What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About the Media
I was at Edmonton International Airport this past Sunday morning and as I waited to board my flight to Toronto to speak to business groups, I was scrolling through Twitter to see what was going on.
One of the first Tweets I came across was from Donald Trump, complaining about the cold opening skit on Saturday Night Live the night before. He didn’t like it. Another sign he said the media was out to get him. Minutes later Trump’s Twitter account posted another tweet blaming the media for all his troubles. It’s been a familiar refrain in his campaign lately.
The US Presidential Election campaign has been fascinating to watch for the last year. Trump has broken almost every rule that I teach as a media trainer and finally the polls are suggesting it’s starting to haunt him.
Today I deal with the suggestion the news media is biased/corrupt/takes sides/only wants bad news etc etc. When people, including Trump complain about the media being against them they’re usually grasping at straws and here’s why.
What is News?
As a former journalist it’s been my experience that when people complain about the media being against them they’re trying to shift the focus from negative news coverage to the media itself. It’s understandable because it’s an easy trick to try to get reporters to follow another trail. The media is rarely the story though – it’s the people and stories that are being covered by the media.
In Trump’s case, he may be right about CNN taking a stance against him. I’ve noted a couple of cases where CNN’s coverage could have been a little more balanced, but all in all, the media is just covering the election campaign the way it’s always covered stories. If there’s an election campaign rally, fights break out and people need to receive medical attention, then that’s news and it should be reported. Trump may not like it, but that’s the way the game works. News is typically about things that are not expected to happen.
The Media Just Wants Bad News
Some of Trump’s rants have suggested the media is only trying to cover the bad things about him and what his opponents are saying. In other words, the media only wants bad news.
It amazes me that we still hear this, along with the classic “They’re just trying to sell more papers with bad news.” There may have been a day when bad news on the front page of newspapers sold a few more copies, but those days are long gone. In fact, I don’t think bad news has sold more papers in my lifetime. This may have happened in the 1930’s and 40’s when there were piles of newspapers on corner newsstands and there were few other ways to get the news, but is there anyone today who actually buys a newspaper because it contains bad news?
There is something to bad news providing more important and impactful stories. Let’s face it, terrorist attacks, deaths of famous people, natural disasters and the like are stories that people want more of. That’s because that’s what news really is. Newscasts are filled with stories that are unexpected – things that weren’t supposed to happen. If something happened that was totally expected, then why is it in a newscast?
No Horse in the Race
Another fundamental argument against the complaint that “the media is out to get me” is that reporters really don’t care who wins and loses. There’s little question that because journalists are human they’ll have their favourites, but it’s rare, in news coverage anyway, that their bias shows.
Biased news coverage would be easy to spot by the public, fellow journalists and the bosses of reporters providing the coverage. I’m not talking about US TV networks like Fox taking right wing positions on stories. I’m referring to overall media coverage. Stories extolling the virtues of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, for that matter without any concern about facts would show bias. That’s why fact checking has become so popular in this election campaign. Some of Trump’s biggest supporters have complained about fact checking, saying it isn’t fair. Isn’t that the job of the media though? If the news media isn’t going to report what’s a lie and what isn’t, then who will do it? And isn’t that one of the most important jobs of the media?
The reality is, reporters just want to get a story covered and get home to their families at the end of the day like everyone else. As a reporter I was always interested in finding out what newsmakers had to say, getting reaction to it from those who would be affected and reporting both. If the reaction to the story provoked further reaction then I would cover that too. It didn’t mean that I was trying to “milk” a story. It meant people were still interested in it and more views and reaction were needed. Only in rare circumstances do reporters ever try to make somebody look bad.
The way news works it’s action and reaction. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I Am Your Voice
When Trump spoke at the Republican Convention in July one of the most famous sound bites from the speech was his “I am your voice.” It was effective, because it left the impression that he was the guy who could speak and act for anyone who wanted change. He would be their voice in places it counted.
It’s hasn’t worked out that way, because in many ways the media has become the voice in the election. The media has allowed many others to have a voice about the election as well. Trump supporters and opponents have been given a voice through the media, but on a daily basis we hear the thoughts of people on Trump’s statements and most of the comments are negative. That doesn’t mean the media is biased – it just means the reaction of the people the media is talking to is negative. Certainly the media can choose which reaction it wants to run, but I’d be willing to bet there are far more negative reactions to Trump and his statements than positive ones. So if the media airs a few more negative reactions than ones agreeing with what Trump had to say wouldn’t that be fair?
A News Factory
There’s a sad side to Trump’s rants about the media being biased and out to get him. Trump’s supporters are making things difficult for reporters covering the campaign. Security is now needed around reporters at Trump events because his supporters are confronting reporters and blaming them for the negative reporting on Trump. It’s disappointing and concerning, but almost predictable.
It’s thinking like this that has resulted in where we are today in the election. Trump sees Clinton getting away with easy treatment from the media, especially on the issues of the emails sent from her personal account. Trump’s problem is, that’s old news. It’s been covered extensively and although it’s still an issue in the campaign, there’s not much more the media can say about it.
There’s fresh stuff about Trump every day, much of it that comes from Trump himself, both at his rallies and through social media. What do you think the media is going to cover?
During the lengthy Republican primary process, Trump’s opponents complained that Trump was getting too much attention from the media and they might have been right. Trump was getting as much media attention as all other Republican candidates combined. Trump wasn’t complaining about the media then. Apparently there wasn’t much wrong with media coverage for months and months, but now there is?
The media isn’t the story in this election. It’s Trump. In the next three weeks though I expect Trump and his supporters to blame the media for almost everything. The biggest problem with that is, the media always has the final word.
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