Something strange has happened to the news. We’ve largely suspended our normal ethical practices and standards when it comes to covering President Trump.
Maybe it doesn’t seem strange to the usual crowd: the Washington and New York-centric media, political figures, insiders and pundits. They act like it’s not happening. Or maybe they don’t even notice. But to a lot of fair-minded, ordinary Americans, it’s just odd.
A good example is the recent rash of stories about President Trumpreportedly wanting the Justice Department to investigate two of his political nemeses: former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
I’m not as smart as a lot of people, but my initial reaction was a big “So what?” First, it’s unsurprising that Trump would have wanted his Justice Department to investigate two officials widely accused of wrongdoing. Second, even Trump’s critics acknowledge his right to ask for such investigations. Third, the investigations were never ordered.
Yet the story, reported by The New York Times — and therefore guaranteed to be copied by news outlets internationally — portrayed the big “news” as if it were proof of politically motivated interference of the worst kind.
I’m not arguing that the allegations, if deemed credible, aren’t worthy of examination. And Trump’s critics have every right to have their views heard on the national news. But the fairness that once was routinely expected in news stories is notably absent.
Here are four ways the story falls short of upholding routine journalistic standards.
- The story relies on anonymous sources. Risky to begin with, creating international headlines on the basis of nameless, faceless people becomes even more perilous considering how many leaked stories by anonymous sources have proven factually incorrect.
- The story lacks appropriate context. When the only way to tell a story is through anonymous sources, their self-interests and identities must be described with as much specificity as possible so viewers can weight the allegations. Do the sources oppose Trump? Do they work in the White House? Were they fired? Disgruntled? Could they be trying to cover up their own wrongdoing? How are they in position to know what they claim to know? None of this information was provided. Likewise, the story failed to include the context that the main subject, former White House counsel Donald McGahn, had repeatedly clashed with Trump and was ultimately forced out of his job.
- There are numerous instances of missing attribution. If a reporter didn’t personally witness an event, he generally should not present allegations or facts as if true and verified; they should be attributed to their source. Here’s one paragraph full of examples of missing attribution:
“The lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, rebuffed the president, saying that he had no authority to order a prosecution. Mr. McGahn said that while he could request an investigation, that too could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment.”
- In a news piece, the reporters’ opinions shouldn’t be reported as facts. But in this story, after accepting one-sided, leaked information as true, the writers add their own opinions. Here’s one example:
“The encounter was one of the most blatant examples yet of how Mr. Trump views the typically independent Justice Department as a tool to be wielded against his political enemies.”
Unasked and unanswered questions
It seems to me, smart and fair reporting wouldn’t only report the allegations against Trump, but also would examine competing questions.
Are all the figures who have warded off Trump from being involved in his own Justice Department really trying to keep him away so that he doesn’t uncover facts related to allegedly politically motivated acts, surveillance and wrongdoing by some officials over the years?
Is the strategy to accuse Trump of “obstruction” every time he interacts with his Justice Department part of the “insurance policy” discussed by multiple Trump opponents — including two FBI officials and a Comey associate?