Donald Trump

What the Media Has Learned Since 2016—And What it Hasn’t

By Quinta Jurecic, Tyler McBrien
Tuesday, May 16, 2023, 8:01 AM

Leslie Moonves, then the CEO of CBS News, famously said in 2016 that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” It was hard not to think of Moonves’s comment during CNN’s disastrous live town hall with the former president. Broadcast from New Hampshire on May 10, the prime-time spectacle featured Trump bulldozing moderator Kaitlin Collins, whom he called a “nasty person,” before a laughing crowd. In just over an hour, he insisted the 2020 election was stolen; claimed falsely that he had deployed the National Guard to quell the violence on Jan. 6; promised to pardon “many” of the insurrectionists; called a Black Capitol Police officer a “thug”; defended his comments on the Access Hollywood tape about assaulting women; claimed he “never met” the woman who 48 hours previously had won a lawsuit seeking to hold him civilly liable for sexually abusing and defaming her; said that people traveling across the U.S.-Mexico border had been “released from prisons” and “mental institutions”; and defended his decision to secret away dozens of classified documents at his private estate in Mar-a-Lago and resist returning them, for which he is currently being criminally investigated by the Justice Department. 

Following the Trump town hall, journalists and press critics have lambasted what they see as CNN’s irresponsibility in essentially giving the former president an hour of prime-time television to broadcast lies faster than Collins could challenge them. “Toe-curlingly bad television” read one headline from The Guardian. MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan argued that it “was always doomed to fail.” One anonymous CNN staffer even called it “one of the worst hours I’ve ever seen on our air.” And CNN’s own media newsletter, Reliable Sources, took a similarly bleak view: “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” Yet the next morning, CNN CEO Chris Licht insisted, “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night.”

Throughout the 2016 election and the Trump presidency, the press struggled to calibrate its coverage of his lies and attacks on democracy. CNN’s town hall is a worrying suggestion that journalists may not do much better in 2024—a concerning prospect given Trump’s promise of “a presidency untethered to the truth and untethered to the constitutional order,” as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) commented in the wake of the broadcast. As George Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, recently put it at an event on building a democratic press: “2016 was a trauma that was never worked out, and we’re about to go through it again.” 

In an October 2020 essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop and Pete Vernon identified a few standout trends in what they saw as the media’s failures during the Trump years. Journalists held back on calling Trump’s falsehoods lies, even when it was obvious that the president was being intentionally misleading, or identifying his racism as such; they broadcast mistruths without adequate context; they failed to “sustain attention on important matters”—like bigger-picture journalism about climate change or the coronavirus—rather than jumping to the next story in a hectic, Trump-driven news cycle. In turn, during the 2016 election, the press was also overly eager to report on the contents of Democratic Party emails hacked by Russia’s GRU, without adequately considering or contextualizing where that information came from. 

Even before the CNN debacle, there was plenty of reason to worry that Trump’s return to the political stage might lead the press back into bad old habits. As Adam Serwer recently wrote in The Atlantic, “The Trump Show is back.” Serwer pointed to the “wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s arraignment” in Manhattan on cable news as evidence of “how quickly the lessons of his election have been forgotten.” Breathless footage of Trump’s motorcade traveling from Trump Tower to the Manhattan courthouse, Serwer argued, was a return to the patterns of spectacle-heavy, substance-light coverage that provided Trump with hours of free coverage during the 2016 election.

But there is at least some reason to think that the media—or at least some corners of it—have learned valuable lessons from 2016 and 2020. Just look at Trump’s post-arraignment speech, which quickly devolved into a greatest hits of grievances. Fox News aired it in its entirety, CNN aired most before cutting away, and MSNBC avoided televising it live entirely. As important as it is to highlight the ways in which the press has not learned its lessons, we’ve noticed a few key shifts in the media landscape that represent some glimmers of improvement. Rather than guarding trade secrets like the black box newsrooms of old, media outlets have begun to explain their ethical standards and reporting practices openly and frequently. Instead of maintaining a deep reluctance to call lies lies in the name of impartiality, they have grown accustomed to calling a spade a spade. And in recognition of the acute threats facing the press and other democratic institutions, a developing “democracy beat” has taken root across the industry. These trends are particularly crucial in an environment of falsehoods, record-low public trust in the media, and political candidates hostile to a free press. 

