3 principles for journalists for covering Trump’s impeachment

October 24, 2019

When a major news story unfolds slowly, it’s easy for journalists to lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in process. That’s especially true with the impeachment inquiry that House Democrats are pursuing against President Donald Trump.

Journalists with PolitiFact recently hosted a webinar for Poynter on how we think about covering impeachment. (Watch a replay here.) Below are three key principles we’re following to keep our day-to-day coverage and journalism on target.

Explain, explain, explain

Impeachment is a rare occurrence in American history. President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, as was Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon was threatened with impeachment in 1974 but ultimately resigned. Many people have only hazy memories of these events, or none at all. So it’s important to explain regularly what impeachment is and how it works.

The basics: Impeachment is the officially sanctioned process for removing a president, and it’s in the Constitution. The House of Representatives votes on impeachment, which is similar to being charged with a crime. But as much as we use the metaphor of a crime, impeachment doesn’t have to be for a criminal matter. Instead, the Constitution says that the president can be impeached for “treason, bribery or other high Crimes and misdemeanors.”

If the House votes to impeach, then the Senate holds a trial on the impeachment. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to convict, and the only punishment is removal from office. With Trump’s Republican Party controlling the Senate, conviction is unlikely — though if it happened, it would be bipartisan, given the Senate’s 53-47 split.

As of this writing, Congress is not very far along in the process. Democrats in the House have opened an “impeachment inquiry” at the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate Trump. There hasn’t been an opening vote, but a vote isn’t required.

The heart of the impeachment inquiry right now is whether Trump used his presidential powers to pressure the country of Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden.

RELATED TRAINING: Understanding Impeachment: A Guide for Journalists and Citizens

The best story formats for unpacking all this include explainers, fact-checks, timelines and question-and-answer stories to help the audience understand the nuts and bolts of what’s happening. At PolitiFact, we’ve solicited reader questions from our audience to answer their pressing questions. We’re also updating on an ongoing master timeline of events. We regularly link back to previous stories in our coverage, and we have a master list of all our impeachment stories.

Tell the truth and avoid false equivalence …

The impeachment fight is relentlessly partisan, with Democrats and Republican going to their corners and readying for many rounds. Still, it’s important not to treat all their attacks on each other as the same. How do we avoid the problem of false equivalence? A healthy does of fact-checking is a good preventive measure.

Trump is being investigated for his dealings with Ukraine and whether he pressured the country to help him fight his domestic political rivals. In a conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, Trump told Zelensky he needed “a favor” to look into a missing server and to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Before the call, Trump had frozen $400 million in aid to Ukraine.

Trump has said the elder Biden, as vice president, stopped an investigation into his son, but there’s no evidence that happened. Biden did seek the removal of a Ukraine prosecutor in 2015, but that was because western officials believed the prosecutor wasn’t investigating corruption aggressively enough. (Biden’s position was also that of then-President Barack Obama and the International Monetary Fund.) We’ve found no specific claims that Hunter Biden committed illegal acts. Nor is there evidence the older Biden did anything to protect his son. It’s important to be precise about these facts.

Fact-checking political messaging and social media is critical. It’s possible to string together literal statements in a TV ad that give an overall false impression. That’s been the case with some of the inaccurate Trump campaign ads that seek to make Joe Biden look as if he were protecting his son. They include real video of Biden, but they give a thoroughly wrong impression of what was taking place.

… but let the story be complicated

While no one has made a case for Hunter Biden doing something specifically illegal, it’s also true that his position created a serious conflict of interest for his father. Government accountability advocates say the younger Biden should not have taken the position. It represents the kind of trading on family connections that’s all too common in politics. Meanwhile, the positions that Trump’s children hold — advising him in the White House and running his companies — also constitute conflicts of interest. These are just a few of the complications to the current story.

Meanwhile, the future of the impeachment inquiry is rife with uncertainty. There’s no telling how long House committees will investigate before drafting articles of impeachment, or when they might vote on such articles. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s required to hold a trial, but there are no clear markers for how long it would last or what form it would take. The repercussions for Trump are also unknown. It seems unlikely that he would be removed from office, given his party’s control of the Senate. But a lengthy impeachment process could change minds and erode Trump’s staying power. Journalists must allow for all possibilities while reporting the day’s events accurately and thoroughly. It’s a balancing act that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. She can be reached via email at aholan@poynter.org.