Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, American reporters have faced an incredible challenge: how to cover a president so dissimilar to anyone who came before him, and who makes news every time he tweets.
President Trump’s social media posts have been one of the defining features of his first term in office. While his regular tweets, media interviews and speaking engagements generate an incredible volume of news, they also require more fact-checking from journalists. The Washington Post reported in late October the president is averaging more than 50 false or misleading claims per day in office, and is expected to have uttered more than 25,000 claims between his inauguration and the upcoming election day.
For Bob Woodward, associate editor at the Washington Post whose newest book Rage, released in September, chronicled the Trump presidency, the challenge has been determining which statements merit further journalistic scrutiny.
“There are important things that are untrue, and there are unimportant things,” says Woodward in the final of three U.S. Election Dialogues webcasts hosted by The Globe and Mail and BMO. “And I think you have to figure out what the really important matters are.”
In a panel discussion with Adrian Morrow, U.S. correspondent for The Globe, Woodward, PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff and Robert Fife, the Globe’s Ottawa bureau chief, discuss objectivity in journalism, preventing the whoosh of daily Trump tweet stories from drowning out serious reporting and how to cover election polling results, which proved unreliable four years ago.
Woodruff and Fife agree that news organizations shouldn’t depend too heavily on polls during election coverage, but should instead make sure they’re talking to people across the country to learn what issues matter most to them. “Despite the difficulties that we have, in terms of COVID [and] in terms of the financial pressures facing news media organizations in the United States, in Canada, we as journalists and responsible news organizations have to get our reporters out into the country talking to people,”says Fife, who has seen major polling misses play out in Canadian provincial elections
Woodward also pointed out the inherent issue with relying on polls of small samplings of Americans, and said his approach has always been to take a serious look at who the candidates are as people and the policies they’re advancing. He says this approach not only serves voters but the candidates themselves. “The more serious our questions are, the better the candidates are going to be,” he says. “It’s an immense responsibility.”
In writing two books about President Barack Obama, Woodward compiled a major archive of material on Joe Biden’s work as vice-president. Having read through it again, he expresses surprise Obama hasn’t played up how much he relied on Biden for serious foreign policy issues and budget negotiations.
However, Woodruff argues this is part of Biden’s classic front-runner campaign. The Biden campaign realizes it’s in a good place leading up to Nov. 3. “They see what they need right now is to make the final case against Donald Trump. They don’t want Joe Biden to be the issue in this campaign, they don’t want to leave any opening. They don’t want Obama or anyone else to say something about his vice-presidency, his time in the senate, that could open the door to a different story. They are very happy to keep the focus on President Trump.”
During the election campaign and over the last four years, Woodruff says journalists have had to struggle against the instinct to focus on Trump to the exclusion of other stories.
“We have to be focused on what’s important. Right now it is the pandemic, it is the economy, it’s the fact that a lot of people are suffering who don’t get attention every day. It’s education — families across the United States are suffering, trying to figure out how to get their children educated at home, or virtually,” she says. “It’s the environment. There’s so many stories we need to be covering, and we have to resist the temptation to just cover that shiny object every day.”
The panelists also discuss the high levels of public distrust in journalistic institutions. A recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts, for example, found that more than 8 in 10 Americans believe the spread of misinformation is a major problem in society, while 38 per cent said that they struggled to determine whether the information they received about the election was true or not.
Woodward notes that when Rage debuted, he also released audio of his interviews with Trump. “I found by releasing the audio so [that] people could hear in his own voice what Trump was saying, [the response was] ‘oh, okay now maybe I actually believe it.’”
Woodruff says reporters can rebuild trust with the public by making their information-gathering processes more transparent and open to scrutiny, such as by posting a full interview online for context if the TV broadcast can’t air it in its entirety.
Even so, Woodruff admits that there are limits. “Sometimes I wake up and think: ‘There has to be a better way … to bring this country together.’ But at the end of the day, it’s not the role of the press to do that. The role of the press is to cover what’s there.”
Interested in watching the full webcast? Visit tgam.ca/dialogues or listen to the podcast below.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.