He has been called a “sham.” His campaign was initially dismissed as a “charade.” The Huffington Post relegated him to the entertainment page. And while elections experts maintain that he still is not the most likely candidate to win his party’s nomination for the presidency, the mainstream media spent late summer and early fall 2015 calling him “frontrunner.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has caused fits for his opponents to be sure, but his candidacy raises interesting ethical questions for the news media covering him, as well. Should mentions of Trump’s failed marriages, multiple bankruptcies and laundry list of controversial statements about all manner of people and groups be regular features of his media attention? How should Trump’s unique use (as compared to his opponents) of Twitter be covered?
News practices expert Elizabeth Skewes, a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, worries concerns about the ethics of covering Trump are coming too late.
“I wish this question had been explored when he really started running,” Skewes said. She added one reason for Trump’s place atop most polls is because “the media were covering him so much.”
George Washington University political scientist and blogger at The Monkey Cage John Sides conducted an analysis confirming Skewes’ hunch that Trump’s place in the polls correlates highly with how much attention he receives.
Skewes noted that “all that coverage gave Trump a legitimacy with voters that he might not have otherwise had.”
Imagine, for example, if Trump had been afforded the same (lack of) attention recent GOP nomination dropout Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had received from the mainstream media.
Digital media law and ethics expert Paul Voakes of the University of Colorado-Boulder has been struck by how a political novice has been able to grab hold of the media narrative. “Media coverage of the Republican nomination should not be driven by the latest sound bite from Donald Trump, but sometimes it appears as though it is.”
So, should the media treat Trump differently? Not so fast, say the media ethics experts.
University of St. Thomas media ethics professor Wendy Wyatt argued that, “covering a candidate like Donald Trump shouldn’t be all that different from covering any other candidate.”
Top Ten Strategies for Covering Trump (and everyone else…)
The ethics experts I talked to offered a range of strategies for covering Trump, most of which they would want to apply to all of the other candidates for the Republican and Democratic nominations for President of the United States.
- Side-by-side comparisons of the candidates’ positions and experience
Skewes said the side-by-sides could even come “in chart form” so readers could compare the candidates’ experience, proposals and the likelihood their proposals would work. Wyatt added that journalists “should provide the context citizens need to make sense of news about all candidates.” Skewes suggested a comparison that highlighted candidates’ positions, experience, and an expert analysis of whether the plan is possible (or what conditions would be required to make the plan a reality).
- Ask the “why” and the “how” questions of all candidates
Saying that “I will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” is not a plan. Asking Trump why the nation needs a wall, why the wall would stop the problem he articulates and how he intends to get Mexico to build it is important. Trump has talked about his views regarding why he wants to build one, but he couldn’t even handle a gentle role-playing question from Stephen Colbert (who was pretending to be the president of Mexico) about how he would persuade Mexico to build the wall. As Skewes noted, “he can’t fire Congress.” Thus, getting Trump to explain how he will get some of his difficult to implement ideas, such as rounding up 11 million people who are illegally in the United States and returning them to their country of origin, through the U.S. Congress is a required task for all campaign reporters.
- Do not mistake Twitter for public opinion
Voakes was quick to remind journalists and their audience that, “the danger in social media is to treat it and report it in a way that implies this is valid public opinion.” It does not. Research led by W. Russell Neuman has shown that there are times when Twitter traffic both precedes and responds to news coverage, but scholars do not yet have a handle on the twittersphere’s relationship with broad public opinion. After all, only about a quarter of Internet-using Americans are on Twitter – and they are much more interested in politics on average than those who do not tweet.
- (Mostly) ignore the outrageous
Trump’s social media behavior is particularly inflammatory – insulting other candidates for president, actresses and the people of Iowa. Trump’s recent riff on the veracity of Ben Carson’s claim that he was foiled from stabbing a friend because of a belt buckle is an example of the atypical style Trump employs on the campaign trail as compared to his GOP and Democratic counterparts. Trump is the outrageous gift that keeps on giving, but Voakes cautions that running to air or print the latest most outrageous statement of the day means that reporters, “will continue to report Trump out of proportion with A) other GOP candidates and B) the substance of what he is actually saying.”
