January 21, 2021

A version of this column appeared in the NPR Public Editor newsletter.

Many, maybe most news organizations carried all or a portion of President Donald Trump’s final speech as president live from Joint Base Andrews Wednesday morning, which was certainly an appropriate news decision. Many media critics have suggested that from here on out, journalists need to simply ignore the former president as much as possible.

It’s not an outlandish suggestion, but it’s not going to happen for a number of reasons. Most importantly, Trump speaks to a large base of people. If a news organization’s goal is to also speak to that group, it is going to have to acknowledge the former president’s message. Additionally, Trump is likely to respond to ongoing allegations. In the name of fairness, journalists are going to owe him the opportunity to do so.

That doesn’t mean we have to go back to that time when Trump was able to manipulate media coverage with the flick of a tweet.

Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan reminded us of that era in a column last month suggesting the media have a “cold-turkey” breakup with Trump.

“The paradoxical reality couldn’t be denied: Although he trashed us, he also helped us,” Sullivan wrote. “Cable ratings skyrocketed, newspaper subscriptions soared, and podcasters never had to scrounge for topics. (Media columnists were busy, too.)”

It’s certainly going to be easier to ignore Trump, now that he’s been booted from Twitter and Facebook. But figuring out when and how to cover the former president will remain a moving target.

A wholesale ban of Trump’s words from the news report could have an unintended effect. It would reinforce the belief among Trump’s supporters that he was a victim of unfair media coverage. (Imagine if newsrooms refused to cover former Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.) A prohibition would confer on Trump a type of ironic power; call it the “Voldemort effect.”

And yet, in the past, it never seemed particularly important that journalists hear guidance on how to cover an outgoing president. Most former presidents quietly step away and write a book, or give speeches at private events. It seems unlikely that Trump will do that.

Trump was a reality TV star long before he was a leading candidate for the Republican nomination. He is a genius at generating media attention.

So what to do? Here are three suggestions to apply to possible stories about Trump.

Case by case, start with the mission of the story

Every time Trump’s actions or words are considered for a news story, start by identifying the journalistic purpose and then include those words into the story. “We’re quoting Trump because ___.” I have no illusion that this will keep Trump out of the news. But it will reduce his footprint, particularly when the justification for a story is to document outrageous statements. And if you tell your audience why you’re quoting him, it will save you the angry comments. Well, some of them.

No headline quotes

Putting Trump’s words in a headline grants them more power than they merit. Headlines are dispensed on social media and sometimes are the only information readers consume. Even partial quotes — like, “We’ll be back” — put journalists back in 2015 territory. If what he said is really news, a paraphrase will do.

Be wary of coverage instigated by Trump

When journalists find themselves considering a story about Trump or his family, consider what instigated the events that seem to merit coverage. Is he getting deposed by an attorney general? Are we learning more actions during his time in office? Or did Trump say something outrageous? The bar should be particularly high for news instigated by Trump himself.

But I can also tell you that wrestling these answers to the ground is going to be harder than it looks from here, the day after the inauguration of a new president.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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  • The back pages of today’s Boston Globe repeated a Bloomberg News story about the significant loss of revenue sustained by hotels, golf courses and other properties owned by Trump. It also noted, possibly understating, the amount of loans coming due. Factual reporting, no quotes of Trump and perfect placement of a Trump article in the newspaper. Just right.