How journalists cover “new frontier” of Trump and Twitter
In the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, March 4, President Trump, without notifying any of his staffers, sent a slew of tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the weeks before the presidential election.
And in the month since that storm of tweets, Trump has been unable to prove Obama did anything to sabotage his winning campaign.
Yet, the news media have covered Trump’s accusations extensively, looking for evidence to confirm or disprove his claims. And this, of course, isn’t the first instance in which the media have reported on Trump’s Twitter activities. Such publications as CNN, The Atlantic and the Los Angeles Times have even started blogs listing each of Trump’s tweets with context.
Consider the plight of the White House correspondent. When the president uses social media and tweets whatever comes to mind, journalists must decide which tweets to cover and how to report them.
Jenna Johnson, a Washington Post reporter who has covered Trump since the beginning of his campaign, deals with this constantly. She begins many mornings looking at the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump .
“It’s really this new frontier,” Johnson said. “And we’ve really had to figure out how we use these tweets and properly and quickly report on them.”
And because of Trump’s status as arguably the most powerful individual in the world, Johnson says it’s a no-brainer to consider Trump’s tweets newsworthy.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s coming in a White House statement, a speech, an offhand comment during a reception, a conversation that’s later relayed to reporters or a tweet,” Johnson said. “Every time the president says something, the whole world watches.”
Littered throughout Trump’s Twitter profile are tweets that may simply be unsubstantiated claims or one-off shots at the news media. But Johnson said these tweets, like Trump’s accusations against Obama, can still set the political narrative for weeks to come.
“It’s been a dominant story for several weeks,” Johnson said of Trump’s allegations against Obama. “And that all came from a tweet.”
Pam Thomas, a national news editor and wire coordinator at the Omaha World-Herald, said when publications cover controversial tweets from Trump, they must take caution to not spread what could be misinformation. The easiest solution, she said, is fact-checking and presenting the tweets in context for readers.
“We have learned with President Trump … to always provide context with his tweets so our readers always understand what they should do with this information we give them,” Thomas said.
While Johnson said she often receives suggestions that she not fact-check Trump’s tweets because readers will walk away with only what they want to hear, she said her job as a journalist is to call out the things that are factually inaccurate. And if there are no facts to back up a newsworthy tweet, then there must be context to avoid misleading readers.
“Our job as the media is to provide context to things and to trust that our readers and viewers are thoughtful enough and invested enough in the future of the country to read carefully the things that we present and make an educated decision based on that,” Johnson said.