Here's how to cover President Trump's tweets
I love On The Media's Breaking News Consumer Handbook, particularly the image that they post on social media whenever breaking news occurs.
It reminds people that every breaking news event unfolds in much the same way, and it makes them aware how quickly misinformation can spread.
On The Media’s response to breaking news is smart because it doesn’t matter what the breaking news event is. The image they created will be relevant, and many people will share it to help others make sense of what’s happening.
Is there something similar news organizations could use to cover President Trump's tweets?
Last October, New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro declared that Trump had “mastered Twitter in a way no candidate for president ever has, unleashing and redefining its power as a tool of political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack.”
Since Inauguration Day, the president has continued to use Twitter this way. He’s tweeted over 100 times — and, as Politico reported, attacked 22 “people, places, and things” during his first two weeks in office.
News organizations often repeat his words verbatim — in headlines, tweets, and on-air. His tweets drive coverage and attention in a certain direction — there were dozens of news articles written about Gregg Phillips in the days after the President cited his data as proof of voter fraud (Politifact says “it’s highly suspect”). After Trump said “any negative polls are fake news” this week, many news organizations repeated the phrase — verbatim — in headlines.
There has been debate on whether the tweets should be ignored, or even whether the president should be kicked off of Twitter. The Washington Post recently released a browser extension that allows people to see more context each time the president tweets — and understand whether or not they’re factually accurate.
That works if people open each one of Trump’s tweets, and it certainly helps readers with context. But many times, I see Trump’s tweets retweeted or embedded somewhere else, where context is hard to come by. And there are so many of them — over 110 since Inauguration Day — that writing separate pieces for each tweet, or pulling a reporter off of another story to write a story each time places value on missives that may simply be there to distract or to confuse. As critic Amanda Hess put it:
Mr. Trump expertly exploits journalists’ unwavering attention to their Twitter feeds, their competitive spirit and their ingrained journalistic conventions — chiefly, that what the president says is inherently newsworthy. As a developer and reality show star, he lobbied the news media for coverage.
Now journalists feel obligated to pay attention to him. Mr. Trump overwhelms the media with boatloads of what was once a rare commodity: access. He creates impressions faster than journalists can check them. By the time they turn up the facts, the news cycle has moved on to his next missive, leaving less time (and reader attention) for the stories Mr. Trump does not highlight on his feed.
So how should we cover the president’s tweets? Let’s go back to the On the Media image, which reminds people that every breaking news event unfolds in much the same way and makes people more aware of not just what the media is reporting, but how quickly misinformation after any breaking news event can spread.
I picture a similar image or template that people can share each time the president tweets or says something blatantly untrue in a speech. Or maybe instead of a static image, it’s one that can be embedded directly on news organizations’ websites — which would allow reporters to add context without having to write an entire story — or four — every single day.
I’m thinking it would look something like this:
The president tweeted at _________ (time) (a.m./p.m.).
The topic was (pick all that apply)
[ ] 2016 election results
[ ] criticism of an individual
[ ] a celebrity who is best known for (comedy / reality TV / sports / other)
[ ] a private citizen
[ ] politician _____________
[ ] political rival _______________
[ ] the (executive / judicial / legislative / state / local) branch of government.
[ ] poll numbers
[ ] other ______________
This was likely in response to _______________
[ ] Something that aired on (MSNBC / FOX / CNN) during the (morning / afternoon / evening) broadcast
[ ] The piece that was published in _____________ on ____________
[ ] ________________ which is happening today
We have fact-checked this remark and found ____________________.
This would also allow readers to understand how frequently these tweets happen (which adds another layer of context that’s missing from once off stories or explanations).