February 20, 2017

How have news organizations covered Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest? Very creatively, so far.

The New York Times created a series of circular graphics showing how Trump’s business efforts potentially intertwine with the federal government.

Buzzfeed logged more than 1,500 people and organizations connected to the Trump family and their advisers, which independent designer Kim Albrecht turned into a complex data visualization.

And ProPublica has been on the paper trail for weeks, reporting in early February on Ivanka Trump’s lack of documents divesting her of Trump business interests. That mirrored ProPublica’s reporting on Inauguration Day concerning the President’s “then-absent paperwork.”

NPR, meanwhile, created an entirely new initiative to cover possible conflicts of interest. They tapped veteran business editor Marilyn Geewax to lead the Conflicts Team, which has three full-time staffers and an intern.

Their reporting includes stories on potential foreign conflicts, possible ethics holes, federal ethics rules concerning product endorsement and various legal conflicts that intertwine with the president’s companies.

They’re platform-agnostic: The team does radio reporting, web reporting, works with NPR’s Apps team to create apps that track the president, contributes to NPR’s ongoing fact-checking efforts and occasionally appears on NPR’s Facebook Live feed to update audiences on the news.

I chatted with Marilyn about leading the Conflict Team, how they’re finding (and prioritizing) story ideas, and how this cross-desk model may be used for other types of coverage. An edited version of our conversation is below.

You’re leading a new initiative at NPR looking into President Trump’s business interests and areas of possible conflict of interest. Where did the idea for that initiative come from?

After the election, NPR news leaders did some brainstorming about where our coverage of Donald Trump should go from here.

We all could see we would be entering a new world in terms of ethics and conflicts of interest. In the past, wealthy presidents have taken steps to divest themselves or move their assets into a blind trust. But Trump made it clear from the start that his family would continue to own The Trump Organization. The only concession would be to shift management to Trump’s oldest two sons.

Every ethics expert told us this arrangement would be a totally inadequate solution, especially given that Trump has business interests in about 20 nations.

So the top editors decided NPR would provide intense coverage of Trump’s conflicts and asked me to oversee the initiative. I think I’m fairly well-qualified because I’ve had many years of Washington experience, having covered both Congress and the White House on economic issues for Cox Newspapers. And I have been a business editor at NPR for more than eight years. Finally, I have a master’s degree from Georgetown, where I focused on international business affairs. All of that background helps me better understand Trump’s global reach and our news outlet’s needs.

How is it staffed?

We have three full-timers: Jim Zarroli, a business desk reporter based in New York; Jackie Northam, an international desk reporter based in Washington and Peter Overby, an ethics expert on our Washington desk. We also have an excellent intern, Lucia Maffei. And whenever needed, I have borrowed national desk reporters, particularly Greg Allen in Florida.

How do you determine whether your reporters get a story or the story goes to a political reporter? How do the two teams work together?

Since the election, we have had a flood of news — far more than we can fully cover. I can’t think of any examples of a political reporter insisting on covering a conflict-of-interest story that the Conflicts Team wanted to tackle.

I believe Washington desk editors are relieved to have me staying on top of this issue so that they can focus on everything else. I send out a lot of notes to make sure everyone knows what the Conflicts Team is doing, so we really haven’t had any turf battles.

You’ve been all over NPR. I notice you’re doing two-ways (or conversations) with hosts, and then you’re recording segments on Facebook Live, and occasionally writing for the website. How do you decide what kind of treatment a particular topic gets?

This is an energizing topic. We all feel very strongly that “sunlight” is important, and being given an opportunity to throw back curtains and let in the light is an honor — and a duty. So we are eager to do whatever it takes, which might mean sending Jackie Northam up to Canada to check out the Trump project up there, and having Greg Allen visit Mar-A-Lago in Florida and getting Jim Zarroli to run over to Trump Tower in New York and asking Peter Overby to dig into public records.

And if, at the end of the day, there’s still more to do, then I write for the web or put together a video with the Facebook crew or join “Here & Now” for a conversation. One of my favorite things is talking with Michel Martin on the weekend edition of “All Things Considered.”

