Journalists on Trump: “We’re not at war. We’re at work”

There can be few festivals on the planet quite like the Perugia International Journalism Festival. It’s one of those rare industry events that successfully crosses over into being something, somehow, for everybody. It’s a real festival of the mind, full of fascinating insights that seem as though they’d be edifying to anyone with even a passing interest in how we communicate.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 21, 2017

Written by Jon Wilks, Content Chief at Content Insights, this post was first published on the company’s blog, and has been republished here with permission.

As with most festivals, the only real downside is that there’s way too much to take in. You have to plot your way carefully through the programme, deciding way in advance which themes you’re going to go after, and then try as hard as possible to stay on target. That’s never easy when you’ve got Owen Jones dropping in to talk about his experiences of post-Brexit Britain, or Cameron Barr explaining how things unfurled in the newsroom as the Washington Post broke the story that brought down Michael Flynn.

Aside from speaking on the subject of editorial analytics, for my own festival journey I decided to stick as closely as possible to the two themes that were bound to dominate: Donald Trump (and his relationship with journalism) and the ever-popular #FakeNews. I decided, also, that when it came to reporting on the event, it’d be best to let the speakers themselves do the talking. What follows, therefore, is a kind of meme soup: a list of some of the key statements, points and bon mots that I heard over half a week on the hoof. Some, I agree with (as an individual writer and witness, rather than as a representative of this publication), and others I do not – they’re here simply to get you thinking and to continue the discussion (which we’re always happy to do on Twitter).

Please bear in mind that these were taken down as verbatim as possible (sometimes these points fly at you 10-per-minute, faster than most fingers can type), so, for a more direct from the horse’s mouth approach, I’ve included (where possible) the videos as they were streamed live.

How to report on lying media-bullying populists?

Panel: Ben de Pear (editor, Channel 4 News), Mathew Ingram (Fortune Magazine), Lucy Marcus (CEO, Marcus Venture Consulting), Geneva Overholser (senior fellow, Democracy Fund), Craig Silverman (media editor, BuzzFeed News), Stefan Wolff (POLSIS, University of Birmingham)

Mathew Ingram (on using the word ‘lie’ to cover Trump)

“One of the difficulties is how to cover someone who uses flat-out, boldfaced lies. If you don’t, you are effectively normalising it – permitting it to happen.”

[On the subject of Trump and the Overton Window] “People like Trump shift that window. Now things that were way out on the extreme become way more normalised, and that’s a longterm risk. If you don’t use words like ‘lie’, you’re effectively making it acceptable.”

“Facebook relies on engagement, and you know what’s really engaging? Lies.”

Geneva Overholser (on the role of journalism and how to improve relations with the readers)

“One phrase I’d like to stick in everyone’s minds is that ‘it’s all about the public’. In the four decades I’ve been in media, we’ve gotten further and further away from that. We exist for the public.”

“We need to remember it’s not our job to give voice to the powerful. We exist to give information to the public.”

“Go deep. It’s not just about calling out lies; it’s about examining policies and their effect on the public.”

“[We should] bring all that we have to help the public believe – and make sure that we believe – that we’re there for them.”

Stefan Wolff (on our relationship with the general public)

“It is all about the public, because real people are affected by these lies. Trump is the biggest thing, but he’s not the only thing. Putin, Erdogan… real people live under them.”

“To some extent there is denial from the public [refers to North Wales and their effective refusal of EU funding through voting for Brexit], but it’s also denial by the politicians – the refusal to accept anything other than their own worldview.”

“There’s a great responsibility for journalists and academics to find out what is going on here, and explain it in a way that a range of audiences will understand and respond to.”

Ben de Pear (on staying on point)

“The problem is that the media talks about these things endlessly, and talks about itself endlessly.”

“We have to hold all of these leaders up to the same moral standard… Stop comparing Trump to Obama. Compare him to yourself.”

“You’ve got to stick to the facts. Get away from the rhetoric, get away from the personality.”

Mathew Ingram (on the role of the US in modern world politics and communicating with readers)

“Everything that Trump does – the way he treats the press, other politicians, his complete lack of moral vision – encourages other despots. Other countries used to look at the US as an example of good. Now they look at us as an example of how to get away with doing wrong.”

“If you can’t empathise with people who have lost jobs, homes, loved ones, simply shouting facts at them is not going to make them trust in or believe you.”

Geneva Overholser (on media trust and using the word ‘lie’)

“The thing about using the word lie or not… this is why satirists are eating our lunch!”

“One reason that the public voted for change is that they lost trust in us. And the reason for that is because we became all hoity-toity and started hanging out with the elites.”

