why not respond to misinformation on social media and dispatch reporters and editors to cover more consequential stories?

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Leaks are a high-wire act

A month in, the Trump administration has sprung more leaks than the Titanic. Everywhere one turns, one is confronted by unflattering stories supplied by some faceless member of the executive branch.

These leaks have shed light on the inner workings of the White House and have resulted in the ouster of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Some of the most consequential journalism in the early days of the Trump administration has been accomplished with anonymous interviews.

But with great reward comes great risk. Since their reputations are insulated from public scrutiny, anonymous sources may be more likely to pass along disinformation. That could be catastrophic. Blowing a story based on an anonymous source would have terrible consequences under an administration that has consistently undermined journalism.

What’s more, Trump has disparaged leakers publicly (as did his predecessor) which indicates his administration may be more likely to take legal action against anonymous government sources and the journalists that work with them.

It would be foolish to stop using anonymous sources entirely. But news organizations would be wise to take a hard look at their policies regarding anonymity to make sure that they’re designed for maximum accuracy and scrutiny. The entire industry’s reputation is at stake.

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Want to get a question answered? Be concise, and work together

Say what you will about President Trump — he isn’t shy around reporters.

That much was clear during a marathon question-and-answer session last week during which he took questions from a variety of news outlets, including NPR, CNN and the BBC.

Although some observed that Trump seemed to be improvising wildly, the press was able to extract a few kernels of news from the hour-plus exchange.

In large part, they did so by working together. Journalists from multiple outlets asked Trump about a seemingly contradictory statement that leaks coming from the White House were real but the resulting news was fake. One journalist followed up on a question posed about a rise of anti-semitism that correlated to Trump’s election. Multiple journalists asked Trump whether any of his campaign staffers had contact with Russia, which finally elicited a newsworthy response.

In most cases, the questions were also concise and to-the-point. Asking Trump multi-part questions gives him an opportunity to answer the softer ones and wiggle out of the tougher ones. If you want to get a straight answer out of the president, take the approach embodied by CNN’s Jake Tapper: Stick with a hard question and keep asking it.

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The answer is always more, better journalism

Faced with repeated provocation from President Trump, journalists may be tempted to respond to him directly on social media. Depending on their political stances, they may feel inspired to protest his policies. Doing so ultimately fuels Trump’s accusations that the mainstream media is out to get him and undermines the public’s confidence in journalism.

Journalists who have made disparaging comments about Trump or his supporters on social media have lost their jobs. They’ve also cast a partisan shadow across the legitimate reporting their news organization is doing.

The solution: Don’t do it. The answer to Trump’s media-bashing is to continue reporting fairly on the Trump administration. Don’t give partisans an excuse to discount your work as ideologically motivated hackery.

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Pace yourself

No one denies that the pace of news has accelerated since Trump took office. There’s been a whirlwind of executive orders, confirmation battles and conflict in the West Wing. If anything is certain, it’s this: The news cycle isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

So, a last piece of advice: Prepare your newsroom to cover a long and complicated story. Marshall your resources efficiently. Create new beats. No matter where you work — The New York Times or the Lake County Record-Bee — stories about the Trump administration’s effect on American citizens will be in the news for the next four to eight years.

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Did I forget a lesson? Send me an email at bmullin@poynter.org and I might include it!

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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