Teaching Journalism in the Age of Trump

Meredith O’Brien describes her struggles with how to teach students to be savvy, fair-minded news consumers in the current environment.

May 10, 2019
 
 

It’s not uncommon for students taking journalism classes to ask a lot of questions. They ask how reporters are able to keep their opinions out of their work when they’re writing stories about someone who’s accused of viciously murdering others. They ask how someone could, without regard for personal safety, run into the middle of a violent uprising in order to interview people or capture historic images.

But there’s an unusual question my students have been asking with increasing frequency over the past two years: “Is this normal?”

The “this” refers to the interaction between President Donald Trump and the news media. Typically, I am someone who tries to keep her political opinions under wraps when standing in front of a classroom. But I answer this loaded question quickly.

“No,” I say, “this is not normal. At. All.”

For the past two years, I’ve struggled with how to teach students to be savvy, fair-minded news consumers in the age of Trump. By voicing support for provable truths and for asking probing questions, I’ve been walking a fine line in this politically polarized environment as I firmly align myself with journalists in the field.

I've introduced college students to journalism over the course of many presidencies, from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Barack Obama and now Trump. With a focus on reporting news fairly while providing adequate context, I've guided hundreds of students through assessments of print, television and online news, keeping an eye out for things like inaccuracies, bias and ratings/click-based hype.

In an attempt to keep students engaged, I use whatever stories are in the news as fodder for contemporary illustrations about issues like how to be evenhanded, how to handle graphic material and how to tell the stories of those whose lives are in immediate jeopardy. Class discussions have covered the Clinton impeachment hearings, the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq War, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edward Snowden's leaks, police shootings of unarmed African Americans that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, mass shootings and the images of Syrian refugees washing up along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Nothing has challenged me more as an educator than teaching journalism in the Trump era. It's been difficult to explain that while presidents have always had issues with media coverage, the complaints the Trump White House has about its press coverage, and the way in which the president and his staff publicly speak about and treat the news media, are unprecedented in modern history.

On a nearly daily basis, Trump threatens journalists and news organizations, calling them "the enemy of the people." During his presidential campaign, he joked about whether or not he’d kill journalists, while at least one of his rally goers was seen sporting a T-shirt suggesting that reporters be lynched. As president, Trump continues to label reporters as “scum” and as “horrible people” whom he “hates.” His White House spokeswoman mirrors and amplifies this open contempt for the fourth estate.

Trump administration officials, most prominently the president himself, mislead the American public, create false equivalencies and concoct false narratives with which to bludgeon the news media. The president of the United States personally attacks on Twitter journalists, oftentimes by name, who challenge the mistruths with facts. Several such journalists -- like CNN’s Jim Acosta and the American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan -- have received death threats, and some have said they have sought security as a result of their tussles with the commander in chief.

The anti-news media campaign waged by the Trump administration has yielded results. A May 2019 Quinnipiac University poll found that while 23 percent of respondents said they believe the news media are the “enemy of the people,” 49 percent of self-identified Republicans also agree with that statement.

Teaching journalism in this intensely political moment in time is no easy feat. How do I deal with it in the classroom? I show students testy exchanges between White House press spokespeople from previous administrations, like ones between President Clinton’s press secretary about his relationship with a White House intern. We discuss how President Obama’s administration reacted to reporting Edward Snowden’s leaked material about National Security Agency activities.

Journalists, I tell students who are usually just starting to pay attention to news when they take my classes, always want more information than officials want to give them. It’s a naturally adversarial relationship.

Attempting to ally myself with discernible facts, I tell students at the beginning of each semester that I don’t care whom they support politically, that their politics are irrelevant to me and to this class. While I try to be as neutral as I can, I inform students that on one matter I am thoroughly biased: if there’s a conflict between Trump and journalists, I’m with the journalists. I will side with them when they seek to speak truth to power, when they ask questions, when they uncover material the American public needs to see. Until Trump took office, I’ve never had to explicitly say I side with journalists over someone attacking their very existence. Then again, I’ve never witnessed a president publicly demonizing and threatening the news media the way this president has.

My students are still doing what they’ve always done in my classes: watching events for themselves and examining how those events were covered by scrutinizing news images, headlines, word choices, who was interviewed and who wasn’t, and whose narrative frames the story. But nowadays, our media criticism proceeds with a caveat: these journalists are not the enemy of the people.

Bio

Meredith O’Brien teaches journalism at Northeastern University.

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