The question is whether the press has learned these lessons well enough—and how much of a difference this hard-earned wisdom can really make, even if fully put into practice.

Show Your Work

Though the specifics can vary by newsroom, most journalists adhere to identifiable standards of ethics. The majority of journalists also tend to assume that the public knows these standards and that people will take it on faith that journalists abide by them in their reporting—but the years since 2016 show that these assumptions were unfortunately misplaced, perhaps in large part because of failures by the press to communicate clearly. Even basic distinctions between newsgathering and opinion may not be as readily legible as journalists might hope. In 2021, the New York Times decided to retire the term “op-ed” after 50 years of use, self-consciously labeling it “clubby newspaper jargon.” 

Misunderstandings about what the press does and how it operates, coupled with attacks on the mainstream media from Trump and others, have taken a toll on one of democracy’s most important institutions. A lack of public comprehension about the mechanics of journalism allows figures like Trump to misrepresent the media’s work—claiming, for example, that all anonymous sources are made up; that reporters don’t work to verify their claims but simply manufacture “fake news”; and that op-eds or editorials criticizing politicians, which in fact are walled off from the newsgathering side of papers, show that “straight news” reporting is hopelessly biased.

A Gallup poll from October 2022 found that Americans’ trust in the media remains near record lows. Only 34 percent of Americans polled trusted that the mass media reported news “fully, accurately and fairly,” up just two points from an all-time low during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gallup also noted that this recent poll marked the first time that Americans with no trust at all in the media surpassed the share of people polled who held a great deal or fair amount of trust combined. 

Perhaps in recognition of this trust deficit and the value of transparent processes, some outlets have made concerted efforts to “show their work.” In June 2022, the Times published an explainer called “Behind the Journalism: How The Times Works,” in which the editorial team laid out its ethical standards and corrections process in general and its reporting practices in specific situations, such as extreme weather, breaking crime news, and war. 

Likewise, in a recent conversation between NPR host Mary Louise Kelly and her executive editor Terry Samuel preceding Trump’s Manhattan arraignment, NPR essentially covered their own coverage. The segment even started with a mea culpa. “You’ve seen this show before, by which I mean a media circus gearing up to cover Donald Trump, NPR included,” said Kelly. Notably, Samuel explained that NPR had chosen ahead of time not to cover any remarks made by Trump live: “President Trump is a showman … and he has been known to manipulate these events to his political advantage. And that’s fine, except that’s not what we owe our audience.” That’s a striking contrast to CNN’s decision to air its town hall live without opportunities for paring back Trump’s bloviating and inserting fact-checks.

Showing your work isn’t limited to election coverage. We first began to notice this trend in early #MeToo reporting, as journalists sought to clarify why readers should trust their uncovering of sexual assault and harassment allegations that sometimes dated back decades and for which concrete evidence was, by nature, sometimes difficult to come by. In 2017, as the #MeToo movement began to gain national prominence, the Washington Post published an investigation into statutory rape allegations against then-U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. In it, reporters Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites went to great lengths not only to lay out the facts as they learned them, but also how they learned them and how they determined they were reliable. After mentioning that the Post based the account of survivor Leigh Corfman “on interviews with more than 30 people who said they knew Moore between 1977 and 1982,” the authors went on to explain: 

Corfman described her story consistently in six interviews with The Post. The Post confirmed that her mother attended a hearing at the courthouse in February 1979 through divorce records. Moore’s office was down the hall from the courtroom.

Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.

In another story from the Post, the authors took inspiration from academia and used footnotes for the first time in its Jan. 6 retrospective. Here, the Post embedded the evidence—usually reserved for the reporter’s notebook—into the piece itself. Likewise, the New York Times now regularly includes interstitials labeled “How The Times Reported This Story” in investigative reports. A 2019 story on Trump’s efforts to interfere in law enforcement explains, “To write this story, New York Times reporters reviewed documents and conducted several dozen interviews with current and former government officials, members of Congress, legal experts and more.”