Where are you getting your story ideas? Will this exist throughout the entire presidency? What happens if and when the president releases his tax returns? Does that negate the need for this beat?

It’s not hard to come up with ideas. It’s more a matter of setting priorities because there are so many ideas. Just think about the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. It published a photo of hotel’s staff in front of the building with a caption: “Thank you Mr. President!” The same photo also appears on the hotel’s official Instagram profile:

So that’s an example of a Trump-owned business using the Trump presidency to boost its profile. The story ideas just tumble out of the tweets and headlines each day.

It’s hard to know how long this assignment might last because this is all so unprecedented. It’s not like we’ve ever before had a president who was also an innkeeper. And the inn is in Istanbul. And in Manila. And in other sensitive regions of the world. Even if we were to finally get his tax returns, that would be good; it would help shed light. But it would not stop him from owning businesses that could profit from decisions that he makes as president.

Maybe he eventually will conclude that it’s impossible to continue to own a global business empire, owe money to foreign banks and serve as president. These roles come into constant conflict and raise many ethical issues that become distractions. So maybe he gets sick of trying to do two things at once – and either sells off his businesses or steps down as president.

At the moment, such outcomes appear unlikely, so I’m guessing I will be doing this job for a long time.

What advice would you give to other newsrooms, specifically about how to handle the influx of news coming in, seemingly around the clock. How do you balance context with wanting to update your audience with what’s going on?

That really is a tough question. There is so much Trump-related news that you do wonder when people are going to plug their ears and just start singing “La-la-la—la-la.” We don’t want conflict-of-interest news to become white noise.

On the other hand, there are new angles every day. So we hope we are finding the right balance between covering important issues, and not wearing down our audience. Our strategy so far has been to keep reporting, but keep the stories tight — like, three minutes or less on the radio, rather than droning on and on.

It seems like there’s something different about having a beat that’s a category — like business or education — and having a beat that crosses multiple areas and is on a specific issue. This beat is both narrow in focus and cross-cutting. How is being a business editor different than you’re what you’re doing now, and how has it influenced you?

I think this is a cross-desk model may be used more often in the future for other types of coverage. Certainly there is great value in having reporters and editors know certain beats really well; you want a business reporter to know a lot about business and a science reporter to know a lot about science.

But it seems like more and more, the important stories cut across all lines — like climate change. It’s about business and science and politics — and it may be best to have editors who, from time to time, put together SWAT teams of experienced reporters to focus on an issue in a cross-desk way.

It seems like this beat could be a round-the-clock job. How are you taking breaks and advising your reporters to take breaks so you don’t get burned out?

It really has been a crazy pace, with one story leading right into the next. And it does take a toll on your mental health — I try to squeeze in as much fun as possible on the weekends, with walks, movies and dinners with friends.

But throughout the week, I find myself going to bed with my phone clutched in my hand, watching Twitter for new developments, and waking up at 2 a.m. to sneak another peak. And then getting up well before dawn to see what is happening.

The problem is: The president tweets at all hours, and news comes at us from so many directions. I hope that eventually, the flow of news will slow down as the new administration settles in. For the moment, I am just happy to be a journalist with a great news outlet. This is what we do and we have to keep doing it.

Every time the job feels burdensome, I remind myself that we have reporters all over the world, often in truly dangerous places. I sit at a comfy desk in a nice building. It’s not Kandahar. So no whining.

Where are you getting your news these days? How are you keeping track of every single thing that’s coming out? How do you evaluate whether it’s a conflict of interest or not?

I am wearing out my eyeballs from reading so much, and in the evening, I do find myself listening to cable news shows, flipping from one to another to hear different points of view. The New York Times and The Washington Post certainly deserve shout-outs; they’ve had lots of great coverage. And of course ProPublica keeps churning out facts.

Anything else you want to add?

We – meaning all journalists — have to use this experience to examine our conscience. I get a lot of tweets and notes from people saying: Why didn’t you do this work a year ago? At the debates, why didn’t a moderator ask Trump to explain in detail how he planned to handle his role in developing hotels in the Middle East with his role as president? There were so many debates; why wasn’t that question asked? It’s something we all need to think about.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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