The news business seems, today, to be business first, news second. Whenever President Donald J. Trump tweets, he causes a blast of stories from mainstream news outlets. Trump coverage has generated an incredible amount of revenue for media outlets, but the media should be cautious about over-covering Trump. In a Nov. 23 editorial in The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof criticized how journalists across the political spectrum have been manipulated by Trump.
Trump’s pejorative tweets about a migrant caravan from Central America heading toward the United States illustrate this manipulation: when Trump tweeted, “there are a lot of CRIMINALS in the Caravan. We will stop them,” mainstream media outlets such as Fox News and CNN rushed to react with either praise or outrage. Regardless, Trump manipulates mainstream media by gaining attention from his bold statements. According to Kristof, when Trump makes a statement, false or not, “he not only gets coverage, but also manages to control the media agenda.” But the media doesn’t have to keep making the same mistakes: it needs to stop aiding Trump’s fear-mongering.
Trump is the president and the media does have an obligation to cover what the president says, but the media can and should do better to find alternative ways to cover his comments. According to James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School Nathaniel Persily, statements that “millions of illegal votes were cast” and “experts dispute Trump’s claim that millions of illegal votes were cast” have the same cognitive effect on news viewers: although one statement is true and the other is false, both statements breed suspicion over illegal voting. The more attention given to Trump’s tweets instead of the actual story, it seems, the more fuel is added to the fire.
In reporting on Trump, or reporting on any polarized issue in our country today, mainstream media must be aware of the “backfire effect” in social psychology: fighting with facts against passionate followers of any movement seems not to work well, because when people are corrected with facts, they tend to cling even more strongly to mistaken beliefs. When opponents of vaccines were presented with data about the vaccinations’ benefits, they vaccinated even less. After conducting a 2013 study demonstrating that people believe they know more than they actually do, Yale cognitive scientists Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman named the phenomenon the “illusion of explanatory depth,” and found that polarized political beliefs are “self-reinforcing.” Sticking to one’s beliefs, whether mistaken or not, even has adaptive value: human beings experience a dopamine rush when they process information that supports their beliefs.
But if fact-checking only makes people with different opinions double-down, how should the media cover lies and false narratives without propounding them? As a liberal, I would scoff if a conservative presented me with data showing climate change is not human-induced, because I can pull up dozens of studies that say the exact opposite.
So what kind of fact-checking is effective? I echo Kristof’s statement that “mocking people for their worldview is counterproductive.” It is not surprising that Republicans listen more to other Republicans while Democrats listen more to other Democrats because they are members of the same community and hold shared values.
What is the answer, then, for the mainstream media in fighting Trump instead of furthering his spread of misinformation? There is no catch-all solution, but a productive step could be changing the conversation. There is no need to only focus on what Trump says or tweets simply because he is the president. The longer news corporations use Trump’s outlandish statements as a ratings cash cow, the longer they ensure his ideas get attention.
Countering Trump’s claims with facts is not effective without first addressing the emotional responses and appeal of Trump and his supporters. The mainstream media needs to stop taking the easy way out by simply commenting on Trump’s comments, and instead start reporting the complicated truth.
Ryan Fan (19C) is from Stony Brook, N.Y.