“If you want to get ahead of the President’s decision, have someone cover FoxNews,” joked Richard Gizbert during the panel American Journalism in the Trump Era.
Gizbert, creator and host of Al Jazeera‘s The Listening Post, moderated the panel composed by The Washington Post‘s Managing Editor Cameron Barr; news executive Madhulika Sikka; and Yavuz Baydar, co-founder of the independent media platform P24.
Questioning the speakers on the future of journalism under Trump’s America, Ginzberg cited a poll putting the public’s trust of the press just above 30 per cent and asked them whether things were on the turn according to them. “People are galvanised by what happened in the campaign because it was unexpected, and people are trying to find an explanation,’ Barr said.
The Managing Editor stated that at his paper they were seeing an increase in public interest, through letters of support and an increased subscription rate since the election back in November. He said people were re-engaging with the press because they wanted to find an explanation to the surprising presidential results.
“We’re being successful in engaging readers in new ways,” he said when mentioning that his publication has begun to explore new ways to capture the interest of the public, whether it is through the recent expansion of their video team or trying to broaden the way stories are written.
Barr remains convinced that the press holds a very important role in American society, retelling how the work of his staff on Michael Flynn over the past few months has shown exactly that: “We have an obligation to report as aggressively as we can. We have seen how good reporting has an impact.”
Concerning fake news, Barr said that paradoxically the problem of especially-designed articles has led the readers to the realisation that they have an active role in deciding what is real and what is not.
“We talked about television being in the past, and now we have a TV president,” declared Sikka. She recognised that nowadays the pace of reporting goes much faster than it used to, and the chances of missing stories are now higher: the amount of information and news coming in daily is, at times, monumental and it’s one of the major issues for American journalists.
Sikka advised her colleagues to be on their guard, especially in a broadcasting environment as the 24-hour cycle, while allowing constant coverage, makes for immediate reactions on live television, sometimes with the lack of proper supporting information.
Discussing the run-up to the election, she was glad to note that the company she worked for at the time – Mic, a digital-first publication with a large audience in the 18 to 34 age bracket – did a good job in covering Bernie Sanders because it understood the interest their audience had in the Democratic hopeful.
A brief discussion ensued between Sikka and Ginzberg as to the possibility some journalists, labelling the Vermont senator as ‘socialist,’ swayed the opinion of the audience: Sikka and Barr found themselves in disagreement with Ginzburg, both believing Clinton had simply been considered the only possible presidential candidate by a majority of the Democratic party.
According to Sikka “the Republican race was simply much more interesting” due to the high amount of runners and Trump’s presence, leading to a less intriguing coverage of the Democratic Primary and more airwave given to the GOP race.
Barr and Sikka both then offered some tips to the members of the audience: they shared in the idea that, while important, the White House is not going to be the only source of information available to cover the Trump Administration. Other government buildings, such as the Department of Homeland Security or the Health Department, and their employees will play an important role in the coming years to effectively hold the government to account.
“Look at Woodward and Berstein: they weren’t White House correspondents,” said Sikka talking about the opportunities outside of the official residence of American power.
“Donald Trump is not everything, (…) look at what’s happening outside the spotlight,” urged Barr. Local newspapers and broadcasters hold a particular role in this, as they are usually better equipped at understanding and reporting on the effect of federal policies in their communities. National news should then be able to analyse how the very same policies effect the population in the United States, or the country itself, as a whole.
As the panel progressed, Baydar offered pointers based on his own experience under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey before he was forced into exile following the July 2016 coup: “We’re now in the midst of House of Card [but] as a reality show [both in the US and other countries].”
‘The heart of the matter is how robust the [US] judiciary is going to be” when it comes to freedom of the press. He explained that the Turkish president slowly expanded his power over media companies, transforming 240-250 TV channels into government-friendly newscasters and leaving the opposition to fight his power with one news channel only.
Baydar suggested that one of the best ways to have journalism, and journalists, overcome the next four years is to invest in investigative journalism as he observed that in the past few years the United States – despite its long investigative tradition – was lacking from proper backing.
*This article was first published on 9 April, 2017 on the International Journalism Festival webmagazine.