But this isn’t limited to newsgathering, either. Print outlets have increasingly included clarifying language explaining the distinction between the news and opinion sides of the operation. As mentioned above, in 2021, the New York Times decided to retire the term “op-ed” (an antiquated term referring to how opinion columns were originally printed opposite the editorials) in favor of “guest essay.” Opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury explained, “Readers immediately grasped this term during research sessions and intuitively understood what it said about the relationship between the writer and The Times.” Kingsbury went on, “Terms like ‘Op-Ed’ are, by their nature, clubby newspaper jargon; we are striving to be far more inclusive in explaining how and why we do our work. In an era of distrust in the media and confusion over what journalism is, I believe institutions—even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions—better serve their audiences with direct, clear language.” (At the same time, it’s also true that these tweaks might serve as Band-Aids on the larger question of whether publications should consider bigger-picture changes, like dramatically slimming down their opinion sections or doing away with editorial pages altogether.)

Call a Spade a Spade

Showing your work through editorial process transparency is important, but it’s even more important to change those processes that are no longer working. Media outlets were slow—sometimes painfully so—to call Trump’s falsehoods and fabrications what they were: lies. Only after the Post documented more than 4,000 “false or misleading claims” by the former president did its editors finally deem it appropriate to label one of these statements a lie, two years into his term. (The Post went on to count 30,573 false or misleading claims over Trump’s four years in office.) 

On the one hand, this early reticence to call a spade a spade can come from good journalistic impulses. Lies suggest an intentionality, a knowing act of deception, and news outlets were cautious to take that leap. On the other hand, though, that caution too easily became paralysis. “Too many times, we acted as his stenographers or megaphones. Too often, we failed to refer to his many falsehoods as lies,” wrote the Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “It took too long to stop believing that, whenever he calmed down for a moment, he was becoming ‘presidential.’ And it took too long to moderate our instinct to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side was using misinformation for political gain.”

Notably, journalists of color in general and Black reporters in particular were some of the first to call out Trump’s lies, as well as to aptly categorize statements and beliefs as racist. Wesley Lowery, who has written about Black journalists’ reckoning with objectivity, recently called the press’s reliance “on euphemisms instead of clarity in clear cases of racism (‘racially charged, ‘racially tinged’) and acts of government violence (‘officer-involved shooting’)” journalistic failings. Here, Lowery flips the script on these journalistic impulses: “Justified as ‘objectivity,’ they are in fact its distortion.”

After enough lies, this caution came to seem quaint at best, even in mainstream outlets. In an early instance, when the New York Times decided to identify Trump’s falsehoods about cheating in the 2016 election as lies in a headline, the paper published an agonized article delving into its thinking. Now, though, it’s far more common to see Trump’s lies identified as such in mainstream reporting.

The trend goes beyond legacy news outlets like the Times and the Post. At The 19th—a nonprofit newsroom founded in January 2020, which took its name from the amendment that gave women the right to vote—the events of Jan. 6, 2021, marked a turning point in the labeling of lies. Faced with the fallout from “the big lie,” The 19th decided to change its values statement, doing away with the word “nonpartisan” in favor of “independent.” Though a semantic difference to some, the editors of The 19th explained the deeper meaning. “The aim was to say we think the term ‘nonpartisan,’ in many ways, has been co-opted to mean bothsidesism or equal time,” co-founder Emily Ramshaw told Poynter. “We want to be absolutely clear that we emphasize the veracity of facts and truths. Our storytelling is rooted in evidence and science and fact. And we won’t be uncomfortable in calling truth ‘truth’ and lies ‘lies.’”

But calling out and countering lies and misinformation takes a lot more than swapping out a word in an organizational mission statement. Fact-checking—the process by which media outlets verify whether a claim or another piece of information is true or not—has always been a tenet of journalism. But as many of the previous examples have demonstrated—such as the Post’s lie counter—there has been a shift toward taking fact-checking from one element of a story to the story itself. However, this presents a new problem: amplifying the very misinformation newsrooms are seeking to debunk. 

