MU journalism faculty assess state of the press in Trump era

Communications law professor Sandy Davidson: “The press should be a watchdog, not a lapdog.”

As they train the next generation of journalists, faculty within the School of Journalism are attempting to address concerns with President Donald Trump’s attitudes toward the press.

Trump has frequently spoken out against the media. He has called to “open up” libel laws, making it easier to sue journalists who write unfavorable stories. Working to discredit news sources, Trump tweeted on Feb. 6, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”

In an unprecedented political action, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, released a statement against Trump during his campaign.

“This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history,” read the statement, which was released by the organization’s chairman, Sandra Mims Rowe, on Oct. 13, 2016.

The U.S. currently ranks No. 41 on the World Press Freedom Index out of 181 countries. In 2002, the U.S. sat at No. 17. Many factors have contributed to this downturn, from the use of the Espionage Act to target journalists to the lack of federal shield laws.

“We like to think that the press is the voice of the people, or working on behalf of the people,” journalism professor Brett Johnson said. “But there’s been a successful move by people in power, particularly the current administration, to really try to break that relationship between the press and the public. And that’s concerning.”

Johnson, who teaches an introductory course on the principles of American journalism, works to dispel the myth of “false balance” as a journalistic technique. Instead of putting stories in a full and relevant context, journalists give equal space to all sides of an argument. According to peer-reviewed studies by NASA, for example, 97 percent of scientists believe in climate change. Yet certain news outlets, such as the BBC, have come under fire for giving equal coverage to those who deny the existence of climate change.

“Balance for the sake of balance, or the idea that the press needs to give equal weight to one side or another regardless of the context of the story, regardless of how outlandish a claim may be, that’s something that just needs to stop,” Johnson said. “At some point, we need to end this vicious cycle. We’re going to have a very meek and timid and uncourageous press, and that is a world that I do not want to live in.”

Professor Ryan Thomas, who works with Johnson to teach the principles course, echoed those sentiments.

“Rather than giving the audience the false impression that the two sides are equal, [journalists should be] saying that one is actually true,” he said. “Particularly over the last year with the most recent election, I think we have reached a post-truth or post-fact era with politics. I think that journalists are responding to that,” he said. “My colleagues and I are encouraging aspiring journalists to remember that truth-telling is the cornerstone of journalism, not just balancing a truth with a falsehood.”

Others are more hopeful, especially when considering America’s historical relationship with the press. Journalism professor Randall Smith, for example, received his bachelor’s degree in 1974 when the Watergate scandal was unfolding.

“I’ve seen this kind of vilification of the press before,” he said. “I think that it just comes with the territory of being a journalist. We just need to continue to aggressively do our job, as long as we’re fair and accurate and we treat people respectfully.”

Smith, who chairs the business journalism department at MU, noted the historical relationship between the press and the government.

“The fact that politicians don't like or sometimes even demonize the press, it’s actually a fairly common thing,” Smith said. “It comes and it goes, but I think that the overall message is that we need to continue to do our jobs and do them fairly and effectively, no matter who’s in office.”

Like Smith, communications law professor Sandy Davidson is comforted by studying the historical trends and patterns in American journalism.

“The press has had cozier relationships with some presidents than others,” she said. “The press should be a watchdog, not a lapdog. I think that we don’t want a press who is too cozy with the government. You can’t, in my opinion, give appropriate oversight if you are too close. You need to be arms length. On the other hand, you don’t want total contention between the government and the press.”

Davidson, who has been teaching at the school since 1989, is not unusually concerned by the new administration.

“I don’t want to see anything couched in terms of ‘because of Trump, now journalism professors have to take note’,” she said. “Professors of journalism have had to take note through every administration. It’s not a partisan thing. There’s a party in power, and you have to pay attention.”

Edited by Madi McVan |

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