The Press and the People: College Journalism In a Trump Era
hoOn February 17th, President Donald Trump took to Twitter in an extraordinary attack on the free press. “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” In his message, he directly mentioned NBC, The New York Times, and CNN in his list of fake news outlets.
Throughout both his campaign and the early days of his presidency, Trump has waged war against the media, accusing accredited media organizations of propagating false information about his administration, refusing to take questions from outlets that are critical of him, and complaining during press conferences about how poorly he is treated by reporters. Trump’s pugnacity has been enhanced by his team of key advisors that disseminates alternative facts, have referred to the media as the opposition party, and continually threatened the press not to criticize the president lest they face serious consequences.
Across the nation, trust in the media continues to plummet as a deluge of ‘fake news’ organizations makes discerning fact from fiction increasingly difficult. This confusion, over whether or not what you read in the news is actually ‘real,’ has allowed the president and his spokespeople to label renowned news organizations as propagating ‘fake news,’ making the job of wading through reporting even more difficult for the public
Though the national news media has borne the brunt of this post-election media landscape, college periodicals across the countries have also had to adapt to a world in which facts are fiction and the press is an enemy of the state. From the deep south to the west coast, college papers have been forced to cut through an increasingly convoluted mainstream media, and find more effective ways to communicate with students. To some undergraduate organizations, nothing has changed. For others, this new frontier of reporting means an increased responsibility for reporting the truth and representing the facts.
To Michael Reingold, Editor-In-Chief of the University of Virginia’s ‘Cavalier Daily,’ a media landscape where ‘truth’ is few and far between means that college newspapers have a more important job now than ever. “I think one thing the Trump administration does is make our jobs a little more important. There’s always news out there, where you don’t know if it’s true or not. It actually holds people to seek information, to seek truth.”
“In a way, this is actually a time where newspapers have the opportunity to expand readership and tell more in-depth stories about profiles of people or experiences,” Reingold said.
With politics becoming an increasingly unavoidable part of life in the United States, the Cavalier, alongside many other college publications, have been shoved into a national spotlight. Recently, The Cavalier reached over 70,000 readers on Facebook in their coverage of the UVA protests following Donald Trump’s executive order barring foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the middle east.
“Although we’re a college newspaper and our primary audience is the students, alumni, they’re not the only ones who are looking at it.” Explained Paul Holston, Editor-In-Chief of the Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper. Stories at Howard, uniquely situated in the middle of Washington DC, can quickly go national. “Things that happen on campus can turn to a national eye where everyone is watching. [Readers] are looking at, of course, the mainstream outlets, but they also want to look at the student newspaper as we’re the internal source.”
However, unlike national media outlets, college newspapers still relay information to a narrow reader base of predominantly college students. This means that, while coverage of national events is important, college newspapers have the special responsibility of communicating how large-scale events affect undergraduates. With breaking news daily coming out of the White House, it can be difficult for students to wade through what executive actions mean for them. Holston explained that keeping students informed on the direct impacts of the Trump administration takes a paramount role.
“Everything that he does affects everyone and that includes people on campus whether they think of it or not.” Being a historically black university (HBCU) in the heart of DC, Howard students are particularly at risk of being negatively affected by the current administration. “We focus on the things that matter more to the students,” Holston said. “There’s supposed to be an HBCU executive order. We have no clue what that executive order is going to be, but it’s going to affect not only Howard University but HBCUs as a whole. They’re getting the news every day through mainstream outlets, so we try to be more localized.”
While the prospect of reaching a national audience and making sense of sweeping legislation can seem exciting, other college newspapers are simply struggling to gain trust in the press. On the campus of the University of South Carolina, editor-in-chief of the Daily Gamecock, Larissa Johnson not only holds the responsibility of communicating the news, but also has to defend the role of the media to an increasingly skeptical readership.
“Along with the decrease in belief in the media that we’ve seen nation-wide, we’ve seen that on our campus as well,” Johnson explained. “I think it is really important that we help create this foundation of establishing more trust in the media. In my time as editor-in-chief I’m really trying to create more of a positive reputation.”
The Gamecock circulates on a campus where a large population of students supports Donald Trump. However, the Gamecock itself has traditionally leaned left. While at the helm, Johnson has tried to bring the newspaper’s tone to the center of the political spectrum. She hopes that in respecting right-leaning views, she can use the news to encourage political discourse on campus.
“Previous editors and editorial boards were very aggressively left leaning. And recognizing that even if those are my personal views, we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t open up to conversation.” Johnson has taken this message to her staff, a group of politically diverse reporters who, during the 2016 election were unable to decide on a presidential endorsement due to their clashing political views.
“After the election I made an effort to talk to our staff about why they felt the way they did. I think that was really important as a publication that we all understood each other’s perspectives. Recognizing that there are a lot of people who support Trump, when we write about it, we should acknowledge that.”
Other publications situated on more liberal campuses have been revelling in the opportunity to engender more meaningful political discussions. Out west, the staff of The Stanford Review are no strangers to stirring the pot. Stanford’s independent newspaper, identified by its editor-in-chief, Philip Clark, as taking ‘contrarian’ stances on important issues, prides itself in tackling fake news and promoting discussion amongst students. Most recently, the Review was the subject of controversy following the editorial board’s push for the reinstatement of a western civilization requirement at Stanford.
Clark explained that to the staff of the Review, the post-election media landscape is nothing they can’t take on. The Review has a history of navigating the waters of a turbulent press environment.
Clark recalls a recent story in which the Stanford University press spokesman spread what he referred to as ‘alternative facts’ regarding the firing of one of the university’s title XI lawyers. The Review worked to present in more clarity the specifics of the firing.
“The Stanford review has always been intent on reporting the facts even if they’re unpleasant or unpopular. But I think that tradition dates back to our founding.”
Like Johnson at the Daily Gamecock, Clark explains that this type of truth seeking ranges from national news to campus stories. Relaying ‘the facts’ has been a consistent theme of the Review’s reporting. “We’ve done that in student elections over the course of the year, we’ve done that with student organizations. I agree that, given the current climate that takes on particular importance. But given that it’s something that we’ve always focused on and always built our reputation around, I don’t really see myself as having to undergo a paradigm shift.”
“If anything, we happen to be particularly well positioned to deal with the current news climate,” Clark said.
Amidst an increasingly tumultuous press environment, Clark voiced a great deal of optimism for the future of journalism. “The idea of a Trump administration, if not the reality of one, I actually think does hold some promise for allowing us to push debate and dialogue. In that sense I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Other editors, too, voice optimism for the future and believe that Trump’s censure of the press only emboldens efforts to present journalism that is meaningful. For Reingold, the reality of a White House that is adversarial to the press and a press landscape awash with fake news shouldn’t affect the core tenets of journalism. “You just have to keep doing what you’re good at. Keep producing stories like you always have, keep being critical, keep being objective, and keep being fair.”
“Our job as journalists is to hold the powerful accountable and give voice to the voiceless,” noted Holston. “At the end of the day, the values and the origin or journalism still does not change.”