Stefan Wolff (on fake news, fact-checking and the role of the US in modern world politics)

“As long as you make sure you do confront and check what are lies, then you will reach that middle ground who haven’t made up their minds.”

“There’s no sense of certainty anymore that certain things will not be tolerated. The office that was once thought to lead the free world… it’s just not there anymore.”

“I think a lot of the time, falsehoods are reported not out of a deliberate attempt to falsify, but because [the journalists] don’t know better. There’s a lack of depth. But there’s also a tendency to report things with a lack of context.”

Ben de Pear (on fake news and social media)

“There’s a war going on on the internet, in which people are deliberately targeting the vulnerable. The problem with social media is that people share to make themselves look good, and they share with people who agree with them.”

#netzwende: Why Trump is the best thing to happen to journalism

Panel: Guia Baggi (co-founder, IRPI), Frederik Fischer (chief editor,, Jeff Jarvis (Graduate School of Journalism, CUNY), Adam Thomas (director, European Journalism Centre), Lina Timm (founder and program manager, Media Lab Bayern), Claire Wardle (director of research, First Draft News), Stephan Weichert (Hamburg Media School)

Frederik Fischer (on navel-gazing and moving journalism forward)

“The trouble with the Perugia Festival is that it reminds us every year that we’re making terrible progress! Are journalists the wrong people to be examining these problems?”

“We need a sustainability movement in journalism. One of the big victories in environmentalism is that they got us to think about dirty energy and renewable energy. We haven’t had that in journalism yet… We should be encouraged by the environmental movement to think big again – to be bold.”

Guia Baggi (on reconnecting with our readers)

“Trump’s unpredicted victory has highlighted a disconnect between big media corporations, based in big global cities, and people who live in the rest of the country – a misrepresentation of opinions. So his victory may open up possibilities to get more in touch with the real feeling of the people.”

Jeff Jarvis (on lessons learnt)

“There’s nothing good about the election of Trump in my view… I guess we should use this as an opportunity to learn a lesson, and that lesson is that we’re shit-bad listeners!”

Lina Timm (on problems within the industry itself)

“Trump didn’t cause anything, but he gave visibility to what has been going wrong over the last 30 years.”

“Journalism doesn’t have a problem with trust. It has a problem with arrogance. We are arrogant towards our readers and towards new players in the market.”

“10 years ago, we smiled and laughed at bloggers. These days, those bloggers are media startups. They’re enthusiastic as hell – they don’t know where their next pay cheque will come from, so they work their asses off today.”

Claire Wardle (ranting her way to a standing ovation!)

“There are a million stories out there, and we’re all obsessed with the orange-haired one. It’s a global obsession, and it’s a huge, huge problem. He has taken #fakenews and weaponised it. We laugh at it, but it’s dangerous. We need to stop using that term – he’s a serious concern to our industry, and we’re not thinking strategically enough. Every time I use that term I put money in a tip jar.”

Adam Thomas (on the future)

“I believe we’re on the cusp of a new era of philanthropic funding. Trump has brought the issues of journalism and the tectonic changes to society into sharp focus.”

Covering President Trump: reporting the truth in an era of ‘alternative facts’

Panel: Cameron Barr (managing editor, Washington Post), Lucia Annunziata (editor, L’Huffington Post)

Cameron Barr (on the role of the modern journalist)

“Our mission – the core of what we offer our audience – is reporting previously undisclosed facts, relevant to the public debate, that a powerful person wishes to keep secret. I think you get the idea. Does the Trump presidency change that mission? I really don’t think so. It has galvanised readers, it has brought renewed recognition of the value of journalism, it has usefully sharpened the distinction between what is fake and what is fact. But it has not changed our role. Marty Baron likes to say that we are not at war with the Trump administration – we’re at work.”

(On the election, in hindsight)

“One story on which I think we were weak was covering the economic lower-middle of American society. Journalists are drawn to extremes, right? Drawn to violence, drawn to stories of poverty, stories of suffering and struggle. But this is this lower-middle strata whose concerns and frustrations with the economy, with how society is evolving – those concerns were not covered as fully as they should’ve been. When Trump started to gather steam, we started to pay more attention… but in the years leading up to the campaign I think we failed to understand the working class disappointment with how the global economy was treating them.”

“One of the mistakes of journalism is to always be covering the story that you just missed.”

(On the future)

“It’s a very exciting time, and I think it’s also time to move passed the despair and frustration that we felt and embrace what it is that we can do with the technology that we have available.”

