American Journalists’ Independence and Biases Are Challenged in Age of Trump

American journalists are famously independent from the government, considering themselves “watch dogs” who tell the unvarnished truth, make elected officials accountable, reveal corruption and abuse of power, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In American popular culture, journalistic heroes are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of All the President’s Men in the 1970s or the investigative reporting team of the Boston Globe portrayed in the recent movie Spotlight who exposed a Catholic Church cover-up of child abuse.

But since at least the 1960s, American journalists have received heated criticism that their mentality is at odds with a majority of the population. The first complaint was that coverage of the civil rights movement was more sympathetic to protestors than authorities defending the status quo, though many local journalists for generations defended segregation and covered African Americans in the most stereotypical of ways, if at all.

The second complaint was journalists’ coverage of the Vietnam War, when official government pronouncements of winning the war were greeted with skepticism and then cynicism from reporters, especially those covering the war and seeing first-hand its devastating impact on American soldiers and the people of Vietnam.

The third complaint was when coverage of the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon grew adversarial, due to a “credibility gap” on Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and other controversies.

Since then, all presidents and most politicians have complained about the coverage they receive, including President Obama, though conservatives think Obama was treated easier than most.

The presidency of Donald Trump marks a new demarcation. He has declared war on the media, repeatedly calling reporters and editors “among the most dishonest people on earth.” His aides argue that the media is not just adversarial, but equivalent to an opposition party, that should “keep its mouth shut.” Trump advisor Steve Bannon told the NYTimes that the media doesn’t “understand this country. They still do not understand why (Trump) is the president of the United States.” He went on to say “the media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.”

Are American journalists biased in favor of Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and against Republicans like Donald Trump? Eric Wemple of The Washington Post examined the question:

The Pew Research Center in 2004 undertook a nationwide survey of 547 local and national reporters, editors and executives. The result? Thirty-four percent of national press identified as liberal, as opposed to 7 percent conservative (“moderate” was the largest category). Liberal identification among national press types had shot up from 22 percent in 1995

The granddaddy of research on this topic is “The American Journalist,” a series of studies that dates to the 1970s. In 2006, the series found that journalists had edged a bit to the right over the preceding decade but that newsrooms still skewed more lefty than the U.S. population at large…

A 2014 study under the “American Journalist” banner found that 28 percent of 1,080 surveyed U.S. journalists claimed to be Democrats, as opposed to 7 percent for Republicans. The numbers reflected a desertion of both parties toward a self-identification as independent, which clocked in at 50 percent of the surveyed population.

If journalists lean left, one question is why? Among the explanations: 1) Geography: National journalists are clustered in liberal cities like New York and Washington.

2) Journalists tend to be crusaders, to root for the underdog, to seek to shine light in dark places, and want to hold politicians accountable.

3) Old school ties. Journalists tend to be products of liberal universities, in cosmopolitan, secular settings.

Journalists were tough on the Clintons and Obama, but Republicans see themselves as singled out. Presidents historically have received a 100-day honeymoon, in which partisans and the press withhold criticism and contribute to a sense of national unity. Trump did not receive this honeymoon from criticism, which sparks resentment in his supporters. But the press responds that from the moment he won the Electoral College vote, Trump has been unusually provocative and divisive in his comments toward the opposition and the press, has broken long-standing ethics rules toward financial disclosure and has refused to release his taxes, unlike presidents for 40 years.

Can journalists, who are professional observers trained to detach, put their personal beliefs and biases aside when covering the news, politics, or especially Donald Trump?

Some can, some can’t. Complete objectivity is impossible, but fairness is certainly possible. Most journalists for major publications try to be fair.

I know from personal experience as a newspaper reporter that members of the public can see personal bias where none exists. I covered politicians who I personally detested but if a reader who also detested that politician did not like the headline, its placement on a page, or a single paragraph (sometimes a single flattering word) in the article that portrayed the politician in a favorable light, they would accuse me of being his “spokesman.” Conversely, if facts portrayed a politician they liked (and I liked as well) in a negative light, they would accuse me of being out to get him.

In short, the readers had a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of an independent press.

Trump seems not to want detached, fair, balanced, skeptical or objective coverage, with tough questions designed to hold him accountable, but sympathetic coverage, ra-ra cheerleading, fawning or softball questions designed to place him in the most favorable light with the public. Anything less and “the media fail.” This became clear when he repeatedly attacked the generally sympathetic Fox News and reporter Megyn Kelly for asking tough questions. As Fox reported:

Trump’s sharp criticism of Kelly after the first presidential debate, when she asked him about his demeaning comments toward some women, brought her a torrent of online abuse and, she disclosed in her book, her family was forced to use security guards. The two buried the hatchet in an interview that aired on the Fox broadcast network.

Kelly has left Fox News and the network’s independence from Trump is an open question. Half its audience seems to want only want positive coverage of Trump. The other half wants independent journalism. How Fox navigates these waters will be interesting. It will probably depend in part on how long congressional Republicans stick with Trump. If or when they start to criticize him publicly, the Fox Network may follow suit.

In one sense, the goals of an independent media and the Trump administration are separate and simply incompatible. Who ultimately wins this “war” is one of the dramatic questions that will be answered during Trump’s tenure as president.

Related:

The Danger of Posing Leading Questions to Slant Survey Results

Here’s a humorous example from the British television show, “Yes, Minister,” of how public opinion surveys can be skewed to get the desired result. Be careful when you are designing surveys. Test them on classmates. If 90% or more answer “yes” or “no” to a question, think of a different question or a different way to ask the question, so your survey doesn’t ask leading questions.