But first, the good news: Studies have found that people are less likely to spread misinformation if encouraged to fact-check stories themselves or if stories have been flagged by a fact-checker to contain misinformation. And in 2020, the U.S. State Department found little evidence of the so-called backfire effect, the name given to a phenomenon in which fact-checking actually reinforces a mistaken belief.

As the Post’s fabrication bean counter and CNN’s town hall debacle demonstrate, though, lies can materialize and spread faster than the speed of fact-checking. This is especially true for live events. It’s important to note that CNN fact-checked its own town hall after the fact. But this was too little too late—the damage was already done. Weighing CNN’s decision-making in Slate, journalism professor Michael J. Socolow argued that “live TV interviews will always favor those who prefer mendacity.” Instead, he wrote, CNN could have learned from incisive Trump interviews aired in previous years on 60 Minutes, Axios, and, yes, even a critical segment on Fox with anchor Chris Wallace—all of which were recorded and edited for broadcast, giving the news organizations the opportunity to cut Trump’s bloviating. Socolow suggested that CNN might have aired a live version of the interview on its website—allowing skeptical viewers to watch the whole thing, and shielding the network from claims of misleading editing—while airing an edited version on the network itself.

The former president has a knack for turning a Trump town hall into a Trump rally, as Tom Jones of Poynter recently wrote. Recall NPR Executive Editor Terry Samuel’s decision not to air any comments by Trump live when covering the former president’s arraignment. NPR covered Trump’s remarks about the indictment, which is undoubtedly a consequential story no matter how you spin it, but responsible coverage doesn’t necessarily mean unfiltered live access. “[D]evoting resources live says to the audience, this is a singularly important moment, and you should hear it. And we don’t think that that necessarily rises to that threshold,” Samuel said.

In addition to editorial strategies like refusing to air speeches live, newsrooms have also deployed new tactics to mitigate the so-called backfire effect. At the Times, the fear of amplifying misinformation led to a new headline formulation: “No, X didn’t Y.” See, for example, “No, Democrats Don’t Want ‘Open Borders’” or “No, That Mac Factory in Texas Is Not New.” Or, more commonly, headlines begin with “Fact Check: X” or “Fact-Checking the Y.” This is a movement away from the approach that journalists often used early in the Trump presidency, where coverage of a falsehood from Trump would generate a headline like, “Trump Says X”—inadvertently allowing the president to further spread his lie, especially because the majority of readers often see only a headline

These principles likewise apply to reporting on information operations—that is, intentional efforts to distribute false or hacked information. The 2016 GRU hack-and-leak of Democratic Party emails was successful in shaping coverage of the Clinton campaign because reporters at mainstream outlets—the New York Times, in particular—were eager to publish stories excavating the embarrassing contents of hacked emails without considering the motives behind the hack or providing that context to readers. (In fact, studies suggest that because of this, the GRU hack-and-leak was far more influential than the parallel effort by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency to interfere in the election by sowing discord on social media.) 

In recent years, though, news outlets have increasingly worked to frame their coverage of information operations with such context in mind. Consider, for example, BuzzFeed News’s decision to publish the Steele dossier, which led to a bonanza on cable news of context-free excitement about the unverified allegations against Trump. The way BuzzFeed News handled the release of the document looks flawed in retrospect. Former BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote recently that he would choose to publish the dossier again but would do so in a way that ensured “that no one could read it without reading what we knew about it—that we weren’t sure it was true, and in fact we had noticed errors in it.” Smith’s revised approach is closer to the strategy for reporting on information operations recommended by institutions like Data and Society and Stanford University, which advocate for contextualizing uncertain information and ensuring readers are aware of its provenance and ambiguities. 