(On the word ‘lie’)

“I think ‘lie’ is a very heated, strong and opinionated word. I don’t think it really has a place. I want the emotional level to be turned down. I don’t want to think or feel for readers. I want to give them the information.”

Lucia Annunziata (on Trump’s similarity to Berlusconi)

“[Is Trump the same situation as Berlusconi?] I always say no, and on one basis. Trump is a populist who does not like the party system and was in fact born out of bombarding the party system, including media, power, judicial system, etc. Berlusconi, despite his reputation, was a guy who came in with the same intention and in fact built a party and tried to put himself within the institutional framework. This was his downfall in the end.”

Fact-checking in the age of Trump

Panel: Phoebe Arnold (head of communications, Full Fact), Lucas Graves (School of Journalism, University of Wisconsin), Alexios Mantzarlis (The Poynter Institute), Giovanni Zagni (Pagella Politica)

Lucas Graves (on the fact that we’ve seen all of this before)

“From the earliest days of fact-checking, we saw politicians respond well to fact-checks that supported their position, and the opposite for those that didn’t.”

“For most of the 20th century, fact-checking political statements was not common for American journalists. A lot of journalists were close to the politicians and it wouldn’t have been in their interests. In the wake of Vietnam, you start to see a turn towards more aggressive journalism, including fact-checking. During Reagan’s presidency, journalists started running ‘truth boxes’ next to his claims.”

Alexios Mantzarlis (on the role of fact-checking)

“In the United States, fact-checkers allowed themselves to get dragged into the role of adversary to a single candidate… In the United States, fact-checking could do well to become an advocate to the general public.”

Phoebe Arnold (on how and how not to fact-check)

“Not telling people what to think is really important. We have to give them the tools to make up their own minds. We also think it’s very important to fact-check the claim rather than the person who made it.”

“A lot of what we do is call out spurious certainty.”

“While you’d like to think that fact-checking is an answer to loss in media trust, because it goes against what people want to believe, it runs the risk of going the opposite way. We have to be transparent in the tools that we’re using, and we have to show that we have no political bias on the claims that are being made.”

Enough said. What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?

Panel: Mark Thompson (president & CEO, The New York Times Company), Mario Calabresi (editor, La Repubblica)

Mark Thompson (on democracy and communication)

“The risk is that when people don’t understand policy, democracy begins to fail. You can’t have a debate, and if you can’t debate with each other, you can’t have democracies.”

(On Trump’s political language)

“Reagan was a very good speech writer. He had a great range. He was able to mix his ideas with empathy and emotion, and he remains one of the most popular Presidents. Roll forward to 2016, much of what Trump is doing is an incredible alternative to political language. It’s very short: ‘We’ve got to build a wall. How are we going to improve the economy? Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.’ It’s almost like it’s pure slogan: there’s nothing behind it… It has very ancient roots. When Caesar was campaigning, he wrote slogans that could go on the wall. It wasn’t flowery. It was veni vidi vici. It’s the language of the strong man. There’s no rhetoric, it’s just: I’m going to get things done.”

“In a way, Donald Trump is creating a kind of one-man Blitzkrieg of tweets, slogans, quotes to camera… an incredible amount of interviews. It’s a kind of government by words, in many ways.”

“It’s really interesting that Hilary Clinton was speaking always to the converted, speaking from a prepared script. She learnt very little from her appearances. Trump delivered these very raucous campaigns, acting as a one-man empirical analysis. He finds that if he says ‘political correctness’ he gets a standing ovation. He finds out, just by trying it, what works. Trump himself makes the connection between the way he speaks – and, importantly, the way he listens – and the reason he’s now in the White House.”

(On the election, in hindsight)

“The world’s elite made the mistake of thinking that it was all about logic, but forgot that it’s also about how people feel.”

“Many American women felt very patronised by other women telling them how to feel about Trump’s remarks. Many of these women live their daily lives in environments where that kind of language is a daily occurrence, so being told by other women how not to vote based on such remarks… The assumption that all American women would feel exactly the same way as those from the American liberal elite turned out to be a mistake.”

(On the idea that people won’t read longform online)

“We’re losing trust in our audience. If you’ve got great journalists and great stories, people will stay with the story.”

(On trust and the future of journalism)

“The right answer to complicated and fast-breaking stories is more and better journalism. [These times] require our journalists and editors to find the means to do their jobs properly… Frankly, producing crap for clickbait because you think that’s all the people want is not trusting them. We have to trust them and their desire for in-depth journalism.”

“There are many great editors, many great journalists, but the battle for the future of media is going to be won by strategy and economics.”

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