Thursday, November 17, 2016

Trump's Triumph: Covering the Unexpected

By Sarah Lorenzo

An NPR notification on Nov. 13 used
the phrase "president-elect" rather than
Donald Trump's name.
Many in the media were caught by surprise when Donald Trump forged a clear path to victory last week. Indeed, coverage from the New York Times has reflected shock but continues to center on disarray, continuing a trend that raised questions about the media's bias against the Trump campaign throughout the primary and general election season.

Subtle wordings provide curious insights to the nature of coverage, such as the exclusion of Trump's name from headlines that instead used the term, "the president-elect." Yet, for many NPR articles, which this blog is devoted to dissect, headline bias does not pervade.

Articles featured on the NPR webpage at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 16 seemed neutral. Top featured headlines read "From Lobbyists to Loyalists, See Who's On Trump's Transition Team;" "Breitbart Editor Contends Steve Bannon 'Has No Prejudices;'" "Vice President-Elect Mike Pence Set To Govern At Trump's Side;" and "Reports of Turmoil Color Trump's Transition."

None of those headlines have a distinctly negative sway, despite the final headline's mention of a potentially tumultuous transition. Although the headline describes "turmoil," the other words included are bland and non-suggestive of a conclusion. The use of the word "color" specifically stands out in contrast to the New York Times' more accusatory headline; "Firings and Discord Put Trump Transition Team in a State of Disarray." Indeed, the lede of the New York Times' news report accepted the conclusion that Trump's transition was in dire straits:
President-elect Donald J. Trump's transition was in disarray on Tuesday, marked by firings, infighting and revelations that American allies were blindly dialing in to Trump Tower to try to reach the soon-to-be-leader of the free world.
Not only did the reporters conclude that Trump's team was in chaos, their use of harsh words such as "infighting" and "blindly" conjure an image of commotion in contrast to NPR's more cautious inclusion of the word "reports."
Donald Trump's Twitter page was streaming with responses
to New York Times coverage of his transition team.

However, NPR's content does not lack imagery and indeed employs words just as harsh as those used by the New York Times in the first paragraph of its article reporting on the transition team:
"President-elect Donald Trump's first week after pulling off an upset victory has had plenty of missteps. The rocky start to his transition planning that one source described to CNN as a "knife fight" has done little to assure his critics and skeptical Republicans that he'll have a smooth ascension to the Oval Office surrounded by qualified advisers. Trump denies that the transition is rocky."
By noting in the first paragraph that Trump denies accusations of a turbulent transition, NPR does something the New York Times does not. But phrases such as "has had" and "the rocky start" seem to confirm a perspective that turmoil has indeed taken place.

Due to the plethora of insider reports alleging that Trump's transition team has met obstacles in its first week of preparation, do journalists have the right to cover allegations in a confirming tone? What constitutes bias in an age when accusations of bias have continued to fly in the form of tweets from a president-to-be?

In response to the New York Times article, Trump turned to his Twitter podium and addressed his crowd of supporters to rebuke the article's claims. He did not respond to coverage from NPR. Trump's accusations against the New York Times continue a trend of rebutting their reporting that began at the start of his political campaign.

The relationship between the president-elect and the country's leading newspaper represents the significant strain and skepticism he has bred of "the media" in general. When Trump begins his four years in the presidency, the New York Times and NPR will continue to cover him as the country's primary leader, and the angles and tones each outlet employs in its coverage will set a base for an interesting case study of media bias that will put journalistic integrity to a test.

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