March 1, 2017

The news cycle this morning is breathing a collective sigh of relief: President Donald J. Trump can do the presidential thing.

But as they reflect on the president’s bearing, journalists should also turn their powers of analysis back upon themselves.

That feeling you get, when you hear the president and his staff repeatedly take a hostile tone with the press? That’s probably how Trump supporters feel when they see journalists responding to his rhetoric with tacit or even overt helpings of snark.

There’s no doubt that the president’s tenor last night slightly reduced the sense of alarm raised by many of his critics. After all, it’s a lot easier to listen to his ideas when he isn’t throwing shade on everyone from Australia to Sweden.

The change in tone was the overall theme of this morning’s coverage.

The Washington Post noted the president’s “muscular but measured tone.” The New York Times said Trump “appeared restrained and serious.” At the top of the hour on “Morning Edition, the anchor took note of the president’s “more optimistic tone.”

Rather than just noting the miraculous effect Trump has on the national mood when he stays on script, newsrooms need to consider their own impact on a skeptical audience. Sticking to solid, attitude-free reporting is the equivalent of staying on script for journalists.

So, how can news organizations do that?

  • Avoid snark. Watch the references to Trump’s physical appearance and the quirks of his speech.
  • Leave late-night comedy to the comedians. Posting clips from SNL and The Onion gives readers an excuse to doubt your fairness.
  • Don’t be the story. When Trump criticizes the media, don’t bite. The reverse is true as well. When he’s not criticizing journalists, you still have an obligation to scrutinize what he says and does.
  • Take a look at your sources to make sure they’re ideologically diverse.
  • Check your copy with colleagues who may hold different political opinions.
  • Look through your feedback on social media. What criticisms do people on the left and the right have of your work? Is it fair?
  • Examine the overall opinions that your editorial department, columnists and invited guest writers are offering up. When taken as a whole, what does it say about your newsroom’s pledge to be fair or bi-partisan?

Above all, remember: Just like President Trump, every word you say — or write — is scrutinized by a skeptical audience.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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