Shoptalk: Protecting the Truth Under President Trump

By: Todd Milbourn

Journalism in the age of Trump

Nearly a decade ago, I spent a year working as an editor at an international business magazine in Prague. As one of the few native English speakers on staff, it was my job to teach the writers how to report in a more American style. That meant a big focus on facts—how to get them, verify them and responsibly place them in context.

This is standard stuff in American reporting, the kind of education you get in most journalism schools. Yet it wasn’t the overarching focus for some writers who had grown up in the waning days of Communism.

These were people who did truly heroic work after the Velvet Revolution to build the kind of free press that American journalists like myself have had the luxury to sometimes take for granted.

Yet I was struck by our conversations around how and what to report. I observed people processing information in one of two ways. Some would align with a particular political party and attempt to report its leaders’ pronouncements as established truth. Others seemed convinced the entire system was corrupt, nothing could be trusted and attempts to gather facts would prove futile.

It wasn’t until I began immersing myself in the writing of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright-turned-democratically-elected-Czech-president, that I began to understand what I was witnessing: it wasn’t simply a lack of Western-style journalistic training—it was lingering trauma after a decades-long assault on truth.

Havel opened my eyes to how Communist leaders deployed propaganda to devastating effect, executing a relentless campaign of threats, disinformation and denunciation that undermined a shared reality. The result wasn’t that falsehoods were accepted as facts but rather the creation of a “crust of lies” so thick and pervasive, that people no longer believed anything at all.

People became cynical, obedient or some combination of the two—and the wounds were so deep, I could still see scars in Prague nearly 20 years after Communism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this dynamic as political events unfold in the United States.

Under President Donald Trump, fiction is often presented as fact, and fact slides into fiction. The ultimate effect of all the misinformation coming from the White House and elsewhere isn’t simply that people are persuaded by the falsehoods. Rather, it’s that we come to question whether the truth even exists at all.

That’s a treacherous path for a society bound together by trust.

To correct course, journalists and citizens who care about democracy have big jobs ahead.

We must take the following steps:

  1. Insist on evidence to back-up assertions, and vehemently reject lies and propaganda. This means setting aside preconceptions, emphasizing primary sources and placing a premium on information that can be verified and corroborated elsewhere.
  2. Restore trust through the tools of community engagement. Cultivating a journalism that’s built on relationships instead of transactions is one of the best ways to combat the massive trust deficit between press and public. Groups like ProPublica and the Agora Journalism Center are already doing essential work on this front, and their efforts deserve broad support.
  3. Fight relentlessly for access to information. In Prague, I recall receiving a press release declaring that a criminal trial had ended, even though we and the general public had no idea it was even going on in the first place. This kind of opacity is largely unprecedented in the U.S. We must stand up and fight for the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right-to-know.
  4. Be transparent about the fact-finding process. One reason the work of the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold had such impact during the campaign was that he held his notebook open for all to see. That helped insulate him from attacks of bias while investigating Trump’s claims about his foundation’s charity work. It also built trust with readers, who felt a sense of personal connection on the reporting quest.
  5. Take our time. One of the most disorienting things about this moment is the hyperdrive-speed of the news cycle. Because content now moves faster than our comprehension, we must set down our phones every now and then and give our brains—and audience—time to catch up. Read books. Go for walks.

Keeping our wits about us is key to surviving an age of disinformation. If we succumb to cynicism and obedience and let the power of facts fade away, we’ll discover something older Czechs experienced first-hand: the only thing left will be power itself.

Todd Milbourn is an award-winning investigative journalist and teacher based at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

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Published: May 12, 2017

2 thoughts on “Shoptalk: Protecting the Truth Under President Trump

  • May 12, 2017 at 7:34 am
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    Great column, Todd. Still, I think you left out something: We journalists need to double-down on checking our own bias, and editors need to sharpen their skills at recognizing that bias has crept into a story. Sometimes it’s found in who was talked to and who wasn’t, while other times it’s found in the story’s construction. We need to run the good race and not given detractors any room to level charges.

    Reply
    • May 12, 2017 at 7:37 am
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      I started to cancel my comment, because reading again I found that maybe No. 4 addresses that; however, in the spirit of going the extra mile …

      Reply

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