Adjusting for Trump: where newsrooms fall on the spectrum

Photo by Rick Harris (Flickr)

Two weeks ago, news executives planning their coverage of the new Trump administration found themselves facing a couple of pressing questions: How different will this administration be? And, how should we cover it?

The answer to the former, based on 14 days of leaks, tweets, and broadsides from the briefing room, seems to be a resounding “very.” The response to the latter depends on which outlet is answering it.   

This week saw the publication of two internal memos from major media organizations signaling two significantly different approaches to coverage of the new regime in Washington. Reuters Editor in Chief Stephen Adler assured his staff that “We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world.” Adler (who also serves as chairman of CJR’s advisory board) laid out a series of Do’s and Don’ts for Reuters reporters, citing the wire service’s experience working in countries like Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia. Few missed the implied message that the press environment in America has dramatically changed, and not for the better.

Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker instructed his journalists to refrain from referring to the seven countries covered by Trump’s executive order banning travel and refugees as “Muslim majority,” as BuzzFeed News first reported. The directive caused significant consternation in the Journal’s newsroom, and Baker later clarified that he was not banning the term “Muslim-majority country” from the paper’s pages, but insisted that it not be published without context.

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Adler and Baker are not alone in feeling the need to clarify their organization’s position regarding coverage of the new president. The topic has been percolating throughout newsrooms big and small across the country. For newsroom leaders, the question of how, if at all, to adjust their approaches to covering the president is anything but settled.

Below, we’ve collected memos, speeches, and directives from on high in response to that question, and have attempted to place them on an (entirely subjective) spectrum based on their tone.

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“Not everyone was blindsided by this year’s presidential election result. Over two million Wall Street Journal subscribers, whether they were excited about the outcome, or nervous about it, were ready. Because unlike so many news organizations, The Wall Street Journal covered this election the way we’ve been covering elections for the past 127 years: objectively, and across the whole nation.”

–Gerard Baker, Editor in Chief, Wall Street Journal, in a television advertisement that began running in late November, 2016.

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“But we also approach the incoming Trump administration without bias. We will cover his policies and his agenda fairly. We will bring expert analysis and thoughtful commentary to the changes we see in government, and to their ramifications on the ground…Our predecessors founded our singular newspaper for just this moment — to serve as a watchdog to the powerful; and to hold mighty institutions accountable, without fear or favor. We are more than ready to fulfill that promise.”

–Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Publisher, The New York Times, in a memo to staff, 11/11/16

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“The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work. Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn? If so, what do we do? The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.”

–Martin Baron, Editor in Chief, The Washington Post, in a speech accepting the 2016 Hitchens Prize. 11/28/16

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“The right of working journalists to do their jobs should not be up for debate when a new administration takes office (or at any other time). But it disturbingly seems to be.”

–Michael Oreskes*, Senior Vice President of News and Editorial Director, NPR, in a message to staff. 1/17/17

meter-reuters

“Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example – and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.”

–Stephen Adler, Editor in Chief, Reuters, in a message to staff. 1/31/17

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“It is, for instance, entirely fair to call [Trump] a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others here have reported clearly and aggressively: He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. BuzzFeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.”

–Ben Smith, Editor in Chief, BuzzFeed, in an email to staff. 12/8/15

“Donald Trump will drive the U.S. narrative. We will cover the hell out of the president and the administration as we have covered him all along — fairly and without making compromises for access. But we’ll break through most where we can seize the initiative ourselves: Report something nobody else has found or observed, clearly, fairly, and credibly.”

–Ben Smith, Editor in Chief, BuzzFeed, in a year-end memo to staff. 12/29/16

 

*Oreskes is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.