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American Journalism in the Age of “Fake News”

by Gayoung Lee

Michael Reynolds/EPA

Hardly a day passes by that Donald Trump doesn’t mention the media on Twitter.

Whether it’s a friendly nod to Fox and Friends or a complaint about CNN’s “witch hunt,” the current president of the United States deems media sources important enough to obsess over them. This has not gone unnoticed by both sides of the political spectrum, some agreeing with Trump’s criticisms and others calling him blind to the truth. To put it mildly, the president has had a significant influence in the recent changes in American journalism.

A Gallup poll conducted last year revealed that 17 percent of American adults “trust most news organizations,” with another 16 percent declaring they “do not trust any news organizations.” The same poll added that “[m]ost U.S. adults…say they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years.” The biggest criticisms they found were bias and lack of accuracy. In light of Trump’s derailment of the media at rallies and his tendency to rely on feelings rather than statistics, it would be easy — convenient, even — to believe that Trump’s abuse of poor journalists has brought along an age where objective reporting has become a joke.

The problem is much more complex than that. Although it is certainly the case Donald Trump has favored some media sources over others, it is also the case that objective journalism has been struggling to survive in America. There is a strange tension now between Trump’s attempts at discrediting factual information and the increasing journalistic tendencies to resort to bias in order to humble him. It’s a bad cycle.

Political analyst Michael Massing has examined the use of vocabulary by The New York Times in reporting about Trump since his election in 2016. The prominent news outlet uses “tendentious words [such] as ‘swagger,’ ‘brag,’ ‘boast,’ ‘tirade,’ ‘rant,’ and…’bluster.’” A particular article published May of last year was titled “Navy Officers Saluted With Bluster and Big Numbers” — passing Trump critics on Twitter would see this headline and reinforce their beliefs that their president was, in fact, a boasting idiot. The article itself was actually Trump speaking about his efforts to expand the military budget, Massing reports — but the title does not reflect that.

Other than to defend themselves from attacks, news outlets resort to bias because it sells. The Times reported that there had been a “Trump bump” since the election of the billionaire to the presidency. The public has understandably expressed outrage for some actions of the Trump administration that has sought to undermine the integrity of U.S. political institutions. And let’s be honest: you don’t like what Trump is doing. You read an article from a supposedly acclaimed news source that ridicules his actions in professional language. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

But objective reporting is no source of entertainment. Its core values are accuracy, fairness, precision and neutrality. The last one is particularly important, as journalism should be providing the public with facts upon which they can make their own informed decisions.

Journalists of all people should know best how the politics of language work. One small change in describing how an interviewee answered a question drastically changes how the public will perceive that person. “Answered” is different from “retorted” or “stuttered.” “Left” is certainly different from “slinked away, the way a bully does when faced with unexpected resistance.” Yes — the last one is an actual phrase used by the Times used to report on Trump…in an article that was decidedly not an opinion column.

It cannot be emphasized enough how Trump’s irrationality has had a negative impact on the perception of the media. It is problematic that he has publicly expressed support for questionable sources such as Breitbart, Alex Jones and the words Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies.

Nevertheless, that is precisely why journalists need to push themselves to be even more objective. Slipping into bias essentially provides Trump and his allies with evidence that there may be a witch hunt, even if there is no such thing.

Since the election of Donald Trump, media sources have done an excellent job exposing the wrongdoings of this administration. They have just included a few more emotionally-charged words than are necessary. The public may enjoy that at first, but they will eventually realize sustained bias has affected the articles they read. Trump’s rallies aren’t entirely to blame.

The Gallup poll suggests the important learnings from this study was whether this decrease in trust can be restored. The answer is hopeful, they say: 69 percent of adults say yes. Whether that can actually happen, of course, is up to the press.



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