By now it’s an all too familiar story. Every time US-President Donald Trump tweets something particularly outrageous, the media follows up with a range of articles chronicling and interpreting his latest Twitter extravaganza. So was the case when he recently attacked the press, bashed two leading Democrats and retweeted right-wing crackpots. A quick Google search will return hundreds of articles for each. The media seems just as addicted to Trump’s tweets as he is to Twitter.
Yet, despite the fact that his latest retweets sparked a diplomatic crisis between the UK and the US, the media should know better and stop playing a game they cannot win. At best, most of Trumps’s tweets show us a mentally deranged 71-year-old racist, misogynist and [enter attribute here]. At worst, they are part of a cunning media strategy.
No matter the motive, the outcome is always the same:
- They exploit the media to spread his message beyond his loyal Twitter following and his core base. The media are amplifying his message (for free) through excess coverage.
- Overwhelmingly, Trump’s tweets divert our attention away from the real issues (tax reform, health care act, abolishing net neutrality, corruption) which should matter.
- They lead to a mental fatigue on part of the audience, who is long beyond the point of being properly outraged by every new tweet which leaves Trump’s phone (when was the last time you felt really enraged by one of the things Trump did or said instead of simply shrugging your shoulders?)
Yet, it’s important to make a necessary differentiation early on: While not all of Trump’s tweets are news or newsworthy, some of them are. Trump’s recent retweets of racist Britain First videos, for instance, were not exactly news (we already know that he is racist, hence the coverage added little to our general understanding of his views). However, his attack on British prime minister Theresa May following her official rebuke was newsworthy, as are his reactions to the ongoing Russia probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Admittedly, it’s an incredibly thin line to walk. Yet, this does not mean that it shouldn’t be at least given a try.
The case against covering (all of) Trump’s tweets
Let me in the following briefly lay out my arguments against an intensive coverage of everything that Trump tweets before I will outline some suggestions on how the media and journalists could better deal with the “Tweeter-in-Chief”.
The most important arguments against intensively covering Trump’s tweet are the following:
- It helps to legitimise fringe views and pushes them into the mainstream. As Brendan Cox, widower of the murdered British Labour MP Jo Cox, eloquently states in his op-ed for the Guardian, Trump calling Mexicans rapists, retweeting far-right activists and sharing antisemitic memes against Hillary Clinton (and worse) on Twitter is a strategy which aims “to legitimise those driven by hatred” and make them think “that their views are mainstream”. The media shouldn’t assist Trump in this endeavour by involuntarily promoting these views to a wider audience. Excess coverage amplifies his messages.
- It allows Trump to set the agenda (or at least shape it) and reach the mainstream. Roughly half of all Americans still get their news mostly from television (although the Internet is catching up). While Trump can easily preach to the choir — his hardcore base — on Twitter, he is dependent on the media to reach larger swaths of the population.
- His tweets often serve as a means of distraction. Tweeting outrageous, abusive or false statements is an almost infallible means of gaining attention and distracting from certain topics. It’s a strategy often used by populists and Trump is no exception. The media shouldn’t support this strategy. It’s a trap.
- It crowds out more important issues. Closely related to the third point, obsessing over Trump’s tweets crowds out other issues. It further risks numbing their audience to a point where they no longer really care when truly important news roll in. It’s no exaggeration to argue that Trump and his administration are already producing scandals on an unprecedented scale — so many in fact that it has become hard to follow them all. The last thing needed right now is additional coverage of Trump’s Twitter fluff. It is vital that the media focus their and their audience’s attention on the topics that really matter.
A few strategies to deal with an unhinged president
While it’s outrageous that Trump’s Twitter behaviour has become normalised, there is little the media can do about it. Instead of fanning the flames they should instead deprive Trump of oxygen.
Of course, one could argue that not reacting to the President’s most outrageous tweets is itself a form of normalisation, a sign that one has resigned to a situation in which this behaviour can pass unchallenged. Then again, no intervention or protest by the media would change the mind of those who unequivocally support Trump (at the time of writing at least 37% of the American population).
But if covering every tweet is not the solution and not covering a single one of Trump’s tweets isn’t the right way to go forward either, what then should the media do? A few possible solutions come to mind…
- Is his tweet news? Does his tweet give us previously unknown information or does it merely confirm something we already know? If the answer to this is “No” then what is the reason that it should still be covered?
- What are the risks? What is at stake if a Trump tweet which promotes fringe or extreme views is being covered? Could this involuntarily promote a group or views which would otherwise remain obscure (see for comparison “Britain First” which was mostly unheard of outside the UK)?
- Establish context. Ask yourself: Why is Trump tweeting about this right now? Which other big stories are out there at the moment from which his tweets (and out stories about his tweets) could try to distract? Ruthlessly prioritise.
- Add context in your coverage. If you have to report, try to phrase headlines differently. Don’t say “Donald Trump retweets racist anti-muslim videos.” Do say: “Donald Trump retweets racist anti-muslim videos in an attempt to distract from Russia probe.”
None of these strategies will of course help to reign in Trump’s erratic behaviour nor will they help to change the minds of his devoted following. Yet, this is not the point. The aim should be to contain the damage caused by the President’s tweets while reporting only on those where public interest warrants coverage.
Unfortunately, the media has few incentives to stop covering Trump’s public outbursts. As media scholar Whitney Phillips argues, journalism “privileges sensationalist framings as it is advertising-based, and so needs to predicate itself on outrage and emotional reactivity.” In a nutshell, stories which spark outrage generate revenue. The coverage of Trump’s tweets lends itself all too beautifully to these ends.
Felix Simon is a journalist and regularly writes for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Die Welt”, the “Telegraph” and other outlets. He holds a BA in Film- and Media Studies from the Goethe-University Frankfurt and an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford, where he works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.