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One year later, media still struggles with challenges of covering President Trump

President Donald Trump talks to the media after arriving at Southwest Florida International airport to meet with first responders and people impacted by Hurricane Irma, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, in Ft. Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A video of President Donald Trump feeding fish caused an inordinate frenzy of attention on social media earlier this week, in the process providing an illustration of the frayed dynamic that has emerged between the president and the press in the year since he was elected.

The brief clip showed Trump alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. After the two men gently sprinkled some fish food into the pond, Trump dumped out the rest of his.

Reporters and critics of the president on Twitter pounced on what they perceived as Trump being rude and graceless alongside a foreign head of state. The flaw in that narrative quickly emerged as a longer video with a wider shot revealed Abe pouring out his food first.

The koi pond incident fit into a pattern described by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., in an interview with WPMI Wednesday. Defending Trump’s performance in his first year, he blamed the “noise” coming from the national media for distracting lawmakers from advancing Trump’s agenda.

“The way the media is covering the president has changed,” Byrne said. “There’s almost this assumption when the media starts covering something the president does that he’s done something wrong or he’s going about it in the wrong way. And it’s an assumption that creates an environment in which it’s very difficult to operate.”

Don Irvine, CEO of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, also sees a reflexive anti-Trump slant in coverage.

“They have for the most part abandoned any notion that they would be balanced in their coverage and have decided to be more adversarial than with most presidents,” he said.

However, Irvine acknowledged the White House bears some blame for the harsh and at times inaccurate reporting.

“Some of that is from their own liberal bias and some from the administration’s inability to communicate their position clearly and concisely on some matters,” he said.

It is hard to dispute that coverage of President Trump has been negative, and indeed studies have shown that it has. A Pew Research Center analysis of coverage of the first 60 days of Trump’s presidency by seven major news outlets found 62 percent of stories carried an overall negative assessment of Trump, while only 5 percent were positive.

Comparing those figures to other recent presidents, Pew determined that 42 percent of Barack Obama’s coverage was positive in his first 60 days and 20 percent was negative. For George W. Bush, 22 percent was positive and 28 percent was negative.

The study also concluded that coverage of Trump has focused much more on his character than his policy agenda, with nearly 70 percent of stories framed around leadership and character. For Obama, it was a 50/50 split, and for Bush, it was 35 percent character and 65 percent ideology and agenda.

What that research did not assess is how much of Trump’s negative coverage was deserved due to things he said or did that offended people or violated traditional norms of presidential behavior.

“It has certainly been negative, but that does not mean it has been biased,” said David Barker, Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “An honest, objective portrayal is going to be disproportionately negative at times.”

The role of social media in day-to-day news coverage has blossomed under Trump, who retained his personal Twitter account when he took office and continues to share his 140-character—and now 280-character—thoughts with the world at all hours of the day. It is one of many unique challenges for reporters covering the Trump administration.

“We are truly in a new era in politics where the old conventions are no longer relevant, where social media helps shape opinions more than newspapers or television and they are struggling to adapt to this new normal,” Irvine said.

According to John Carroll, a former journalist and an assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University, the media must be more discriminating in determining what is news and what is a distraction.

“I think it’s just been a head-spinning year, and really proceeded at a breakneck pace that we haven’t seen over an extended period of time like this for a very long time,” he said.

With the sheer number of media outlets churning out political content online, stories rarely resonate.

“Every time we think something is going to actually stick on the public radar for longer than five minutes something else comes along,” Carroll said. “So it’s much harder for both news organizations and for news audiences to come up with some sense of priorities.”

They also must contend with a White House that Carroll suggested frequently peddles false information or no information at all. The Washington Post has tallied 1,318 false or misleading claims by the president since January.

“You can make the case that there has been a spectrum of misleading information and denial of reality that has come out of the White House that has pushed many in the media from what should be a default position of skepticism into pretty consistent cynicism,” he said.

Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the mainstream media is doing a decent job of coping with the obstacles the Trump presidency presents.

“My one concern is whether they’re reacting to Donald Trump to the point where they’re becoming more advocates of their own ideas and philosophy than they used to,” he said.

Editors at the New York Times and some other outlets apparently share that fear, recently changing staff social media guidelines to rein in opining by journalists.

Nordlinger warned reporters against trying too hard to adapt to reflect Trump’s unconventional style.

“I think it would be a mistake to change their coverage as a response to Donald Trump,” he said.

Reporters were castigated by Trump and others for failing to predict his victory a year ago, while also being accused by Hillary Clinton supporters of vastly inflating concerns about her email practices. Criticism of 2016 campaign coverage has since cast a shadow over the political press, but some outlets have done better job than others at learning from their mistakes.

“Some continue to over-cover anything related to Clinton and so-called scandals, and some continue to cover Trump’s speeches in their entirety at times, though not nearly to the degree that they did before,” Barker said. “The Times and the Post, though, have become much more conscientious about pointing out lies, and in general are doing a good job.”

The national media’s credibility was already slumping before Trump took office.

In Gallup polling, confidence in the media has wallowed at historically low levels for years, with only 32 percent of Americans saying in 2016 that they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the mass media. This was after clocking in for two years at a previous all-time low of 40 percent.

Some polls suggest the media’s standing with the public has improved despite Trump’s attacks. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last month found 48 percent of people had confidence in the press, which while not great, is a 10-point jump from before the election. An August Quinnipiac University poll showed 54 percent of respondents trust the media more than Trump, though other surveys in recent months have found the opposite.

“The media needs to work harder at reporting objectively at a time when the public’s trust of the media continues to sink,” Irvine said. “They should try to avoid getting caught up in the swirl of social media and the pressure to be the first to report on a story and concentrate on accuracy. They are seen as henchmen of the liberal-left and they to change that image.”

A Trump-driven evolution has occurred in conservative media as well. Occasional Trump critic Megyn Kelly is out at Fox News, and the network’s current primetime lineup is now unabashedly supportive of the president.

Fox’s fealty to Trump is often reciprocated. While he has accepted only a handful of interviews with other national news networks since taking office, he has spoken to Fox reporters and anchors about 20 times. He also appears to frequently live tweet as he watches “Fox & Friends” in the morning, sometimes even tagging the show in his comments.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has left the White House and returned to Breitbart News, a site that often chides Trump and his aides when they stray from the nationalist agenda it supports.

While experts say the relationship between the press and the presidency typically is contentious, the hostility has reached new levels with Trump declaring the media enemies of the American people. According to Nordlinger, that confrontational attitude just makes the press less likely to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“When you have Kellyanne Conway talking about alternative facts, when you have the president calling things fake news, it feeds it,” he said.

Trump’s propensity for declaring any critical reporting “fake news” has resonated and penetrated popular culture. A recent Morning Consult poll found 46 percent of respondents believed the media makes up stories about him and the U.K.-based Collins Dictionary has already named the term its word of the year for 2017.

The “fake news” mantra has proven difficult to overcome, but some media outlets have attempted to confront the attacks on their legitimacy.

“What we’ve seen is a lot of campaigns, sort of promotional campaigns by news organizations protesting that they are fact-based, that they are real, that they are pertinent, the whole democracy dies in darkness gambit,” Carroll said, referring to the motto the Washington Post added to its masthead after the election.

Carroll doubts these defenses are penetrating the consciousness of those who have bought into Trump’s outbursts.

“It might give them all a warm feeling but I don’t think it’s really changing a lot of minds,” he said.

According to Nordlinger, brawling with the president over their accuracy is counterproductive for media outlets. Instead, he suggests letting good, responsible reporting speak for itself.

“I don’t think you fight at all,” he said. “I think you continue to objectively cover breaking events.”

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