Five lessons on covering trauma from the campaign trail

November 28, 2016

Of the many crises unleashed by America’s recent election, that faced by journalism is high on the list. Combine the fact that so much campaign reporting simply got this election wrong with the escalating hostility, harassment, and threats directed at news professionals and media companies, and you have a grimly astringent moment of reckoning.

Most post-election news analysis has, understandably, raked over voter demographics, the finer points of polling, the neatly paired October surprises from James Comey and Wikileaks, and the all-too-limited reporting on the handful of Rust Belt counties that delivered an electoral college majority to Donald Trump. But in coming to terms with this election, journalists also must re-examine the failure of our reporting to seriously account for the single feature of the Trump operation distinguishing it most profoundly from any modern US presidential campaign: Its tactical embrace of violence.

Plenty of other candidates have exploited fear of crime, fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants. Trump was the first major-party presidential aspirant since Reconstruction to employ, personally and through surrogates and supporters, the threat and enactment of violence at the center of his own campaign.

With that harsh reality in mind, what are the lessons journalism should learn? Here are a few:

Never underestimate the lingering political significance of traumatic events, especially when they involve betrayals of public trust.

From the primaries through the debates and up to Election Day, two past national traumas explicitly shadowed this campaign: the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial collapse. Both had thousands of direct victims in vulnerable bands of the American electorate, from young veterans to working families to retirees. And Hillary Clinton had a direct association with both, thanks to her vote for the Iraq war and her longstanding dalliance with Wall Street. Both connections hurt her. Trump didn’t have those issues–even though his claim to have been against Iraq was a lie, and he exemplifies the opportunistic plutocrat who exploited the crash. Simply put, Iraq and the finance collapse remain open psychic injuries for many voters, and from that point of view Hillary Clinton might as well have walked onto the campaign stage preceded by a sign emblazoned TRIGGER WARNING. 

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Add to the mix a series of horrifying events outside the electoral arena, running parallel to the campaign: mass murder in Charleston, Orlando, and San Bernadino; Citizen-generated videos of police shootings; fatal attacks on police officers in Dallas and elsewhere. By the time the presidential campaign crested after Labor Day, the American body politic already had been shaken–and left fractured, fearful, and demoralized–by multiple violations of the basic social contract.

This was all politically potent, but not in an obvious right vs. left way. Psychologists have long understood that traumatic events corrode bonds of trust and lead people into a polarized psychic whipsaw that pits anger, fear, and scapegoating against avoidance, numbness, and isolation. Without overstretching the point, exit polls and post-election reporting made clear that something akin to that polarized dynamic played out on November 8: A crucial margin in one camp rode resentment to the polls; a crucial margin in the other stayed home in despair. 

Political reporters, like crime reporters or war correspondents, need to understand how catastrophic events resonate long after the breaking news is over. To get that side of the story right, you need to do political journalism as if people matter. This year’s campaign coverage was the most data-obsessed ever. But data can’t capture the arguments going on in a community, a family, a human heart. The journalists who noticed where things might go this election season–like Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, Michael Moore, Salena Zito, formerly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and too few others–weren’t number crunching or aggregating. They were listening. Why were MacGillis, Moore, and Zito exceptions rather than the rule?

Take any attack on journalists seriously, and stand up for colleagues immediately.

In retrospect, Trump’s forcible ejection of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference and his verbal attack on Fox’s Megyn  Kelly–both in August 2015–marked a turning point in the campaign. The physical assault on Ramos on Trump’s orders, and the verbal assault on Kelly by the candidate himself, came two months before the first outbreak of campaign rally violence instigated by Trump’s rhetoric. (See the useful timeline of campaign violence assembled by Slate.)

