After Bob Woodward shared his experience with and thoughts on the importance of investigative journalism, a panel of executives at U.S. news media companies continued the discussion about media in the current political environment at the final day of INMA’s World Congress Media Conference.
Juan Señor, principal at Innovation Media Consulting and the event’s moderator, followed a point Woodward made about letting great journalism speak to its own value. In an era of distrust in media and cries of “fake news,” Kate Nocera, Washington bureau chief at BuzzFeed News, said there may be a positive aspect from the U.S. president’s war against journalism.
“I think the Trump administration has really raised the bar for competitiveness,” she said.
Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief at The New York Times, agreed: “I think what we’ve seen under this administration, I think the journalism is tougher.”
When it comes to decoding truth, the panel agreed that while fact-checking is not a new phenomenon, the process and dialogue around reporting truth has changed.
“We have a whole team dedicated to debunking, in real time, fake news and falsehoods on the Internet,” Nocera said.
BuzzFeed has also stopped using the term “fake news” in its own reporting, she added, due to the misuse of the term and its weaponisation against media. Now, they label misinformation as “lies,” she said.
Beyond merely reporting that information coming from the current presidential administration is false, it is crucial that news media companies give context and expland upon the impact false statements may have.
Kris Viesselman, senior vice president/editor-in-chief and chief creative officer at CQ Roll Call, said analysis is the company’s “bread and butter,” providing value to the readers.
“We are focused mostly on Congress, too, so we’re mosting trying to see how what Trump says will affect Congress,” she added.
Noting the process of constantly updating stories about the Trump administration’s diversion from truth with new information and context, Juan Señor asked about frustration from readers about falsehoods continuously circulating the news stream.
Bumiller told the crowd that a group of readers came to The New York Times before the inauguration and asked why they continue to report the falsehoods.
“I do understand the frustration that he says things that are not true,” she said. “That’s why we fact check him. But also, you know, this is a presidency by tweet and many of his tweets are setting policy, so we have to look at them as we would in the old days with a presidential press release and determine whether or not it’s newsworthy.”
Kathleen Hennessey, deputy Washington bureau chief at Associated Press, said media companies must continue to report on President Trump’s tweets or other policy statements from historically unconventional channels: “You have to be able to do both, of course. You have to be able to report on what he said and add context.”
Viesselman agreed, highlighting the importance of going straight to the source of news.
“Often the story isn’t the tweet itself, but we know that oftentimes his staff learn about things for the first time via Twitter,” she said.
Nocera added that there was no official protocol in dealing with statements from President Trump’s personal Twitter account.
“I also think we’re figuring things out on the fly,” she said. “When the President tweeted that he was not going to allow transgender people in the military, there was a scramble to figure out: Can he institute policy via Twitter?”
After months of reporting and court cases, this is still unclear. While President Trump has made his feelings about news media clear, the panelists said that does not mean previous relationships between White House administrations and news media companies was any easier.
“I think most White House reporters and White House have a very contentious relationship,” Bumiller said. “The main difference between the Obama White House and the Trump White House is that the Obama White House was extremely disciplined, so things were much easier to cover.”
The White House administration under President Obama had clear briefings on his opinions and would generally tell a consistent story. Nocera said that a break from tradition between previous administrations and one under President Trump does not mean there used to be a better media/White House relationship.
“We’re differentiating kindness with just norms,” Nocera said.“I in no way feel what we had a good relationship with the Obama administration. They were pretty antagonistic towards the press, and they would try their hardest to go around the media.”
Hennessey agreed, adding that the biggest difference between the current adminstration and its predicessor was control.
“The Obama White House was all about control, and they were very good at it,” she said. “There is no control in this White House and most reporters don’t want to be controlled. Most reporters I know consider this a much more interesting and fun time to cover the White House.”