Digital Publishing

Holding the line

A new policy works for politics reporters in an era of lies and hate speech

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Chris Quinn knew he had a problem when Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance repeatedly used the phrase "dirty" while talking about immigrants.

Back in March, Quinn — the top editor at Cleveland.com and the Cleveland Plain Dealer — instituted a policy to ignore false, irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements made by political candidates. Four months later, statehouse reporter Andrew Tobias wanted to do a story focused on Vance's xenophobic comments, made at a campaign rally in July.

“I said we’re not doing that. That flies in the face of what we told people we were doing,” Quinn said, “There are thoughtful ways to do what he wanted to do without putting the hate out there.”

Instead, Tobias wrote a deep dive on how candidate Vance’s speech patterns and comments have changed over the past four years. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” had once been highly critical of former President Donald Trump and held himself out as the representative of people in poverty. Now, as he seeks Trump’s endorsement, Vance has apologized for his past criticism and has undergone a dramatic change in his tone and rhetoric to sound more and more like the former president.

Many newsrooms across the country have begun to analyze and make changes to their political coverage, thanks to Trump's impact on American politics. His brazen falsehoods and wild conspiracy theories caught journalists completely off guard during the 2016 election and beyond, a fact he exploited to spread his message. It took years for The New York Times and other leading news organizations to call Trump's comments what that really were — lies.

As Jon Allsop and Pete Vernon wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in the waning days of his presidency, Trump "ruthlessly gamed old-school journalists' commitment to covering 'both sides of the story.  By doing this, he won more than equal time for his lies, as well as 'he said, she said' fig leaves for his indecent behavior."

"The media got played by Trump," Quinn admits. "We relied on tradition, and we all did what we thought was right. But now we know it wasn’t right, and it’s what we do next that matters.”

As author and media critic Jay Rosen often asks, how can journalists possibly cover both political parties equally when one is increasingly comfortable rejecting reality and using hateful rhetoric to win over supporters?

The Plain Dealer has been among the most outspoken at attempting something new with its policy of ignoring the worst of what some candidates have to offer. The timing couldn’t be better, as Republican candidates become more and more extreme seeking Trump’s endorsement in a crowded primary for Rob Portman’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

Among the Republican candidates looking to stand out is Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer named PolitiFact Ohio's "Pants on Fire" champion during an unsuccessful Senate run in 2012. As soon as Portman announced he wasn't seeking re-election, Mandel once again began spewing vile comments and blatant falsehoods in an attempt to get headlines — and Trump's attention.

“We're not going to allow our trusted platforms to be used this way,” Quinn said. “This wasn't the way politicians did business in the past, but it is the new way. They're trying to put nonsense out there knowing that our traditional coverage methods would put it out there, and we just aren’t going to be played.”

While all eyes are on Republicans, Quinn said the policy isn't specific to one political party. The newsroom recently ignored a political stunt by Cleveland mayoral candidate and former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich.  He sent out a mailer featuring the city's famed script sign riddled with bullets and dripping blood.

So far, there hasn't been much pushback from reporters. On the contrary, Quinn said his team has been enthusiastic about the policy and attempt to do the right thing, even though it sometimes seems to go against some of the basic tenants of how journalists have been taught to consider news.

“I was a reporter for 20 years. When there’s red meat like that, you want it. So the instinct is, 'Man, I can't believe they said that we should do something,'" Quinn said.

After announcing the new policy, Quinn said he expected his inbox to fill with angry messages from readers complaining he and the paper were in the bag for Democrats. But so far, he has been pleasantly surprised by the response, which has been largely supportive, even among the newspaper's conservative readers.

“It was stunning how many people who identified themselves as Republicans said, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this,’" Quinn said.

Another big test to the newsroom’s new policy was a Trump rally held at the end of June in Wellington, Ohio, a small town a little less than an hour south of Cleveland, well within the Plain Dealer’s coverage area.

Quinn and his politics team had a phone call to determine how the newsroom would cover Trump's rally. They ultimately decided not to make Trump the center of the story or quote him, even correcting his lies about the 2020 presidential election. Instead, they focused on the rally's impact on the 2022 Senate primary in Ohio.

“I think reporters trip on this because those kinds of fiery quotes are just red meat," Quinn said. The newsroom stuck to its strategy and didn't post its story about the rally until the following morning, allowing the politics team to dig in on the impact on the Republican hopefuls in the Senate primary. Most importantly, they didn't allow Trump to co-opt the headlines.

"We're just not okay with somebody weaponizing our platform and using our traditional coverage methods to spread bullshit," Quinn said.  He noted that several other local and national outlets — including NBC News — still covered it in a "breathless" fashion akin to 2016.

“Trump was a new way of politicking. Now lots of politicians have picked up on that,” Quinn said. “How do we as an industry form best practices on how to cover that?”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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