The risk of this trend, however, is that these efforts might lead journalists to hold back from discussing legitimately newsworthy material. The story of ostensibly damaging information obtained from Hunter Biden’s laptop, shopped to journalists by the Trump campaign in advance of the 2020 election, is instructive here. Some journalists and commentators were overly quick to dismiss the story as Russia-backed disinformation from the beginning, even though at least some of the laptop’s contents appear to have been real. At the same time, though, mainstream legacy publications reported responsibly on the material: The Wall Street Journal held back from reporting what the Trump campaign passed to it because the campaign wouldn’t provide it with adequate information, and the Washington Post later published a detailed analysis of how the laptop surfaced, what could and couldn’t be authenticated from the laptop’s contents, and what to make of the verified information. 

The Democracy Beat

In 2021, Andrew Donohue, the managing editor of the publication Reveal, argued for the establishment of a “democracy beat”: journalists focused on covering the ongoing attacks on fair elections and the right to vote, serving as an “early warning system for the next big threats to the foundation of our democracy.” His call proved to be prescient. Over the next year, multiple newsrooms announced they were hiring for “democracy reporters” and unveiled the creation of full teams dedicated to covering the health of American democracy, on state, local, and national levels. 

The creation of such a beat has multiple advantages in pushing back against some of political journalism’s bad old habits. It allows journalists to cover issues like election denialism not as a he-said, she-said issue of competing claims by Democrats and Republicans, but as a policy issue with concrete facts to be reported on that can ground discussion in the truth. It also encourages coverage of the state and local jurisdictions where these issues play out, and which have often been undercovered by the political press. If the 2024 election features claims by Trump about a supposedly rigged election—and given his comments during the CNN town hall, it seems likely that it will—the democracy beat will be crucial in providing context. The same is true when it comes to efforts by Trump-aligned politicians to interfere with the voting process and the counting of the vote.

Sullivan, who in 2022 left her role as the Post’s media critic, has called for expanding the notion of a democracy beat to a “widespread rethinking across the mainstream media”—a shift to “pro-democracy” journalism, as she put it in her book “Newsroom Confidential.” In other words, the press should understand itself as unambiguously on the side of democracy, including news reporters who wouldn’t ordinarily align themselves on any one side of an issue. Even if a broader reconceptualization of journalism is needed, though, the mainstreaming of the democracy beat is a step in the right direction. 

Journalism’s Coming Stress Test

To say that these developments won’t be sufficient to help save American democracy would, at this point, be a truism. Journalism is only one of many institutions that have struggled in recent years to complete its work effectively and build trust among members of the public. Even just within journalism, these trends are far from what’s needed in terms of revitalizing a struggling industry, and they’re not uncontroversial. One of the biggest issues facing journalism—the hollowing out of local news—will require sustained investment to rebuild the many newsrooms that have shuttered across the country in recent years. Debates continue within the field over the meaning and desirability of concepts like objectivity in reporting. And we’ve focused here only on mainstream journalism, rather than the distinct questions raised by a right-wing media ecosystem that lacks the same standards and checks for truth in journalism. 

The changes that we’ve described here didn’t come about organically. They happened because of sustained effort, including by the voices of press critics like Margaret Sullivan and of other journalists—many of them Black—who were willing to push back against some of the profession’s creakier orthodoxies. And they can be undone as well if leaders of news organizations decide they’re no longer needed—as seems to be happening at CNN, where Licht has doubled down on his decision to air the live Trump town hall and reportedly reprimanded Oliver Darcy, CNN’s media reporter, for criticizing the broadcast as harmful to the country. 

The current economic environment is difficult for journalism: Many journalists have been laid off across a wide range of outlets, and some publications, even the Pulitzer-winning BuzzFeed News, have shuttered entirely. In the midst of such a downturn, it might be tempting for newsrooms to fall back on what drives traffic rather than what’s careful, responsible, and best for American democracy. Stories about Trump’s provocations are a reliable way to get viewers and readers to tune in—in the years since he departed office, the news business has seen an across-the-board slump

It’s been easier to practice good journalistic behavior with Trump not on the scene. Now that he’s back, perhaps news outlets will return to publishing splashy reports about the latest incendiary Trump comment, rather than making an effort to contextualize that comment in the broader policy landscape or on-the-ground reporting about the state of election protections. 

To put it another way, the 2024 campaign is the time when the lessons of the past few years will really be put to the test.