- Explore proposals for a more inclusive debate strategy
While the ship has somewhat sailed on this one, Skewes called for a different debate format that was not primarily organized by a candidate’s standing in the polls. She said that having a main stage and “JV” debate gives the sense that candidates on the undercard and the main event candidates “at the end podiums. . .don’t matter. Just don’t focus on the center of the stage, it is almost hypnotic (the visual cue that the centered candidates are the important ones).” Other suggestions included a debate format where five or six of the crowded field of Republican candidates (drawn at random) appeared together at a time so that frontrunners and those at the bottom of the polls would be more likely to be mixed together and given more equal attention.
- Journalists should push all candidates to be specific in their proposals and to respond to substantive critiques of them.
If journalists are especially successful at #s 10 and 9, they should force candidates to respond to serious questions about their proposals. This is an especially difficult challenge when covering Trump because, as Voakes said, Trump is, “this personality who was entertaining and controversial before he announced his candidacy (and he) knows how to manipulate the dynamics of the soundbite. . .and now we have a platform of social media that Trump understands better than any of the other candidates” when it comes to saying what he wants to say — and nothing else — in response to critiques. Journalists will need to make peace with the inevitable attacks that will come their way if they call Trump out for not giving specific answers to important questions.
- Don’t talk to Trump
Echoing the well-worn journalism admonition that, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” Skewes called on reporters to consider that, “the best way to cover Trump is by not talking to Trump. Talk to people who know him better, people who work with him and experts and other professionals who can analyze what he claims. We need that outside voice for all the candidates but particularly with Trump. He A) doesn’t realize his own limitations and B) says ‘that’s not true’ whenever he is challenged.”
- Journalists should consider things from all candidates’ lives that may affect their ability to govern
Politicians are humans. As presidential scholar Fred Greenstein has written about extensively, how presidents approach decision-making, stress and organizational capacity are crucial to their performance in office. Voakes added, “It would be valuable to see if the media can get people to engage (with) the candidates in a way that is beyond charisma.”
Fellow GOP candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio regularly highlight their immigrant roots but oppose more liberal proposals related to immigration reform. Jeb Bush has a father and a brother who have been president but insists he is his own man and will not be relying on the Bush family name to become the family’s third occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Carly Fiorina has been a business executive at the highest levels – but was fired. Hillary Clinton has been First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State who had her husband’s infidelities become a national punch line and the basis for impeachment proceedings.
Almost all of the candidates are married with children and many, Trump most certainly included, have had portions of their personal lives, and their kids’ lives, splashed all over the front page of the tabloids. Most are highly educated. Most are wealthy. They also lie. How have their lives – their opportunities and adversities – affected how they may make decisions at the highest political level?
- Journalists should help citizens understand who all candidates are as human beings
CNBC’s Becky Quick got at this in the widely panned debate she co-moderated when she quoted a critique of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg from Trump’s own website that Trump denied saying during the debate. The execution of her fact check was off (she initially could not remember from where she found the damning quote), but it was the right instinct. Wyatt went further, calling on journalists to ask about the candidates, “Are they people of integrity, have they been truthful, have they demonstrated respect for others?” and so forth.
- Stop focusing on the polls
Trump regularly touts his position in the national public opinion polls as evidence that he is for real. He may be. But while the media ethicists I spoke with didn’t bring this up, I will use my personal privilege as a political scientist and journalism professor to point out that a candidate’s performance in the polls at this (still early!) stage in the process is not highly correlated with whether she or he ends up being the nominee. Mitt Romney led some GOP primary polls in 2012 to be sure, but so did Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Some of the also-rans led for a long period of time. None of them led for as long as Trump to be sure, but it is still far too early to be extrapolating one’s position in the primary polls a few months before the first primary election to their likelihood of winning the nomination.
In fact, when it comes to building a campaign organization and earning the endorsements of the party elites who are widely regarded as being key to winning the nomination, Trump appears to be at or near the bottom of the pack.
For that matter, using the polls to declare a candidate dead is dangerous as well. Less than a month before winning the 2004 Iowa caucus on his way to the Democratic nomination for president, John Kerry was polling at 4 percent
Following these strategies is hard work. It is especially hard when Trump is likely to answer tough questions about the details of his policies by bragging that they’ll be “great,” by attacking his opponents as “losers” or turning his attention to the media for asking “nasty questions.” As Skewes cautions, “the media should not be in the business of trying to ensure that Trump does not get elected,” but they can provide a more comprehensive picture of his candidacy to the voting public.
Michael W. Wagner is an associate professor and a Louis A. Maier Faculty Development Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also affiliated with the Department of Political Science.