“How can journalists cover powerful people who lie?” That was the question posed last week by three media heavyweights—Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian; Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University; and Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth, US correspondent for Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen—who have launched a crowdsourcing project searching for solutions.
Referring to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s assertion that the administration was presenting “alternative facts,” they ask: “How can journalists find truth and report it when those they cover lie, sometimes blatantly and frequently? How can they avoid the lies distracting from coverage of other, sometimes more fundamental, issues? And how do we tell lies from things that are merely partisan, provocative, and/or extremely selective?”
But these are new challenges only in degree. Though the new American president has an unusual disdain for the truth—making unsubstantiated or incorrect claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, illegal voting and issues surrounding the refugee and immigration ban—political leaders have always covered up, denied evidence and twisted numbers to their advantage. The role of journalists in a democracy is to uncover those falsehoods, to enable the public to hold their elected officials to account.
The new challenge in the age of Trump is that a significant proportion of the public appears to favour the word of the powerful liars over that of the news media. The media derives its power to hold authorities to account from its readers—the electorate. It becomes impotent if the public cannot access the information it provides, which is why so many authoritarian regimes censor the media. But the same is true if the public does not believe the information it provides.
Trump knows this, and has worked hard to leverage the widening trust gap between the public and the media. When he tries to discredit the media—calling it “dishonest” or “deceitful”; referring to reporters as “lightweights” and “liars”; calling major outlets “failing” or “irrelevant”—he is trying to limit its ability to hold him to account.
But he has only been able to do this because the trust gap already existed. Public confidence in the media has been sliding for years—in the US, it has fallen from its high point of about 70 per…