When Trump’s security guards manhandled Ramos, few colleagues, and not a single news organization, protested, and a handful of access-obsessed journalists publicly blamed Ramos himself. (As Ramos himself has noted, there were two exceptions: Tom Llamas from ABC and Katie Hunt from MSNBC). This tepid response sent the candidate and his most volatile supporters a clear message that it was now open season: Trump could escalate his hostility toward the media without consequence; violent behavior at Trump rallies would be covered not as a fundamental violation of American Constitutional norms, but as just another chapter in the campaign circus.

Recognize the unique significance of violence employed as a deliberate campaign tactic.

On October 15, 2015, Trump supporters at a rally in Richmond, Virginia shoved and spat on immigrant-rights activists. It was the first documented assault in the Trump campaign. Between then and the Republican National Convention, by Slate’s accounting, Trump adherents were accused of (and in many cases recorded on video) assaulting protesters and journalists by shoving, sucker-punching, choking, spitting, knocking down, kicking, tackling, throwing eggs, and throwing rocks. The candidate himself was bellowing “Get ‘em outta here,” defending supporters who “roughed up” the opposition, and offering to pay the legal fees of anyone who took on a protester.

Little reporting–and it would appear, little polling–explored the impact of these incidents, broadcast over and over on cable television and watched obsessively by many news consumers. Yet surely this departure from American campaign norms was newsworthy. Years of psychological studies (most notably by Prof. Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California at Irvine) have documented how individuals’ saturation viewing of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and other violent events on American soil raised the incidence of acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other issues. Mental-health markers aren’t political predictors, of course. But such research should clue journalists in to a basic story: a protracted campaign of on-camera public violence needs to be understood as more than just a bizarrely entertaining election sideshow.

It’s safe to say that many people–of whatever political bent or demographic group–understood that we weren’t just watching wrestling-ring theatrics, and had deep reactions that resonated as Trump swept closer to the nomination. It’s likely that this months-long spectacle of real-world assaults and jeering threats, at once fascinating and appalling, had a welter of effects: emboldening and energizing individuals who identified with Trump or who felt ratified in their own bigotry; reinforcing fear and isolation in minority groups; and perhaps most significantly, inflicting a kind of psychological voter suppression among citizens disgusted by the whole spectacle.

Post-election, the politically-motivated violence and fear unleashed in this campaign remain, at least temporarily, a central fact of American life. These cannot be normalized and must remain high on the news agenda. Observant Muslim women discard their hijabs for fear of attack. Undocumented immigrants, encouraged out of the shadows by DACA and municipal resident cards, suddenly hide from police, and as Sarah Stillman reports in The New Yorker, immigrant children are harassed in schools while their parents make contingency plans to break up their families if necessary. As NBC reported, African-Americans and other minority citizens are purchasing firearms for self-protection with new alacrity. Political scientists recalibrate the danger of nuclear war. Without Trump passing a single bill or signing a single order, American political culture is already submerged in the consequences of a campaign defined by the threat, the kick, the sucker-punch; every local and regional political reporter or social-issues desk needs to be thinking about how this might play out.

Recognize how unprecedented violent events challenge news ethics and storytelling.

As a reporting-craft matter, the violence Trump promoted on the campaign trail – rhetoric he has not in any way distanced himself from — poses a fundamental challenge. How do we report on such incidents without becoming a transmission belt for bigotry? How do we document without normalizing? And how do we analyze, without overstating or sensationalizing, Trump’s evocation of the pre-civil-rights era, when politicians and violent enforcers of the country’s racial and ethic codes stood arm in arm?  As was the case with Trump’s cascade of truth-free campaign-trail assertions, the standard habits of breaking-news coverage–the neutral stance,and even-handed vocabulary of political reporting–too often proved inadequate to understanding the stakes in this year’s campaign. 

Which brings a final lesson of this exhausting and tortuous campaign as the inauguration of America’s 45th president approaches:

When your reporting and storytelling toolbox is challenged by a norm-violating candidate, acknowledge it and innovate–fast. 

It’s not just about getting one day’s story right. It’s a civic emergency. 

Bruce Shapiro is the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.