Columbia Journalism Review, Reuters & The Guardian collaborate on workshop for journalists in Trump era
Panel members (from left to right) included Elisabeth Bumiller, Sabrina Siddiqui, Brian Stelter, John Carney, Jelani Cobb, and moderator Kyle Pope.
Natalie Coleman is a writer based in Cincinnati and New York. She is attending NYU’s Literary Reportage graduate program in the class of 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @_nataliecoleman.
The morning after the election, I received a text from my father: “You are a rising journalist during what is possibly going to be some of the most tumultuous years in our nation’s history,” he wrote. “Imagine the good you can do to educate people and unite them and ease their pain and suffering through your words. It is remarkable, really.”
The power and responsibility media practitioners have is truly remarkable, but as a young journalist and student it can also be terrifying to wonder what role, if any, my reporting will have in Trump’s presidency. If I’m not a reporter in the White House press corps, what impact will my writing have? Every piece I write can’t fact-check the president, or analyze his strategy, or necessarily even mention his name. But in such a turbulent time, it’s more critical than ever that we strive for our work to achieve one or more of the three points my father mentioned: to educate, to unite, and to ease any pain and suffering we can through our words.
Six weeks after the start of Trump’s presidency, the Columbia Journalism Review, in conjunction with Reuters and the Guardian, held a daylong workshop in Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall dedicated to the challenging, often perplexing and tireless work of covering the the current administration.
The first panel, moderated by CJR editor and publisher Kyle Pope, included journalists from The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, CNN, and, rather surprisingly, Brietbart News. The goal of the discussion was to identify the greatest challenges the media will face, and how we can navigate the increasingly tense relationship between the people, the press, and the president.
The panel kicked off with a simple question: how unusual is this? There has always been antagonism between the president and the press, so what is different about trump? “Everything,” answered Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times.
Despite the very real roadblocks to journalists ahead, it’s more important than ever that we hold those in power accountable, but the way to report effectively isn’t so simple when a significant percentage of the country doesn’t trust journalists to report fairly and accurately. “None of us have ever seen anything like this before,” Bumiller said. “There’s an enormous sense of mission for journalists. They’re working like they’ve never worked before, because suddenly everything is clear, and our job is to hold the administration accountable.”
The president has a habit of taking to Twitter to attack the New York Times, claiming the publication is “failing,” and even so far as alleging the Times has “evil” intentions. Using the power of his office, Trump works to divide the country from the media and believes us to be the “enemy of the American People.” With such vitriolic language being used against journalists, how can we possibly work to regain the trust Trump is destroying?
The website his supporters do overwhelming trust is Brietbart News. “If you were reading Breitbart every day before the election, you weren’t surprised on November 8,” said John Carney, financial editor of Breitbart. Carney asked his fellow panelists if they think they have enough people on staff who understand and sympathize with Trump’s point of view.
Jelani Cobb—staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor at Columbia—lifted his mic to push back. “There is a difference between understanding his worldview and sympathizing with it,” he said. Cobb continued by confronting Brietbart’s often misleading and false reporting. “Objectively, there is this thing called a fact,” he said. “We have this movement toward a kind of ‘a la carte’ approach to reality, believe what you wish to believe, and I think that’s what people have been alarmed by.”
The main reason I found myself at this workshop was to learn more effective ways of reaching Trump’s supporters with my writing. So many of the opinion pieces that came out after the election blamed the media for failing to understand and connect with the large portion of the country who voted for Trump. Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” said he brings guests on his show who function as “Trump translators,” they understand the way he and his supporters think and can bring that voice into the show. But how can those of us who aren’t “Trump translators” earn back those readers and viewers? Did we ever have them to begin with?
Sabrina Siddiqui, political reporter for The Guardian, responded that journalists need to just keep doing their jobs, a brief and not very comforting answer. But Siddiqui, who recently wrote about her experience covering the election as a Muslim, went on to explain that newsrooms need to diversify their staff under the new administration. “The false information coming from the White House could have a profound impact on minorities that don’t have a voice,” she said. “There is a responsibility on the media to continue to provide context.”
Though most people at the workshop were established media professionals, a few of us on the sidelines were journalism students looking for a bit of encouragement and reassurance that we can traverse the difficult path ahead of us. Cobb spoke about his students’ frustration with reaching Trump supporters who don’t trust solid, factual reporting. “I think it has been a source of consternation for the students who are trying to say, if we are actually doing really rigorous work and people are just dismissing it, how in fact do we get our point across?” he said.
Stelter quoted New York University professor Jay Rosen, who said some people in this country have opted out of journalism. “To me that’s the big story,” Stelter said. When audiences are only getting their news in small snippets from the TV screens on in the background or a quick glance at the newspaper, we have to develop new technology and find new ways to engage with them, he said.
With the final word of the day, Cobb reminded us that there is cause to be alarmed when our freedoms and rights as journalists are threatened, and that it’s up to us to forge a better future.
“Whatever comes out of this administration, I hope that at the very least we will have clarified our terms: that the norms of democracy are probably as important as the laws and constitution,” he said. “When we see those norms being eroded, we have a responsibility to write and defend them.”
There were many more insights to glean from the workshop’s other panels, including discussions on the rise of fake news, how to handle data dumps from sources like Wikileaks, and a talk between New Yorker editor David Remnick and Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Journalism School. Whether you’re a journalist directly covering the Trump administration or not, consider listening thoroughly to the six hour live stream on the CJR’s website.
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