President-elect Donald Trump’s style of addressing the nation, through often baseless and sometimes fully false Twitter rants, poses a unique challenge to journalism, which is unofficially charged with educating America about public affairs. This morning the Providence Journal didn’t quite rise to this unique, new challenge.
Here’s what happened.
Trump, probably angry that an election recount is gaining momentum, tweeted this:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
It’s pretty big news when the president-elect of the United States thinks – or says, for whatever reason – that “millions of people … voted illegally” in the election he just won. Especially when you consider that two of his opponents, one whom he beat by only a razor-thin margin, are also challenging the results. Also, the tweet could be used as cover by dictators staging actual rigged elections to explain away accusations of vote tampering. If the United States doesn’t investigate election fraud, why should Venezuela or North Korea or Iran? Trump’s tweet could make it much harder for the United States to play the role of beacon of democracy to the rest of the world, and that’s not nothing.
For whatever reason, almost every national news organization in the United States and elsewhere agreed that Trump’s unsubstantiated information had legs and featured the story big, either on A1 or at the top of the hour. But how to best cover such a scoop gets at why journalism is more art than science. There was one noticeable difference in how newsrooms across the country presented this news to its consumers.
Take, for example, the headline in today’s Providence Journal compared to the New York Times:
The Providence Journal headline takes President-elect Trump at his word. The New York Times version does the opposite.
Politico initially had a similar internet headline to the one the the ProJo ran in print but subsequently changed it, according to this Huffington Post analysis of the headline debate.
“Too often, news organizations amplify Trump’s assertions in headlines with some variation of ‘Trump tweets’ or Trump claims’ or ‘Trump says’ ― whether or not those assertions are true,” wrote Huffington Post Senior Media Reporter Michael Calderone. “This seems to be the default in many newsrooms heading into Trump’s presidency, even after he proved to be a historically dishonest candidate known for frequently spouting falsehoods and pushing conspiracy theories.”
Calderone continued, “…such a clearly false claim needs to be immediately put into context before being circulated online and on social media.” The Washington Post ran a print headline very similar to the kind that offended Calderone and the ProJo’s online headline referenced the claim was unsubstantiated.
There’s been much made of the media’s decision to lede with Trump’s lies and explain the rest later. I was once of the mind that journalists were not required to educate through headlines, but rather through fair and hopefully in-depth stories found underneath headlines. Worth noting that each story in The Post, The Times, Politico and the ProJo (which ran the Associated Press story) mention in the first sentence that the accusation could not be verified.
But I’m not so sure journalism can afford to rest on that laurel any longer. Clearly, many Americans aren’t reading beyond the headlines, if even that far. We largely outsourced our collective knowledge of public affairs to cable TV and whatever happens to pop up on social media, with I think obvious disastrous effects. And giving our president-elect any kind of benefit of doubt is clearly a fool’s errand. Trust is earned by being honest, not by winning the most electoral votes. We may have elected him president, but nothing in the Constitution says Americans have to trust the person who gets the most electoral votes, just like nothing in the Constitution prevents an unscrupulous hate-monger from being elected president.
Still, it’s journalism’s role in society to educate people about public affairs and we must first do no harm in this pursuit. Even when that means navigating a pathologically-lying POTUS and an uneducated public to do so. Journalism can’t stop Trump from lying and it can’t make people read beyond the headlines. But journalism can easily stop amplifying Trump’s lies and it should stop using his lies as headline fodder.