The Media Today

Keep the focus on the border

June 26, 2018

In an era when the news cycle moves at warp speed and President Trump initiates a series of possible stories on any given day, it’s hard for political reporters to continuously remain focused on one topic. The president is making false claims at rallies, Sarah Sanders got kicked out of a restaurant, an American manufacturer is sending jobs overseas in response to Trump’s tariffs. All of these stories broke in the past few days and demand coverage, but they pale in importance when compared to the crisis at the border and how the government is responding.

One of the biggest tests of media decision makers during the Trump presidency has been what stories to privilege. There has always existed a bias toward what’s “new,” and this administration has provided an endless stream of options to choose from. But children are still separated from their parents, a legal deadline for holding families together in custody approaches, and Congress appears no closer to passing a measure designed to address the issue. The coming days and weeks will present news outlets with a major test: Can they keep the focus on what matters while still fulfilling their obligations to the daily churn?

The early results this week have been mixed, but it is incumbent upon newsroom leaders to not let the immigration story slip away. Even as some of the conversation has slid into an inane debate over “civility,” several news organizations have done a solid job highlighting their reporting on immigration. This morning, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all dedicated front-page space to stories about the border.

RELATED: The immigration syllabus: 10 essential stories

Yahoo News’s Hunter Walker nails the issue: “To me, the number one question right now is how many kids remain separated from their parents. This should be easy for the government to answer and they’re not,” he tweeted. “And I would humbly ask my colleagues in the White House press corps not to move on to questions about Trump’s tweets on judges, Congress, the Red Hen or anything else until we get an answer to this very basic question of how many kids the government has taken from their parents.”

Continuously focusing on stories with no clear resolution in sight is a difficult ask for outlets whose audiences demand fresh meat every day. News fatigue is real, and it can lead both readers and journalists to shift away from a longitudinal story, even if that issue is more important that whatever daily outrage draws instant reactions. There will, of course, be other events worth highlighting in the coming weeks, but immigration is a story that shouldn’t be pushed to the back burner.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on coverage of the most important story of the moment.

  • A return to Obama-era policy? Via The New York Times: “The nation’s top border security official said Monday that his agency has temporarily stopped handing over migrant adults who cross the Mexican border with children for prosecution, undercutting claims by other Trump administration officials that ‘zero tolerance’ for illegal immigration is still in place.” Sarah Sanders said that the approach is not a change in policy, but comes as a result of a lack of resources for holding families in custody.
  • Still separated: Reuters reports that the government still has more than 2,000 children in its custody who were separated from their parents under Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. As of Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security said that 522 children had been reunited with their parents.
  • Huh?: “Just because you don’t see a judge doesn’t mean you’re not receiving due process,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at the briefing on Monday. She was responding to a Trump tweet from Sunday in which the president suggested, “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
  • What’s next?: A 1997 court ruling limits the duration that the government can keep children in immigration detention to 20 days. Pressed Monday about the administration’s plan for what happens to children currently detained with their parents if that deadline passes, Sarah Sanders responded, “Hopefully, Congress will pass a law and fix the problem.”


Other notable stories

  • Slate’s Isaac Chotiner speaks with The New York Times’s Jeremy W. Peters about reporting on Trump voters. Peters faced criticism for a recent A1 story that once again dove into the question of why Trump supporters continue to back the president. Peters defended his story, telling Chotiner “We ignored those people last time, or we kind of brushed them off as being followers of this cultish celebrity figure who would never amount to anything, and we didn’t take him seriously. Is that what [the critics] really want, to go back to ignoring this guy?”
  • Apple launched a special section of its News app dedicated to the 2018 midterm elections. CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that “while the name Facebook didn’t appear anywhere in [Apple’s] press release, the description of the new section seemed like one long subtweet of the social network.”
  • Sean Spicer: talk show host? The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum and Maggie Haberman report that the former press secretary is developing a talk show, tentatively titled “Sean Spicer’s Common Ground,” which would feature Spicer in casual conversations with notable figures. The project isn’t attached to any network, and there’s no guarantee that it will be picked up.
  • NYU’s Jay Rosen argues that it’s time for news outlets to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency. Some examples of what that might look like? Rosen writes: “For The Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a ‘truth sandwich’….For CNN, never going live to a Trump event—on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do—would be a good start.”
  • Hearst Magazines President David Carey is stepping down at the end of the year, reports the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly. His decision “will immediately set off speculation on a successor for the company that managed in difficult times to emerge as one of the two most dominant magazine publishers,” Kelly writes.
  • For CJR, Chava Gourarie examines how conservatives parse the news, writing that “for Christian conservatives, and for conservatives in general, faith-based notions of what constitutes truth and how to find it deeply influence political discourse.”

ICYMI: Govt overreach, an affair, and muddied waters surrounding a press freedom case

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.