A new study from the Committee to Protect Journalists concludes that President Donald Trump has been effective at destroying the credibility of the press, “dangerously undermining truth and consensus even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill tens of thousands of Americans.”
But the report authored by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, also sheds some light on where reporters, editors and producers can change perceptions during the Trump era.
The report cited an array of instances in which the Trump administration has undermined press freedoms, including the Justice Department’s pursuit of journalists’ sources, the questioning of reporters and searching of electronic devices at the border by the Customs and Border Protection agency and the president’s encouragement of “federal government interference in the businesses of the owners of CNN, the traditional broadcast networks, and The Washington Post.”
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“As threatening as all of that has been for the news media, Trump’s attacks have had the most success in eroding the credibility of the American press among his many millions of supporters,” the report said. “A major Pew Research Center study in late 2019 showed that a plurality of Republicans consistently distrusted most of the news media (except for Trump-supporting media like Fox News), while pluralities of Democrats tended to trust them. In a Pew survey conducted in mid-March, 62% of respondents said the news media had exaggerated the risks from the COVID-19 virus.”
Downie does write that the news media has been rising to the challenge of covering the coronavirus crisis, despite difficult working conditions.
“Despite early public skepticism about the performance of the press, the audiences for broadcast network and cable news and newspaper websites have grown immensely,” Downie wrote. “That may well increase both Trump’s preoccupation with coverage of him and the intensity of his attacks on the press as the election nears.”
But he also quotes industry veterans and journalism professors in a section on how the news media should respond. That includes the practice of reporters going on talk opinion shows.
Lesley Stahl of CBS News told him, “We hurt ourselves by going on opinion shows, even though the reporters who go on the shows try not to be opinionated. Just being there makes it appear that they are opinionated. That used to be forbidden. The dam broke, and it’s a flood now.”
Other suggestions included stopping live coverage of press briefings and refusing to participate in gaggles and background briefings where administration officials cannot be named. Trump has often attacked media stories he does not like by claiming that unnamed sources are made up, when official in his administration often insists on relaying even basic information not for attribution.
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